What is the difference between a 50% off sale and a sale where customers can get UP TO 50% off? That’s correct…one of those is a definite, and one is not. As an editor I find many writers dorking these simple facts up, and while I know that I have a rabidly anal-retentive eye for these little details, ALL freelancers should develop an absolutely unforgiving critical eye to spot potential land mines in their own copy. But why? It’s simple, really…
If you write an advice column, you might never need worry about the difference between a military cargo plane and a fighter jet, or what makes a hunting rifle different than an assault rifle. But anyone who writes about finance, medicine, pet care, dance, martial arts, marital aids or damn near anything else? They need to be able to not only know the difference between a shell and a bullet, but also to know to ASK if there are differences between A and B.
What is the difference between official censure and impeachment? If you’re writing about one or the other, you’d better know. Or find out. Which is better, 1080p or 1080i picture resolution? I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head, but if I start writing about HD televisions, you can bet I won’t assume they are the same thing or even remotely similar.
And neither should you.
Here’s how to avoid factual errors in your copy:
1. NEVER ASSUME. Always ask.
2. If the facts are vague, seek clarification. “Injuries” can mean anything from a stubbed toe to an amputated arm. Which is it? If you can’t get clear details, explain that in your copy rather than writing around it and hoping for the best.
3. If your research turns up contradictory information, address it in your copy. Don’t choose sides and hope yours is right.
4. CYA. If the facts are time-sensitive and may not still be true by the time you go to press or get published on the web, SAY SO IN YOUR COPY.
5. Ask an expert. If you can’t get an expert, find someone who has experience, but address that in your copy. “According to John Doe, longtime user of Herbie’s Widgets, the defects are only in the latest batch. While this couldn’t be verified with Herbie’s Widgets, customer experiences seem to indicate older batches are defect-free.”