Telling the Truth

You know I have a thing about truth-telling, right? I question everything (everything) I read in a manuscript … and then I check it. I know my authors get tired of me leaving notes like: Actually, he didn’t say that. It’s been proven here. Or: I can’t verify that Lincoln was ever in Paris, can you? Or: If we do the math here, it makes Candy sixty years old when she gave birth to our protagonist. Let’s rethink. Or: It couldn’t possibly be the same pair of cardinals nesting in the tree outside his window for ten years, because average life expectancy for cardinals in the wild is barely three years—often less.

Honestly, folks, these things are checkable—and yet I see them all the time.

So when a friend of mine mentioned he’d been bothered by an inspirational story his rock-star pastor told about American soldiers in World War 2—especially when my friend came home and researched it and found the same story told about French soldiers—I wasn’t surprised. Your Editor has a rule of thumb: if you can’t verify it with all the power of the interwebs, my friend, it’s probably false.

Or, shall we say, apocryphal. (“Of doubtful authenticity,” my favorite dictionary says.)

Turns out my friend (who has “caught” his pastor in more than one questionable-but-inspirational story) and I aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed this phenomenon.*You might want to fact-check your pastor’s sermon,” writes journalist Bob Smietana at FaithStreet’s blog, OnFaith. “Preachers love to drop statistics and historical tidbits into their sermons. Too bad so many of their facts are untrue.” Yikes.

One of the dangers of being a reporter is that you don’t trust anyone. We live by a rule made famous at the now-shuttered City News Bureau in Chicago: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Reporters know that just because someone—even a pastor—says something is true doesn’t make it so. That can be a problem in church. Not so much when it comes to matters of faith—there’s no fact-checking those. The trouble comes with more mundane things, the anecdotes and factoids that pastors like to sprinkle into their messages.


Is it laziness? When you can find “Sermon Illustrations” online and in the bookstore, it makes you wonder. I’m sure I could find websites with stories for inspirational speakers and teachers too. An author I worked with not long ago tried to convince me that the poor-but-talented Dürer brothers (Albrecht and Albert, wink wink nudge nudge) flipped a coin sometime in the 1480s (seriously?) to see who would get to go to art school; the losing brother would go down into the coal mines to support the winner. And then they’d swap. Albrecht won the coin toss but when he came back from school a famous artist, his brother’s hands were too ruined to hold a paintbrush. As a tribute, Albrecht drew his brother’s hands; we know this piece of art as “Praying Hands.”

Sniff. Here’s a handkerchief to blot your tears.

The problem with this story about sacrificial love—and it’s all over the Internet—is not one word of it is true. (Other than the fact that Albrecht Dürer was a gifted artist, who did create the pen-and-ink drawing we know as Praying Hands. They were probably his own hands.) It took me about three minutes to discover this. My author was not happy with me; my publisher was.

So let me say this again, dear writers (and speakers). Speaking as a reader and a listener, the minute I taste sugar, the minute I think it’s too good to be true, the minute I think Reeeally?—that’s the minute you’ve lost me. I tune out. Smietana points out that a parishioner who is checking facts on his smartphone isn’t listening to the sermon. And my friend notes he’d much rather hear a humble illustrative story from your own life than something with a little more punch that you’ve gotten out of a book (or, worse, just made up).

Speaking as an editor, let me emphasize it is incumbent upon you to get your facts straight. And your quotes. The only place any of us want to read fiction is in a novel.

* We’re talking about pastors here because my friend’s example has to do with his pastor, and I have a lot of experience editing books for the Christian publishing industry, some of them by pastors. But I’ve seen apocryphal stories in secular books, and you can read truthiness, as Smietana points out, wherever you choose to look.


Tweet: I question everything (everything) I read in a manuscript … and then I check it.
Tweet: Your Editor has a rule of thumb: if you can’t easily verify it, it’s probably false.
Tweet: As an author, it is incumbent upon you to get your facts straight.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Chiara says:

    Oh man, you should see the field day that can be had with spurious quotes attributed to ancient writers and philosophers! The internet is filled with so much of this crapola. Check this out and have a laugh: