The three kinds of facts and how to verify them

When people find out I write books, they often ask, “Do you write fiction?” My answer: “Not on purpose.” I deal in facts. But not all facts come from the same place. Here are the three kinds of facts (plus one kind of non-fact) and how to make sure they’re true.

Sourced facts

What they are: Facts that somebody else figured out first: statistics, quotes, descriptions, and the like.

Where they come from: Books, articles, papers, web sites, television programs, podcasts . . . you know, “secondary sources.”

How can you be sure they are true: Trust reputable sources, such as polls from established pollsters, daily newspaper sites, peer-reviewed research, and other trusted news sources. You can also quote corporate sources if you believe their methodology was sound. When you see a fact in print, track down where it came from. Sometimes this takes two, three, or four links, or a Google search, but you’re better off if you can get down to the original source and see if you trust it, rather than somebody else who quoted it.

What you should put in the text: List the name of the source (“According to a Gallup poll of likely voters in 2017”). If that isn’t ideal for the place you’re writing, include a footnote or a link to the original source, so people can verify it for themselves — and because reputable writers give credit to those who found the facts they’re using.

How to get permission to use them: You don’t need it. Facts and short quotes aren’t protected by copyright.

What happens if you use too many: No one wants to read warmed-over information from somewhere else. Secondary sources are fine, but anything worth writing also includes the other kinds of facts and opinions.

First-hand facts

What they are: Descriptions of things you experienced yourself, like speeches you heard or places you visited.

Where they come from: Your memory.

How can you be sure they are true: How could they be false — after all, you experienced them? Of course, recollection can be faulty. Where you can, bolster your memory with other contemporary information.

What you should put in the text: Use the word “I” to clue people in that you’re describing something you saw or hear first-hand.

What happens if you use too many: You’ve created a memoir. That’s fine, if that’s what you’re aiming for. But be careful about assuming that what you experienced is typical (this is called the “focus group of one” phenomenon).

Facts you created

What they are: Results of primary research. These could be interviews with others, surveys you’ve conducted, or other research you did.

Where they come from: Hard work. Creating new facts takes effort and expense.

How can you be sure they are true: Verify them with the original source (see the fact verification email at the end of this post).

What you should put in the text: Use words that clue people in that you conducted original primary research. For example, “In our survey of 2,700 fishing workers,” or “When we spoke with Secretary Clinton, here’s what she said.”

How to get permission to use them: For interviews, before you begin, read a statement indicating that conversation is on-the-record.

What happens if you use too many: Nothing bad. The more original research, the better your writing will be. Of course, writing this way is also time-consuming and expensive.

Opinions

What they are: Statements that you believe are true, but can’t prove, for example, predictions.

Where they come from: Rigorous analysis of the facts you can prove (ideally).

How can you be sure they are true: You can’t. That’s why you have to do the rigorous analysis, to convince yourself and others that your opinions are true.

What you should put in the text: Words like “I believe” that clue the reader in that an opinion is coming.

What happens if you use too many: Then you’re just a bloviator. Try to mix as many actual facts in there as you can.

Bonus: The fact verification email

Before publishing, it’s a good idea to make sure the facts from your interviews are accurate. You need to get the original source to verify them, without giving them the idea that they have approval over what you will write. But you’d also like to leave things on good terms — publishing material without verifying it, even if it’s on-the-record, tends to upset the sources you cultivated. Here’s the fact verification email I send to these sources:

Subject: [Company name] fact verification for [Name of book project] — please respond by [due date]

Hi, [name]

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for our book. I’ve attached a short document that includes the part where we quote you.

Please review this and let me know the following:
– Have we used your name and title correctly?
– Do the quotes from you accurately reflect what you meant to say?
– Are any of the facts in error?

If any of these need correcting, just respond to this email with corrections. If it’s fine, let us know that, too.

The deadline for responding is [due date], so we can get any corrections done before the book goes to the publisher.

We’d also like to send you a copy when it is done. If you could let us know your address, that would be helpful.

Thanks again for your help with this book. The book will be published next fall.

I’ve carefully honed this over the years. Notice a few things:

  • Send them only the part that mentions them. They don’t need to see the whole book to verify the facts — and you don’t need to send it.
  • The word “approval” is not in this email. So if they say “you have to say that we are the leading company in the field of fishing databases,” well, that’s not a fact, and you don’t need to change it. They are verifying facts, not approving content.
  • The tone is informal and friendly but it’s clear this is an official request.
  • The company name, the name of the book, and the deadline in the subject line make it more likely that your interviewee will respond to the message.
  • The “thanks” and offer to send the book are just good manners. which always helps, because without people to interview you’ll be stuck with nothing but secondhand facts.

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