How to Be as Smart as Your Readers

Writers are generally pretty savvy people. We know how to string sentences together, we know how to use punctuation properly, and we can spout off lots of big words. But we can’t let this presumed savviness go to our heads, because readers are also very smart people.

Readers know when we’re hoodwinking them with pseudo-facts—and they won’t think very highly of us for it. Most of us realize this and work hard to research our stories and present the facts correctly and realistically. When we don’t know something, we look it up. But there’s a pitfall here.

Sometimes we think we know a fact, so, of course, why bother to look it up? But that’s dangerous.

Case in point: Most people have a certain pile of “facts” stocked up about horses from watching movies and reading books, so they don’t always think about double-checking their equestrian scenes. For example, a fantasy novel featured a society that used horses as their main transportation, but—as someone who grew up around horses and working cattle ranches—I can tell you the author didn’t check her facts. She had horses preferring leaves to grass, riders able to mount only on the left side (which is the “correct” side on which to mount, but not because, as implied, the right side is impossible), and at one point she explained that “lope” and “canter”—two words describing essentially the same gait—were in fact different things.

I’m certain this author had no idea she was committing these gaffes, and I’m certain of this because I’ve made similar oversights in my own first drafts. But this is why it’s so important for writers to check and double-check their facts—even the ones we’re already sure of. In the end, pleasing even the most expert among our readers ensures we’ll never be scorned for our lack of knowledge or have our books hurled across the room in frustration.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever embarrassed yourself by neglecting to double-check a fact? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Good point! I do think I know certain facts and don’t look them up–umm–maybe I better!

  2. Research even when you don’t think you need to. Point taken.

  3. Yes! I wrote a blog post recently about making sure to check even the facts you’re sure of, and the funny thing was, that in the course of writing that blog post, I found out I had a fact wrong in my WIP, LOL. Post was: “Be Humble: Fact Check, Or Why I Thought I Knew This Fact About Jane Austen”

  4. Excellent point and thanks for the reminder.

  5. I’m lucky in the fact that I have an technical advisor, an ex-NYPD Detective who I bounce my chapters and scenes off, and he keeps me stratight on my facts.

  6. I haven’t had too much trouble with facts yet but I know I need to do some severe research on military related things. (I have the military in my book and my parents and brothers have never been in the military.) I’m going to try to get one of my friends who has been in the military recently to read the book before I attempt to publish it so he can catch any glaring mistakes. Some other ideas for books that I want to write are going to be very difficult to research because I want to deal with people, and militaries, from other countries. Since these books are ones that are a ways from being written, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get some foreign fans who would be willing to answer my questions.
    On the topic of writers getting things wrong, I’ve seen that very often, especially with cattle. (Writers seem to do better on horses than cattle.) One author mentioned cows sweating.(Cows pant, not sweat) Another mentioned bulls having horns, as if only male cattle have horns.(Cattle horns are breed related, not gender related.) I could go on a lot longer on the subject of cattle but it’s got to the point that I think it’s really cool when an author actually gets something right about cattle because so few people get things right.

  7. Good points. This reminds me of the times I’ve watched technology-related movies and cringed because the details were either unrealistic or didn’t ring true. I can’t tell if the filmmakers did not know any better or if they were just trying to make a particular topic more accessible to the general public. Whatever the case, it tends to throw me out of the story for a moment.

  8. @Terri: I got nabbed myself on one here just lately, so I speak from very personal experience!

    @Ava: Fortunately for us, most research is a ton of fun!

    @Angela: Humility is vital for writers. The moment we start to think we’re better or smarter than the average Joe (or Jane!) just because we’re lofty Authors, that’s when we’re in trouble.

    @mshatch: You’re welcome! Thanks for the comment.

    @Ken: Copy editors and fact checkers are a writer’s best friends. Those of us lucky enough to have them are way ahead of the ballgame.

    @Jessi: Thanks to the Internet, it’s much easier nowadays to find obscure facts, particularly those from other countries. Something I do when researching another country is switch my Google search engine from the U.S. version to the version used in my story’s country. The results are often vastly different.

    @MGalloway: *Most* people won’t blink twice when an author or filmmaker takes a liberty with a fact. But, personally, nothing makes my day more than having an expert tell me I aced my details.

  9. My compulsion for perfection drives me to do a lot of fact checking since being a perfectionist makes me intensely aware of how imperfect I am — I question the validity of everything I think I know.

    However, there are experiences that are hard to fact check. For example, not long ago I read a book where the protagonist was downwind of a volcanic eruption. A huge ash cloud passed overhead. I have experienced that. My reaction to the narrator’s description of the event was, “That’s not what it’s like!”

  10. Excellent post.

    I recently read a blog about facts. The writer’s point of view was that people don’t know everything so we can fudge what we are not sure of. I know that if I read a book with obvious errors it takes away from the entire plot.

    We have the internet and facts are easy to check. I no longer have to spend hours in the college library checking facts. For that I am grateful and check all my facts, even the ones I am sure of.

