Interview by Lara Lillibridge
In addition to interviewing memoirists and essayists, we occasionally feature profiles on other publishing professionals, including agents, editors, and publishers. In this interview, we dive into a topic relevant to most, if not all, creative nonfiction writers: fact-checking. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Lara Lillibridge: Recently author/editor Lilly Dancyger tweeted that a lot of publishers don’t have in-house fact checking, and she recommended you.
For any nonfiction writers out there feeling anxious about the lack of in-house fact checkers, I highly recommend @ejbergdahl! She checked my manuscript and she was so thorough, kind, fast, and affordable! Definitely worth the peace of mind.
— Lilly Dancyger (@lillydancyger) June 9, 2023
I had no idea you can hire a private fact checker.
Esther Bergdahl: Oh, interesting.
LL: So then I looked you up online, and I know that Lilly lives in New York City. And then I saw that you were six years ago living in New York City, but now we are connecting in central time.
EB: So yeah, so I, I grew up in southeastern Ohio. So I grew up in Appalachia, technically—a very interesting place to grow up Jewish.
I came to Chicago for college. I went to the University of Chicago and got one of their degrees in Fundamental Issues and Texts. It’s a wonderful degree program, but it’s primarily focused on engaging with original texts. So you take a bunch of classes where you read one book for a quarter and you work toward a sort of British style exam at the end of your four years, trying to answer a sort of a central question about the world. The one that I did was “What is coming of age?” I read The Odyssey, I read Oliver Twist, I read some other stuff. And it was a degree program that was supposed to focused on writing and analysis—really in-depth argument building.
I keep finding in my career that I can never just be interested in one thing, like I always want to be interested in everything. I lived in Chicago, overall for about 12 years, give-or-take, with summer breaks and other things. I went to journalism school at Northwestern, I got a Master of Science in Journalism at Northwestern Medill in magazine writing and editing, which is also very deeply about fact checking and structure and journalism ethics. So my degree was still research and writing based but with more of a professional focus. One thing that we like to say about University Chicago is, God forbid, they teach you anything practical.
After grad school, in 2014, I got a job at Mic, which was a digital media company that was sort of in the vein of Upworthy and BuzzFeed and all-digital new sites. It was in a period of deep transition at that point, and the managing editor brought me on to build the copy desk. One of the big selling points of Mic was that not a lot of other digital media sites had copy editors, and certainly not intensive copy editing like we instituted.
I was in charge of building the copy desk, maintaining the style guide, teaching new employees, issuing corrections, fact checking everything, and generally making sure that every single piece of writing that we published was within our reporting, journalistic, and ethical series of guidelines.
That job ended and I have been a freelancer since the end of 2015. And in that time, I have also been doing sort of a lot of everything. I was in New York from 2014 to November of 2020, almost exactly six years. Basically, the pandemic hit and New York City was too expensive as a freelancer when you couldn’t actually do anything. The George Floyd protests were happening everywhere, and I was living in Flatbush, which is a majority Caribbean neighborhood. And Flatbush was being really harassed by the police. It was very racist, honestly. And it was hard leaving in as much as I felt bad that as you know, a white-adjacent woman that I could just leave. But Chicago has also always been the city of my heart.
I love Chicago so much, I like the pace of it, I like the things that are more available. And it’s more affordable. I mean, I, I was able to move back here and live in a larger apartment that has no vermin and also has an in-unit washer/dryer. So I feel very lucky.
But I yeah, I really love working with people on their own big projects. So if somebody has a book of fiction, I’ve been approached to help people with developmental editing. And fact checking really was something that became more a part of my profile in 2019.
So the thing that happened in 2019 was—are you familiar with Naomi Wolf?
LL: I know the name, but you’d have to remind me what she wrote.
EB: She started out as a third-wave feminist writer. She has a history of being a kind of grandiose writer who is a little bit sloppy with her facts. I mean, she also has been very influential. She wrote a book called The Beauty Myth, I think is the title.
LL: Oh, yeah, that sounds familiar.
EB: Yeah, in the early 90s. And she published a book in I think it was 2019, I think it’s called Outrages.
LL: Yes, I’m pulling it up on my phone right now.
EB: So shortly before she published that book, it came out that she had fundamentally misinterpreted a central tenet of the data that she was using to make the argument that she was making.
I don’t remember the specifics of the argument, but it was, it was that she misunderstood a term about casualties or deaths per 1,000, or something, so that the argument that she was making was incredibly distorted based on data. And it was so bad that in the United States, her book was pulped.
And even in the UK, they re-released the book with a number of edits. So it was a big deal. There were a lot of people saying, Oh, my God, you just assume that every nonfiction writer or journalist is doing their due diligence and making sure that all the t’s are dotted, and all the i’s are crossed. And it’s not the case.
