The topic of how to deal with corrections came up recently on a freelance writers’ forum I follow. As usual, it was a relief to see (a.) that other people screw up and (b.) that I’m not the only writer who can spiral into days of recrimination and embarrassment over even a relatively small mistake. .
It got me thinking about errors, how to avoid them, how to deal with them. I’ve weathered many a blunder during my three decades or so of writing and here are my seven best tips for avoiding and dealing with mistakes.
1. Ask the stupid question. You look dumb stating the obvious but you’ll look dumber getting caught out by the fact you didn’t know you didn’t know. Take the (true) case of a woman who, when asked about her relationship to a man, told a reporter I used to work with “He married me!” The reporter didn’t think to follow up with, “So, you’re husband and wife?” so didn’t find out until after publication that the woman, who evidently fancied herself as a bit of a card, was kidding, the man in question had officiated at her wedding to another fellow entirely. Side note: People who make these kind of misleading statements should be flogged.
2. Don’t rely on the Internet. Google, Wikipedia, etc. are beautiful things that make reporting so, so much easier than it used to be, but they’re not infallible. Wikipedia actually isn’t bad, if only because of the many eyes upon it, but company websites can have outdated information on them and a lot of the stuff you see on blogs, content farms is of mixed quality. If you’re writing a travel story, for instance, shoot off a quick email to the hotel or attraction to double check rates or hours.
3. Write, read and read again. Running Spellcheck will catch that you had a typo in “conscious” but it won’t tell you that you actually meant to write “conscience.” Write your story, edit your story, walk away, come back and read it one more time. Sloooowly.
4. Record interviews. OK, this is a huge pain. Transcribing is boring and time-consuming, not to mention the horror of having to listen to your own inane voice rambling on and interrupting the best quotes. (Why, why do I still do this? And that horrible cackle I keep letting out. Am I auditioning for a part in Wicked?) But if you want to get it right, it’s the way to go.
5. Don’t be shy about fact-checking. Back in the day, the big magazines used to have armies of fact-checkers. They probably don’t any more and you, you poor overworked ink-stained wretch may very well be your own fact-checker. I’m not advocating submitting stories to sources for pre-editing approval. No, no, no. But I do think it’s OK to send brief chunks of text that describe some technical process that’s new to you to make sure you have it right. I always add a note saying the material is unedited draft and will change to make it clear I’m not asking the source to fill in as my editor. Every once in a while this may backfire and you’ll get someone who responds with a 500-word email about how he/she would have approached the story. If that happens, take a breath, decide whether the situation can be salvaged with a follow-up phone call, if not, decide whether to use the material anyway or drop it, and then move on.
6. Correct quickly, and calmly. Here are some examples of cock-ups I have made and how I handled them. In a piece, my first one, too, for a new wine website, I wrote a glowing review of a winery’s exercise classes only to find out after publication the classes were being canceled. As errors go, this one was not really my fault; I had checked the info. Still, majorly embarrassing especially first time out with a new client. I started to write a mea culpa-laden email but stopped myself in time and wrote a short, to-the-point email that the information was true when we published it, but there’d been a surprise development. I also had a substitute item ready to slot in place of the cancelled classes. Result: No problem. Usually my errors are more spectacular than that, like the time I decided to relocate Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey to … Kentucky. Got a few emails on that one, and I was positively writhing in self-loathing. Still, I forced myself to write the short, polite note to the editor of, “Got this wrong; here’s the right info.” And life went on. Which leads me to perhaps the most important tip,
7. Cut yourself slack. You are human and you are going to make mistakes. Sometimes you were rushing through a piece, sometimes you were flat-out careless, sometimes you got someone’s name wrong in your head and could not seem to self-correct, sometimes Mercury was simply retrograde. This is where having a good friend, or even Facebook group, to commiserate with can help. One of my worst blunders came when I was covering a murder trial some years ago. In court, the defendant, a child murderer, said something vile to the child’s father. The father, I thought, yelled back, “Burn in hell.” What actually happened was that the father’s friend, a lifetime acquaintance with the exact same speech patterns and accent, had leaned forward, his head obscured by the father’s head, and yelled the curse. The problem wasn’t so much that my eyes and ears had deceived me it was that I didn’t follow rule No. 1, Ask the stupid question, and hadn’t double-checked with the father outside the courtroom that he was the one speaking. The story and the anecdote were national news and when I finally figured out my error it had already run (as the headline even!) in several newspapers. At the time, I was working for the best boss in the world, so he didn’t make me feel as bad as I could have, but, I assure you, that was not a good day. I was absolutely distraught until around 7 p.m. when I and another writer, who’d made the same mistake, were glumly sucking on a couple of pints at a nearby bar. “Well, here’s to us, star reporters,” he said sadly. “Yep,” I said. “Two reporters so [bad word] stupid that we can’t even get our story straight when it happens six [very bad word] feet away from us.” And then we laughed, a bit raggedly, but laughter none the less, and I knew I was going to be OK.