  11. I’m trying desperately to not speed-bag you with questions about horses….

    Another point to mention might be how much fun it is to learn stuff you didn’t know before; like I discovered there is a mathematical equation to determine how fast a sail-boat can go based on its length at the waterline. All because I wanted to know how long it might take one set of characters to sail to another country. How cool is that?

    Great advice, all around.

  12. I love that you used horses as an example. I’m a former equine professional so I cringe when a book/tv show movie/ doesn’t get its fact right. The post is a great reminder as well – thanks!

  13. I try to check everything, to a fault. And I love the research, too!

  14. @Lester: It’s hard to fact check situations like that, but not impossible. The author could have interviewed *you* for instance!

    @Marianne: To some degree, I agree with the “make up what you don’t know” philosophy. There does come a point where artistic licence allows us to fudge. But that point is a needle fine one, and we need to approach it with the realization that there’s always *someone* who will know we’re making it all up out of thin air.

    @Daniel: Hey, I didn’t say I was an expert about horses! 😉 But I’ve spent enough time around them to know when the author, erm, hasn’t.

    @J: The one that always bugs me in TV shows: the inevitable whinnying horse when there’s no good reason for the horse to be whinnying.

    @Karen: It definitely helps when an author enjoys the research. Then all the fact checking is just icing!

  15. this is my fear….to be caught with my writing pants down, as wrong as wrong can be. It’s only a matter of time….but this is good encouragement to always be prepared!

  16. The good news – such as it is – is that sooner or later it happens to all of us!

  17. I’ve found that often times the best thing to do is ask someone who knows, rather than fudge the details or spend hours researching on the Internet. My novel is about a soldier-turned-cop. I’ve spoken to military veterans as well as someone in HR for the Army, and even contacted the local police department (non-emergency line, of course) to get answers to my questions about protocol. As Lester D. Crawford pointed out, it’s hard to fact-check experiences, so go right to the source, because chances are you’ll have a reader who’s gone through the same thing and will call your bluff.

  18. Yeah, I can’t imagine the cops would be too happy if you called 911 looking for writing info! But, seriously, you’re 100% right. When in doubt, start asking questions.

  19. It’s scary just how many things a wide group of readers knows between them. When I was serialising my graphic novel “Shades” online, I had readers providing feedback on the fate of the dinosaurs, the correct weaponry carried by the British army, the effect of different hormones on human behaviour and how difficult it would be to destroy a nuclear power station.

    None of the comments actually made my use of the facts “wrong” (I do tend to fact-check!), but it was quite an eye-opener to discover just how extensive their combined breadth of knowledge was. So, yes: check everything!

  20. That’s what the bookmark button on your browser is for… 😀
    I like to find out as much as I can about the topic before I start writing.

  21. And, when it doubt, run it through the gauntlet of a bunch of writers!

  22. @Gideon: I make good use of that button! The only problem is that sometimes I forget what folder I’ve put something. I’ll occasionally stumble across something I bookmarked and forgot about – and then get the joy of discovering it all over again!

  23. I once saw a TV show that messed up on the geography of Kansas City. Obviously, the script writer didn’t consult a map. Hopefully, any of my mistakes will be caught before it’s out there in print for everyone to see. :-/

  24. Using prominent settings means you’ve got thousands of people who’ll know when you’re messing up!

  25. Great point K.M.! I loved this post. You know, double checking your facts and then using the wrong “fact” on purpose is also a great way to throw off your very smart readers. If that wrong “fact” is actually placed their on purpose because it is a clue to a mystery that will revealed later, what will happen is that your reader will take note of this wrong fact, thinking the author was just being careless, and than later applaud your cleverness because they will find out you were really one step ahead of you all along. Keep the great posts coming!

  26. As a reader (or viewer) I’ve definitely reacted in exactly that way to wrong facts. Good point.

  27. “Ignorance is not a good thing.”
    — Xi the Dragon, The Dragon Universe

    When I first entered my IT career, I received the assignment of performing maintenance on some of the worst written computer programs in history. From working on that computer code, I learned “how not to program!” That lesson was priceless because the agony turned me into a better programmer.

    As I strive to improve my writing skills, reading poor writing has the same effect — I become a better writer because I learn “how not to write!”

    The book I am currently reading is teaching me many lessons — the book is full of examples of awfulness to avoid in my own work.

    One issue is egregious errors of knowledge and facts. The most recent line encountered was:

    “The beast may take some time bleeding to death, but no amount of white blood cells will be able to plug the hole this creates.”

    White blood cells do not clot blood; clotting is the job of platelets!

    I keep telling myself, “Keep reading, keep reading, I need to learn these lessons.”

  28. Perfect example! The author who wrote that probably didn’t give his statement a second thought. He didn’t deliberately fail to check the fact and think, Oh, nobody will know the difference. He probably just wrote it and went rolling right along, blissfully unaware that you would spot the mistake and think less of the book as a result.

  29. Ohhhh, this reminds me of a book I read last month where the characters live in Arlington, WA, but the author mistakenly referred to the sun setting behind the Cascade mountains. The quip about the rain was spot-on though. For the most part.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.