For some writing projects, external reviews, fact-checks, or sign-offs are essential. The right strategies can help make the process as collaborative and painless as possible.
While writing often feels like a solitary sport, projects can include layers of voices, interests, and requirements. As a writer, you may need to show your drafts to people who are directly or indirectly related to the work — whether you want to or not.
Here are some strategies I’ve adopted to help make external reviews or fact-checks smooth, efficient, and positive all around.
Determine whether external oversight is called for
Some editors, publications, employers, and clients I’ve written for require writers to send drafts to anyone interviewed before works are finalized. Others forbid it on principle. If you’re unclear on the situation, ask.
Also important to know is whether whomever you’re writing for has established protocols for review, sign-off, or fact-check. Your editors may handle the process completely on their own once they have your draft, or they may have boilerplate language that you can copy, paste, and send.
If you’re at all confused about what is expected of you and how to do it, ask for explicit guidance.
Manage your reviewer
The most frustrating experience I can remember with a fact/quote check was several year ago when an experienced music coach I had interviewed returned my copy to me not with a facelift, but with multiple organs transplanted. He far overreached and attempted to basically rewrite the article — and not very well at that.
In retrospect, I could have been clearer in my guidance and possibly avoided such a mess. Since then, I’ve revised the way I engage with reviewers or interviewees and the problem has not repeated itself. The key? Communication that is clear, firm, and respectful.
Do you want your interviewees to only review their quotes and tell you if they are factually accurate? Say so when you send your draft. Do you need an expert to review your work, not touching the text itself, but responding in a paragraph or two on the overall relevance of your piece to current activities in the field? Spell it out when you share your copy. The more explicit your guidance, the better your chance of getting focused and useful feedback, as opposed to a major mess to clean up.
A note on this: one publication I wrote for had standardized language for fact-checks that went like this:
Please note that this is a courtesy fact-check only, and we are under no obligation to make any specific changes.
While this sort of language will not be appropriate in every external review situation, expressing a similar sentiment when it makes sense can save you headaches as you move your writing closer to completion.
Be clear on your goals
If you’re writing for publications or private clients, remember that your goal is to create text that serves their needs — not necessarily the needs of your interviewee. Not that the two have to be mutually incompatible, but it’s always helpful to keep this in mind.
Give a solid deadline
People are busy and easily distracted. When you send a piece of writing for external review of any kind, be explicit about how soon you need it back.
In my own work, I’ve found that a week is the sweet spot. If you leave things looser, your reviewers may set your work aside and forget about it, and if you give less time, there’s a chance they won’t be able to review quickly enough. (That said, the vast majority of folks I reach out to for any sort of review respond within twenty-four hours.)
Regardless of the situation, don’t hesitate to follow up if you’re nearing your deadline and haven’t heard anything back.
Specify how you want to be notified of suggested changes
It’s immensely helpful if the people reviewing your work clearly mark their edits or tweaks. But you get to dictate exactly how you want them to do that.
Are “track changes” in a Word doc the easiest for you to parse and process? Do you want to include your text in the body of an email and ask your reviewers to mark changes in UNDERLINED CAPS so they’re easy to find? Be clear about how you want feedback returned to best set you up for success.
Don’t overdo it
Years ago, I was assigned, along with a colleague, to interview a well-known public figure. After the interview, my co-writer spontaneously decided to send the raw transcript of the interview to the interviewee for review.
For several reasons, this was not a smart move. First off, it gummed up our process with another layer of back-and-forth oversight that was not needed. While the client we were writing for had mandated fact checks once nearly-final drafts were ready, sending the raw transcript was never part of the equation. Second, it gave too much power to the interviewee to sculpt her quotes away from what she actually said and closer to what she thought she should have said.
I’ve found that people are often the most articulate and expressive when speaking spontaneously, not concocting answers by formula or committee. By sending the transcript before we’d had a chance to even put a draft together, my colleague robbed us of a level of freshness in our interviewee’s original responses.
When figuring out how to navigate reviews and fact-checks, do what is required to engage respectfully with all parties, satisfy whatever review terms have been established, and craft a great piece of writing — and nothing more.
Do your best to accommodate reasonable changes
Most of the time, if you send pieces off for some sort of review, you’ll get cogent feedback that will make your writing stronger. It’s wonderful when this happens. Make every effort to implement all suggested changes that feel right, then write back with a thank you and call it a day.
Be willing to say no
No matter how explicit you are in your instructions, unreasonable people may push you to twist your work in ways that serve their needs and not the needs of you, your editor, your employer, your client, or your readers.
In cases like this, do what is reasonable and respectful as per the above — and then politely draw the line.
For the record, I have never encountered a situation where an interviewee, source, or stakeholder has continued to push for inappropriate changes after I have put up a wall. Clear and respectful engagement will help you resolve the vast majority of fact-check or review issues with maximum efficiency and minimum dissonance.
Getting good feedback from beta readers
How To Solicit And Act On Feedback From Beta Readers
How To Boil Loads Of Research Down To A First Draft
Conducting Interviews: Directing And Capturing The Conversation
Conducting Interviews For Research: Identifying And Contacting Expert Sources