By Virginia Parker Staat
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” ~ Albert Einstein
After this year’s RMOWP conference, David and I headed to Idaho in hopes of finding cooler climes and some wildlife to photograph. We were delighted to discover an old growth forest near Elk River. Some of those red cedars were over 3,000 years old. Camping beneath the towering giants brought back a long-forgotten memory.
In the early 90s, David and I visited the West Coast’s old growth, redwood forests. We meandered through towering redwoods on soft, earthen trails. An old photo showed at least six men chaining their hands around a single tree. One redwood had even been carved out so a small car could drive through its massive trunk. I reveled in the quiet of those dense forests, the magnitude of those massive trees, the scent of the moss-laden earth. To say the least, I was smitten.
I was so enamored by the redwoods that I determined to plant one at home. In Texas. In South Texas. And I did. I ordered a redwood seedling from a catalog. When it arrived, I carefully followed the instructions and planted it in what I hoped would be an ideal spot. The poor thing didn’t last through August. It was a sad lesson. Had I only taken the time to research redwoods, I would have quickly discovered my idea was doomed to fail. I would have learned that redwoods only grow in a “450-mile-long strip, stretching from southern Oregon to Salmon Creek Canyon, near Monterey,” (see greenarborist.com). They simply don’t grow in Texas. Not Ever. I had been carried away with the idea rather than trusting my instincts to do the needed research.
As outdoor writers, it is our job to know. We must make certain what can and cannot grow in a specific area if we mention a plant in our essays. It is our job to research the animals we write about in our stories. Stray from the truth, and it can have disastrous consequences.
Years ago I was reading a children’s book for a college literature class. It was a survival story about a boy lost in the woods. Early in the book, the narrator told about a beaver lodge he found along a steep cascade on a fast-running river. As soon as I read his description, I closed the book and never finished it. I no longer trusted the author. He had not done his homework. It was obvious that he had never seen a beaver lodge. If he had, he would have known that beavers choose still or slow-moving water for their huts, not fast-running rivers. Worst of all, not only had the author failed to do his homework, but the children who read his book were exposed to a falsehood about beavers.
Building trust in our writing begins with the fundamentals of proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Author Shirley Taylor reminds us in her article Writing 101: Write Well If You Want To Earn Trust And Confidence, that “paying attention to proper spelling and punctuation, correct sentence construction instead of non-sentences, and spelling out words in full instead of abbreviations only suitable for SMS” will earn trust and confidence in our work.
We further enhance reader trust when we write the truth. We don’t have our protagonist flip on a light switch in a story about the Civil War. Or find snakes in Alaska. Or moose in the desert. Insufficient research and false assumptions can be lethal to our credibility and destroy the trust of our readers.
We also must throttle our emotions when writing to persuade. If our bias is too strong, it can muddle our reader’s understanding of our topic. We must present an informed argument, using a respectful and reasonable analysis of an opposing view. In his book On Writing Well, William Zinger reminds us, “Credibility is just as fragile for a writer as for a President. Don’t inflate an incident to make it more outlandish than it actually was. If the reader catches you in just one bogus statement that you are trying to pass off as true, everything you write thereafter will be suspect. It’s too great a risk, and not worth taking.”
It is good to be passionate about our beliefs. It is fine to have a story idea that includes places or animals that we have never seen. Our job as writers, however, is to make certain our readers can trust us by writing what is true. We build credibility with error-free grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The information we write about must be accurate. We throttle our emotions in order to present both sides of a situation fairly. Ultimately, we must do our research. Otherwise we may have a dying redwood succumbing from heat in the throws of a Texas summer… or worse, we may misinform and lose the trust of our readers. It is simply a risk not worth taking.