Often, what I found working with people on fact checking is that they mean well, but they’re in a hurry. Often, because the pressures of publication, whether that’s in a newsroom or in a book, it really limits what they’re able to do, or it’s something that they haven’t developed a system for—not confirming everything that they put down as fact.
You’ve heard of the Mandela Effect, or the Berenstein Bears Effect?
EB: You’re like, ‘I know that fact. Everybody knows that fact.’ And then you don’t think to look it up. But it turns out that it’s really important that you know, for example, Lake Michigan is not made of salt water.
I got a call from Elizabeth Plank, who had worked with us at Mic quite extensively. She had become an on-air personality at MSNBC. And I think you could still you can still find her floating around. But she had her first book coming out, which is called For the Love of Men. And she called me up and was like, I just heard about this Naomi Wolf thing. And I didn’t realize that this was something that I needed and that wouldn’t be provided during the editing process or the copy editing process. My impression is that book publishing has been as squeezed as journalism has. And if there was a tradition at the publisher of fact checking a book, it’s no longer common.
So a lot of this has fallen back on to the writer, which they they end up paying for out of pocket or taking away from their advance. And it’s a lot of extra work for whoever needs to do it. But it’s important because you’re establishing a record. And you need to be sure that everything is in order, and that you’re making the claim in the best way that you’re able to. I think it’s incredibly healthy to want to get outside perspectives on the work that you’re doing in any scenario. My understanding of coders is that you have two people on a team. One is generating code, and the other is reviewing it, and keeping an eye out for things that need to be corrected.
And one of the things that I find most enjoyable about fact checking, or the field of copy editing in generaI—I heard someone at a conference at the American copy editors Society Conference in Pittsburgh in 2015 talk about the profession as being a reader advocate. What you’re trying to do on the back end is make the information as clear and as true as possible, so that your reader has no barriers between themselves and the ideas you’re presenting.
So it’s a lot about making sure that you’re not presenting an argument and the reader is like, wait a second, I know that’s not the name of the person, or wait a second, I know that this kind of tree grows in a different kind of soil. It’s sort of the Othello effect—you see one little thing that makes you doubt the credibility of one argument and it makes you worry about the whole foundation.
LL: I mean, I have to admit that as a reader, like, there’s a certain amount of glee when I find an error. I mean, I feel like a terrible person and saying that, but it’s fun to feel smart, you know?
LL: But it’s also really embarrassing when you’re on the other side of that.
EB: I used to have to issue corrections, and we would send out an email at the beginning of every day saying, ‘here were yesterday’s corrections.’ And the intention was always to be like, ‘everybody makes mistakes.’ But if you take three extra seconds to double check a date or double check what pronoun somebody uses, you can save everybody a lot of embarrassment and time and money, frankly.
LL: Yeah, for sure. So, Hippocampus Magazine only publishes creative nonfiction. Personally, I write essays and memoir. What sort of things does someone in my boat need to be worried about regarding fact checking?
This is kind of a crazy story, and I hope I remember it correctly. But at a previous conference for Hippocampus Magazine, we had a speaker named Marion Winik who wrote a book about being married to a gay man, but they were monogamous until he died. And she was asked to go on Oprah, and then Oprah’s team fact checked her life and said, ‘Your husband wasn’t monogamous the whole time you were married. He’d had many long term relationships with men.’
She hadn’t known. And then her book was no longer what she thought was her true story.
My first two books were published with Skyhorse Publishing, and they did at least minimal fact checking. They found sources for things and if I got a lyric or quote wrong, they fixed it for me. My next book is with a small press, and they basically said in the contract that this is on me, which is fine. I love Unsolicited Press, and I love working with them. I’m not criticizing them—they’re nonprofit, and they’re doing the best they can.
But I don’t know if I even know what sort of things I should be alert for. Like I don’t want anything as extensive as tracking down ex-spouses and stuff. But you know, Marion Winik also spoke about writing something where she was talking about someone doing drugs at work, and her publisher’s legal department were like, ‘the company could sue you, because you’re mentioning that their employees are doing drugs.’ I wouldn’t have thought of that.
EB: Yeah, there are definitely different layers or depths of fact checking. The crème de la crème is the process that is still in place at The New Yorker. So at The New Yorker, if you write an article for them, they will report your story, after you’ve turned it in, and contact your sources and say, ‘the story here says that you lived three houses down, you know, from your neighbor, did you actually live three houses down? Or was it across the street?’
The method that I was taught in grad school was, and this is easiest—I love working on paper and pencil. That’s just the easiest way for me to keep track of things. So you have somebody’s name written out, when you confirm the spelling of a name, you cross out each letter as it’s confirmed, like, it’s that granular. It can be very microscopic. And that’s really important.
