10. Do your own damn research, and do your own damn writing.

Writing involves facts and creation. You are expected to acquire the former and perform the latter; both are part of the job. The act of creation in writing is largely an act of selection, rearrangement, and re-presentation: showing a new way of seeing with not-new things. And don’t forget that it’s all a conversation – you’re making references to other people’s work as well as to well-known cultural elements (such as the twelve days of Christmas).

There are many things in the world that are matters of taste, impression, and opinion, but there are also many things that can be verified and that don’t change depending on who’s looking. These are what we like to call “facts.” Get your facts straight. Get your dates right. Get your places right. Get your names right. I can’t even start to count how many times a writer has gotten a name wrong – a name that the writer would have had right there on the screen or the page in front of them. Just look back at it! Look at it! Check it!

Holy cow. Editors are paid to check your facts, but this level of lassitude is like asking a waiter to cut your meat and wipe your chin. There was a time when you couldn’t just double-check the spelling of a name or the date of an occurrence in a few seconds. That time is passed. Understand that while your editor may be paid by the hour (but also may not be), projects have budgets, and they are not for wasting fixing basic-level stuff like this. An editor who has to fix annoying little rat turds like this in your text may not have the focus or energy to fix less blatant things that could make the difference between OK text and truly sparkling prose. Copy quotes exactly correctly (the editor may not have the source readily available), copy names exactly correctly, double-check dates, and don’t present things as facts that can easily be looked up and found to be false.

There are always facts. Unless you’re writing fantasy fiction set in a world where every last detail is your own invention, right down to the kitchen utensils and the laws of physics, there will always be things you can get wrong if you don’t bother checking, and there will always be readers who will spot those things. It’s true that many genres of fiction have a fair amount of latitude for some kinds things that don’t match our known reality (faster-than-light travel is a noted example). Even in those genres, everything that’s not deliberately different for the special reality of its world still has to work the way anyone who knows the thing in question expects it to. You can’t caramelize onions in two minutes – unless you’re literally a wizard. A piano that has been left in a barn for ten years will not be in tune – unless it’s a key plot point that it somehow is. A press camera from the 1920s will not focus itself and cannot be used to take several exposures within a couple of seconds – not even in steampunk. Geeks will tear you to shreds if you get technical details wrong, and you will deserve it.

All of that obviously goes double – triple, quadruple, quintuple, etc. – if you’re writing nonfiction. It’s not just your responsibility to get the key facts you’re writing about right, and to support your statements with factual detail (though it’s amazing how often people manage not to); it’s your responsibility to get all the incidental facts you mention right too. Don’t confuse Calicut with Calcutta (they’re on opposite sides of India). Don’t say most of the world’s tone languages are in Asia (there are more in Africa). Be aware that a pound of feathers actually weighs more than a pound of gold (because gold is measured in troy, and a troy pound is lighter than an avoirdupois pound). Don’t say Rio de Janeiro is due south of New York (it’s two time zones farther east). Don’t talk about the pistons in a Mazda RX-7 (it has a rotary engine). Don’t put penguins at the north pole or polar bears at the south pole (doesn’t everyone know this one by now?). Know which places are near each other and which aren’t (no day trips from Aruba to Tahiti, OK?). Yes, editors can check this stuff, but you’re supposed to be the damn expert, or at least to have done your damn research. Don’t waste other people’s time.

But after you’ve done all that research, after you’ve made your notes and copied your quotes and so on, add some value to it. A bit of insight. Some well-turned phrases. An arrangement of facts that leads to things beyond what thirty seconds on Wikipedia will find. You are not a collage artist, and you are no longer a college student writing an essay for a boring required course. Large block quotes strung together are not an article, they’re raw material. Give them to me and say they’re an article and I will give you some raw eggs, flour, sugar, and water and tell you it’s a cake.

And, buddy, let me tell you, if you present something as your own writing, it had damn well better be your own writing. It had damn well better not be someone else’s words copied directly without attribution. It had damn well better not be someone else’s writing changed just a little. Not even one sentence. You know that internet thingy that makes checking facts so easy? It also makes checking plagiarism easy. If you’re ever tempted to pass off someone else’s writing as your own, consider cutting off your hands instead. Either way you’ll be finished as a writer, but at least if you maim yourself you’ll still have your reputation.

2 responses to “10. Do your own damn research, and do your own damn writing.

  1. Pingback: 12 Days of Gifts for Writers | Sesquiotica

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