With Captain America: The Winter Soldier just released, perhaps it is no coincidence that “Everything Wrong with Captain America” popped up in my YouTube feed the other day.
If you haven’t seen an “Everything Wrong with…” video, it’s a recap of a movie, counting up movie sins like cliches and plot holes. There’s usually strong language.
One of the “sins” committed in the original Captain America movie is an ad on the wall of an alley, showing a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the some-team-I-don’t-care-about. The makers of the video point out that such a game never happened, or at least not on the date shown.
Steve Rogers is standing up to a jerk, getting beaten up (this is prior to him getting super strength), and viewers take the time to look at the print ad on the wall?
This is an example of why Facts matter when critiquing writing: because there’s always going to be someone wanting to prove the writer wrong. The flip side is, by including accurate factual information, the writer gains the trust of the reader.
So I look at anything factual that is included in the piece. For example, I recently read a manuscript that refered to PTSD as a diagnosis for someone in the mid ’80s. That triggered a flag in my mind, so I looked up when was PTSD first used in psychiatric care. (It was in use in official American Psychiatric Association documents in 1980. I learned something new.)
As another example, I just looked up the abbreviation APA because I wanted to type “Psychiatry” above instead of the correct “Psychiatric.” It would be pretty bad to abuse factual information in a post about facts, right?
A close cousin to factual information, I also look for anything that feels anachronistic – in the wrong time – when I critique someone’s writing. In a fantasy novel I’m reading to my kids, the writer said the magic power was like lightning “injected into his veins.” That gets the point across, but the term made me think modern medicine, not epic fantasy.
Sometimes what I note isn’t a fact but a lack thereof. It’s easy to gloss over something unfamiliar, to hand-wave it away or dodge the subject with a quick description. If the subject isn’t important to the story, then perhaps a writer can get away with this. But if it feels like something’s missing, that catches my attention away from the story and puts it on the writing itself.
For example, the manuscript I mentioned above had a scene with a victim of a car accident trapped in her vehicle. Rescuers used a hydraulic cutting device called “the jaws of life” to get her out. In the middle of the engaging scene, the rescuer said, “This is going to be loud.” The next sentence said, “A few long moments later, she could breathe fresh air again.”
That left me wanting more. This is a spot where factual information and description can put us there at the scene of the accident. I suggested describing shearing metal and shattering glass. Then I found a video of the tool in action and sent it to her.
Remember the point of critique is not to pick on flaws or weaknesses, but to build up the piece, to make it better.
That said, I also suggest writers don’t get caught up in being absolutely 100% accurate, unless they’re writing non-fiction with scientific, historical, or technical details. If I’m writing and I don’t know a specific thing (and it’s not worth a bit of research), I can be vague enough to tell the story without drawing the ire of fact-checker readers.
In an account of a conversation that happened 30 years ago as a child, I’ll trust a writer who says they were five. I’ll trust it was 2 PM, even if it could have been between 1 and 4 PM. There’s no need to offer caveats and explanations to cover each possibility.
To sum up, facts matter, unless the subject doesn’t.
Tomorrow, I’ll don my armband and jackboots to write about Grammar.