Also, in order to be a specialty fact checker, I think you do have to have at least a general understanding of libel laws and things like that. So even being able to spot like, ‘you’re bringing up something that names a company and an illegal act? Should we run this by legal?’ You don’t always have to have the solution. But you know the right questions to ask.
That’s something that you get a lot of practice with as a copy editor/fact checker. One of the earliest ones that I remember learning was figuring out which compound words need a hyphen and which ones don’t. It’s not something that you think a whole lot about in the course of your daily life, but I’ve learned, like, okay, just go to Merriam Webster and see how it’s done there, if that’s your style guide. And you just start to spot those things in everything you read.
I think, in a perfect world, if you’re working on a scientific paper, or a medical ethics paper or something like that, it’s going to be more helpful for you if you have someone who’s a subject matter expert, who can be a second reader and really go through and make sure that you’ve built a solid an argument with a solid set of facts. And if you are looking for something that’s more targeted towards like a general audience, somebody who understands writing personal essay writing themes more, and can ask, ‘can you verify that, or how can you verify that?’ If someone were to bring this up on Oprah, would you be caught flat-footed?
And not all fact checking is about like, we can’t one zillion percent confirm this, and we’re gonna cut it out. I think it’s a lot more about transparency and being able to say to your editor or to your reader, ‘this is the situation or this is the data as far as I can tell.’
You know, sometimes I’ll find something that doesn’t have one right answer, it has three maybe-answers, and you offer up a couple of options. And you say, this might have applied in 1987, but this law changed in the meantime, and how do you want to address this? Do you want to add in a line with more context, do you want to just take the fact out? It’s really both an art and a science, but it involves a really good relationship with a fact checker and a writer and an editor, which will get you a really strong piece of work that you have put out into the world and you want it to be in the best possible shape.
I think that doesn’t necessarily mean you get you get a perfect grade on what you’re doing. I love art, I love making art. And one thing that always baffles me with painters is how they lay down a base layer of a totally different color, and then building up texture, and color and layers and adding the details and the highlights. And I really feel like books are like that—they take a team. And there are things that as a writer I don’t know, and I don’t know that I don’t know. And being able to discover that in the editing, and the publication process, I always think is really cool.
LL: So it sounds to me, like if someone was writing a memoir or an essay collection and not, you know, obviously, something more journalistic, you might say, ‘hey, these are some things that we need to check out, or these are some areas that might be a little complicated legally,’ and that sort of thing. So you’re sort of like the general construction manager of the work.
EB: It’s definitely one thing that rewards being interested in everything. Being a generalist is a really good foundation for being a fact checker or a copy editor. You find a way into being interested by a lot of different formats, styles or subjects. And you can bring that knowledge to bear in a lot of different ways.
People might think about being a fact checker or a copy editor as being about supreme specialization: Chicago Style, AP, AMA style, and having strong opinions about serial commas. I’ve had so many guys on dating apps try to start fights with me as a way of flirting because they’ll be like, ‘I love the Oxford comma,’ and I’m like, I truly don’t care. It’s not important.
But being able to have a bird’s eye view of the whole project, and then being able to dip in and say, I know something about the American Civil War. That means that I have a question about this thing that you’ve proposed—does your example hold up when I when I put it in the light of this information? I’m just making that up off the top of my head.
LL: Yeah, that makes sense to me, particularly in terms of essays in particular, when you’re reacting to what someone else said—if you misinterpret this one fact, then everything that comes after that is flawed, or certainly complicated and convoluted.
EB: I think in the legal world, there’s a term called fruit of the poisonous tree. If something in your baseline is or an original assumption is off track—I think fruit of the poisonous tree might have to do with like the chain of evidence, but as a metaphor, I find it helpful.
I think it’s easy to come up with justifications about why certain facts are more or less convenient for the thing that you’re talking about. What was that autobiography, with the, all the little beads on the hand on the cover—A Million Little Pieces—it was an Oprah selection, and then we later found out that the guy who wrote it had made a whole lot of it up. It seems like it probably would have been fine as a piece of fiction, but it was sold as memoir.
This is not to say that there are no unethical ways of using a presentation or formatting or conceptualization. But I think that you need to have a conversation with yourself and with your editors about how you are building the package of your story or your argument.
I also have memoir and creative nonfiction personal essays that I would like to write, and for a lot of, I think, early writers, we want to write about our family. But we also want to be honest, and in this post xoJane world, we also want to be a little bit bloody in terms of exposing things, but most of us also want to be able to talk to our families again.
