Proofreading Tips: Fact Checking


Fact (and feasibility) checking
by Catriona Tippin

Polar bears with penguins? Dinosaurs with prehistoric people? 

Unless a plot explicitly allows, these are a couple of the impossibilities that have cropped up in children’s books. Check your facts…

The internet is awash with inaccuracies, half truths, misinterpretations and egregious falsehoods!

Writing non-fiction –check for accuracy

If you’re writing non-fiction you’ll know the importance of fact checking. You have to consult original documents, and collect accurate information, at the research stage. This may sound blindingly obvious, but the internet is awash with inaccuracies, half truths, misinterpretations and egregious falsehoods!

Wikipedia is useful but has its limitations, with every definition at the mercy of its voluntary editors.

Here are two examples of the sort of mischief presented there as fact: a journalist on the Telegraph recently claimed he inserted some nonsense about an eponymous rose in the Muhammad Ali entry which lasted for years, and my Aberdeen secondary school alumni at one time included the artist currently known as Prince (nah, I’d have noticed). What Wikipedia can be useful for is the list of footnotes linking to original sources, that’s where you’ll actually get your fact checking done. For contemporary facts the BBC Journalism style guide, and all the broadsheet newspaper style guides, are dependable.

Writing fiction – check for plausibility

Researching your scene setting, whether for a medieval castle or the International Space Station, is an absorbing (and tax deductible) task. You may find you have subsequently stuffed your story with every fact you’ve uncovered. Descriptive excess is sometimes a hazard of enthusiastic fact checking, try it out on your crit group.

The Far Side cartoonist Larson described comments he got after publishing a strip that showed a mosquito husband returning home to his wife and quipping "I must have infected half the city with malaria!" He subsequently got letters informing him it's the female mosquito that bites. Larson's response..."I knew that. Of course, they have no problem that these mosquitoes also wear clothes, live in the suburbs, speak English, etc."

I think this illustrates the tightrope which fantasy fiction writers walk. The reader must suspend disbelief, and the writer must not threaten that with anything implausible. Young readers can be surprisingly perceptive on what works and what doesn’t. If your readers are comfortable with the genre/world/trope you’re working with, you owe them consistency. So check your tropes! 

Obviously, you can create whatever you like in a fictional world, but a crit group and/or a reader or two to test on are useful. Conventions exist for an assortment of sub-genres: vampires, steampunk, dystopian, whatever. Your writing can play with these, but remember to keep the reader on board. If you’re challenging a trope, are you surprising your reader, or your

Hand wave / heads up / lampshade hanging

Sir Toby Belch: Is it possible?
Fabian: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. —

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene IV

Lampshade hanging has been indulged in by the best of them. Perfectly illustrated above, this is the foible/trick/shortcut of calling attention to any threat to the reader/audience’s suspension of disbelief, and then moving on.

Here’s a quote from the (useful) website

“The reason for this counter-intuitive strategy is two-fold. First, it assures the audience that the author is aware of the implausible plot development that just happened, and that they aren't trying to slip something past the audience. Second, it assures the audience that the world of the story is like Real Life: what's implausible for you or me is just as implausible for these characters, and just as likely to provoke an incredulous response”.

Time travel

Ah, yes, time travel. If your plot includes this then you’ll have to do some time travel trope logic checking rather than fact checking. For research purposes, you could sit down with a pile of movies on the theme, how about Back to the Future, Twelve Monkeys , Primer, Idiocracy and Looper. Not all suitable for family viewing, but good for a selection of time travel tropes. And there’s always Doctor Who’s description, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff" to take care of any hiccups in your plot.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Catriona Tippin
Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for national educational organisations, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).


  1. Great post Catriona. Love the Mozzy anecdote!

  2. I found that anecdote on (other trope wikis are available!), when researching clothed animals/half-clothed animals/furry animals etc, for the dilemma described by Chandler from Friends: ”You know what's weird? Donald Duck never wore pants. But whenever he's getting out of the shower, he always puts a towel around his waist. I mean, what is that about?” Or in this exchange in Stand By Me:
    Gordie: If Mickey's a mouse, Donald's a duck and Pluto's a dog, then what's Goofy?
    Teddy: Goofy's a dog. He's definitely a dog.
    Vern: He can't be a dog. He drives a car and wears a hat.
    Chris: Oh, God. That's weird. What the hell is Goofy?

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