Over the weekend, my husband?ever the prankster?conducted a social experiment.
It was inspired by Cracked.com’s list of “22 Eerily Plausible Conspiracy Theories (We Just Made Up),” a hilarious parody of the click-bait posters that seem to be proliferating on social media these days. A lot of them were too far over the top to be plausible, but a few seemed legit enough to try on the unsuspecting public (or at least on my husband’s Facebook friends).
He chose a poster that connected Harry Potter to a Satanic cult?and got comments from both sides of the debate. Not one person checked the source, even though the poster itself was labeled “Cracked.com.”
Everyone likes to point fingers, of course. It’s those guys who fall for everything! It’s the other side who doesn’t check sources! But we all are taken in by click-bait articles, junk science, misleading headlines, and skewed studies, especially when they line up with something we want to believe or feel.
For example, this past Friday I was exhausted and counting down the minutes until wine o?clock. Then I happened upon an article with the tantalizing headline “Is Drinking Wine Better Than Going To The Gym? According To Scientists, Yes!” I just about reached for the bottle and glass, but then I had a second thought. Too good to be true? Of course it was. The headline wasn’t just misleading, it was false. Scientists said no such thing. In fact, they haven’t even finished the experiments. I closed the article in disgust, but it popped up in my news feed countless times over the weekend.
So why am I talking about this in a column dedicated to writing well?
It’s simple. The facts we use form the backbone of our writing?and they’re important whether we’re submitting an academic paper or waxing eloquent on a Facebook status. A writer could have the most elegant language, the most perfect grammar, and the most engaging style in the world, but if the writing is based on half-truths or misinformation, It’s not worth a whole lot. Even if there’s no intentional misrepresentation of the facts, that writer is propagating falsity, distracting the readers, and destroying his/her own credibility.
Part of good writing is making sure there is a strong framework on which to hang words. How to test that framework? First, check your sources. Are they credible? What are the sources? sources? Go back as far as you can in the chain. Researching the material across multiple resources is helpful, too.
Second, check your source?s?or your own?interpretation of the facts. Books like Cynthia Crossen’s Tainted Truth can be real eye-openers on the different ways that studies can be misrepresented and skewed to fit a certain purpose. Then there’s your own worldview to consider?the lens through which you see and process everything you read. There’s no need to be a total cynic, but approach everything with healthy skepticism until you feel you’ve done your research as well as possible.
Everyone has his own version of the facts. Everyone has her own perspective. Maybe we can’t absolutely verify everything, but we can do our best. We owe our readers that much.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.