I’ve spent a lot of time and I’ve taken classes on how do you check in on this thing that you remember very clearly in one way, and your parents or your sibling, or somebody else who was in your life says, that’s not it at all—you’re missing context or you’re conflating multiple things. I think when you talk about fact checking for stuff that is less documented, that is more reliant on individual occasionally squishy memories, I think those are scenarios where you have to do work of earning the trust, by being open and honest with regard to establishing who you are as the point of view character.
So if I was going to write a memoir about my mother, my mother died of brain cancer 11 years ago this summer, and let’s say I want to write something less than flattering about her. I think that it would behoove me somewhere in the text to have a conversation about the circumstances that informed me telling you the story, like I want to tell you this story about my mother, because it’s important to me that she be remembered as a whole human being with flaws as well as wonderful things about her. I think that people are simply more likely to trust you when you say, ‘I’m not 100% perfect, but I have examined this from every angle that I can think of that’s relevant. And, sure, I have an agenda, but you can see what my agenda is.’
I think that’s also relevant when people talk about choosing a news source, or just talking about bias in general—we’ve had a lot conversations about fake news and trusting different media outlets. And, you know, I have come increasingly convinced that it’s not always desirable to advocate for a view from nowhere. I would much rather know that somebody is presenting an argument about facts on the ground where I don’t have to wonder what they’re trying to say.
LL: I was it a class on zoom and I don’t even remember what it was about, but the instructor started by saying, ‘These are my biases.’ I had never seen anyone do that before. But it was qualifying that these were her opinions, so you can take it with a grain of salt, or you can trust her or whatever, but she’s being upfront about her perspective.
EB: Can I ask sort of what kind of specifics the instructor listed?
LL: It was sort of like, ‘I grew up in a white middle class background,’ something along those lines of ‘this is my economic or my religious or my educational background, which therefore is going to color the way that I see things.’ it felt like a statement acknowledging ‘this is my bias that I’m bringing in, although I’m trying hard not to.’
EB: There’s also a risk of saying here’s my lived experience, and therefore I have complete authority because of my lived experience. I think it’s helpful to also stay humble about what I do or don’t understand.
But one reason that I love reading memoir and creative nonfiction, is getting inside a perspective that I have no access to. And it’s an extremely generous act when somebody presents themselves to the public. I think it’s really generous when people give you a lot of guideposts and teach you about how to read their own story—I think that is one way of thinking about it.
LL: In terms of working with you, what size project is too small or too big? And then the second one is, at what point in their writing process should they engage the services of a fact-checker?
EB: Having worked in digital media, I’ve done a lot of editing on stories that are 300 to 750 words.
LL: Really? And you’re willing to do that now?
EB: Absolutely, if that’s what’s needed. One of the things that I do is I work with clients that publish branded content, so but that still needs to be factual and straightforward. And you just edit it like you would anything else. When you’re in the trenches of a digital media newsroom, you learn how to do it very quickly.
Nothing is too small to make sure that you’re doing it right. I think it behooves all of us to do the best job that we can. Otherwise, I think we’re disrespecting the readers, and you never want to disrespect the readers.
I also think that nothing is so big that you can’t break it down into pieces if need be. Or if it’s too big, then that’s information, too—that might be a sign that you need to chop off 60% of it.
I’ve also found in my career that a lot of writing is throat clearing. Often you don’t need the last paragraph. If somebody is writing, especially a feature or something more narrative, sometimes you don’t need an observation that sums it all up nicely. You can just end on an image or, or a line that somebody says, and it feels more powerful, I think.
But for a huge project, there are so many different times. So it’s kind of an impossible question.
LL: Would you rather someone come to you when their book is in progress and unfinished or come to you once their book is done?
EB: Those are asking for different kinds of work. If somebody comes to me with a manuscript or a draft or something that’s unfinished, they’re asking me for help about where to go, how to resolve this, or some help connecting the dots.
I love doing that work. But that’s primarily work that I’ve done for my friends on personal projects. That is something that I think you rely on a community of writers for. And for my fact checking work, I would much rather have something that’s drafted and has even maybe been through a couple of rounds of more structural work—that your major facts are as in order as possible before coming to me.
If I find something that changes your manuscript so much that you have to go back and do a lot of work then it was just not ready yet, and that’s nobody’s fault. But say you finish 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. You don’t want to copy edit that because that story is a mess. You can you can make sure that every comma is in the right place and everything is spelled right, and you don’t have double spaces anywhere. But the work hasn’t gone into the story to make it the right story.
LL: Just how would someone get in contact with you if they wanted to work with you or talk to you about this?
EB: I would recommend going to my website, EstherBergdahl.com, or emailing EstherBergdahl@gmail.com. I’m available for all kinds of conversations at various stages of your manuscript drafting process. I love doing developmental feedback, or fact checking and copy editing and proofreading at the end of the line.