Question Everything

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I wish I could take credit for the internet quotation, “The problem with internet quotations is that you can never be certain they’re authentic.” And who gave us this helpful reminder? If you Google it, you’ll find it was Abraham Lincoln.

Yeah, that’s ironic, doubly so when the quote and attribution are laid over an image of Benjamin Franklin. I’m hoping that second irony was intentional as well.

Some inaccuracies are funny. But bloopers, blunders, and blatant boo-boos in our Christian books aren’t. Certainly in our non-fiction, but even in the background details of fiction, we have a responsibility to our readers to provide accurate, correct information. (We do serve Jesus, who described himself as “the Truth.”)

Today, I encourage you to “question everything.” Why? Well, if you happen to Google that phrase, you’ll see it attributed to Euripides . . . no, wait, it was Albert Einstein . . . no, Socrates . . . or maybe Maria Mitchell. (Who’s that? Let’s see . . . Wikipedia offers two possibilities: an American astronomer or an Australian actress and singer.) There’s even an online forum discussing the question, “Isn’t there a Bible verse that says, ‘Question everything’?”

My point is simply this: Writers have a world of information at their fingertips, and it’s very easy to find an online quotation, fact, date, or story that fits their manuscript perfectly. Unfortunately, a certain amount of that information is just going to be wrong.

I could offer countless examples I’ve run across in my day job as a copy editor. But here are just a few, under two troublesome categories:

Questionable quotations:

Mark Twain was right: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Sixteenth century French theologian and pastor John Calvin wrote, “To make intercession for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.”

Question every quote attributed to a famous person, especially if you found it on an internet quote site. Or, to put it another way, don’t believe everything you see on BrainyQuote, Goodreads, et al.

Here’s a well-researched article describing the “Mark Twain quote” above: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/10/26/kindness-see/. And if you search that “John Calvin quote” in Google Books, you’ll find it’s not actually from Calvin, but from a book about Calvin.

Google Books and Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature are indispensable tools for verifying quotations. But even if you determine a quotation is correctly worded and attributed, you should still question its context. Elaboration follows, after this link to a pretty funny article on internet quote sites in general: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/05/quote_websites_are_frequently_inaccurate_but_we_use_them_anyway.html)

Concerns over context:

So you’ve found and verified a great quote for your manuscript . . . now take a few moments to “read around” that quote and to look up the author. You may find that the words come from a volume of unorthodox theology, a racy novel, or the pen of a white supremacist (all real-life examples). Those facts don’t necessarily disqualify the quotes, but you should be aware of their source—do you want, however unwittingly, to appear to endorse these writers?

Bible quotations should always be scanned for their larger context, too. What do you think of this one, from Jeremiah 26:14?

 “As for me, I am in your hands; do with me whatever you think is good and right.”

One author used these words as a beautiful example of Jeremiah’s surrender and submission to God. In actual context, the prophet was speaking to the priests and prophets of Judah, who hated his message and were threatening to kill him.

It’s incumbent on writers (and later, editors like me) to ensure every assertion in our book is accurate. And that may take a visit to two, three, or a dozen web pages to get to the actual story. (Not just Wikipedia . . . it’s a good starting point, but double check what you find there too.) If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this post, it’s this: Don’t believe everything you read online.

Why? There are three big benefits to you as a writer. First, you’ll keep your editor on your side. Second, you’ll keep your readers on your side. Third, if you accomplish the first and the second, there’s a greater chance you’ll keep your publisher on your side (and maybe get future contracts).

As an author, you are putting yourself forward as an expert on your topic. Don’t hurt your credibility by believing the first internet page you open. For everyone’s sake, dig deeper. Question everything.

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