The Top Eight Websites I Can’t Live Without

Fact checking is a vital part of any copy editor’s job. Copy editors should check not only authors’ facts; they should also check their own facts when replying to authors in comments or queries. Because even copy editors can hold mistaken presumptions.

For example, I recently was preparing a reply to another editor’s blog post, in which I meant to illuminate the difference between homonyms and homophones (a difference I had not long before seen someone else point out in a LinkedIn discussion). Before I clicked “Post,” however, I did something important. I looked up the definition of “homonym.” I had of course learned the term in grade school, but I wanted to be certain I knew what I was talking about. After all, if I gave the impression that I didn’t know what I was talking about, someone would be sure to notice, even if he or she didn’t comment. And that could affect my reputation. If you want to be seen as an expert, you need to be meticulous. So I checked, and I was surprised to see this:

1 a : HOMOPHONE

Yes, the first definition of “homonym” was as a synonym of “homophone”! Thus, the preconception that so many people have regarding the distinctiveness of these two terms is, in fact, false, according to Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Edition.

That’s why I agree with Green Ink Proofreading’s assertion that “Being ‘smart’ is not about knowing all the answers; it is more about knowing where to find the answers.” Many answers can be found online, but you have to know where to look. The first website you turn to may not be the fastest, easiest, and most reliable source of answers. Developing a “bookshelf” of reference websites can take some time. Here are some Web resources (not in order of importance) that I frequently use as I copyedit or proofread.

1. My publisher’s house style website
If the folks at the publisher I’m working for have put their guidelines on the Web, I make sure to visit that website frequently to brush up on how they prefer that certain matters be handled. Online style guides may be updated without notice, and if I don’t make it a point to review the guidelines often, I could be “living in the past” with regard to how they want things done.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style website
Chicago is the designated standard stylistic reference for most of the projects I work on. I don’t subscribe to the Manual of Style online–why pay $35 a year when I’ve already bought the book? But if I can’t find what I’m looking for in the book’s index, I can do a search on the website (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html) that will tell me what section of the book to go to. I do receive email updates from the CMS Q&A page, but they are generally more amusing than enlightening.

3. Google Books
There are seemingly millions of books available in part or even in whole on Google Books. When I want to verify a quote from a book or see how another publisher has referenced a work, I turn to this vast compendium. Any search returns results with lightning speed, which is amazing when you think about how much content is out there. Once you pull up a book, even if only “snippet view” (not “preview”) is available, it can sometimes be enough for you to verify that the book contains the words you’re looking for.

Sometimes, however, a search for a phrase within a book will fail. That’s when I call up…

4. Amazon Books
Most of the pages that Amazon uses to sell books now make use of the “Look Inside” feature, although with out of print books you will generally be out of luck. After you’ve clicked on the book cover that invites you to “Look Inside,” a search for text within that book will return a list of results with page numbers, even for pages that aren’t available to view. It’s possible to search for certain words in such a way that all the text you need to verify comes up in the search result itself–if it doesn’t work the first time, try modifying your search.

Let’s say that you want to verify a quotation from Co-parenting 101 by Deesha Philyaw and Michael Thomas. The quotation goes: “Bad-mouthing your ex may feel good to you in the short term, but the cost is long-term harm to your child.” You find the book on Amazon, but a search for “the cost is long-term harm” comes up empty-handed. So you search for a different string of words: “may feel good.” You get the following result, which allows you to verify the entire quote even though you can’t see the page. Notice that when you mouse over the search result, the tooltip displays additional text.

Sometimes a search on Amazon will work when a Google Books search doesn’t–this may be because Google Books seems to have stopped returning results for pages that are unavailable for viewing.

5. The Library of Congress website
When I’m working on a reference list and want to verify details of publication for a book–such as title, author, publisher, and year–loc.gov is better than Google Books or Amazon, because it lists all this information concisely. It also gives important information that authors sometimes fail to include, such as translator and edition number. Just make sure to refine your search results by “All Items”; otherwise only items that are available online will be included, and this doesn’t generally include books.

6. Websites of journals
Many times, it’s not a book I need to check details of publication for–it’s a journal article. I used to use my university’s library website for this purpose, searching among its databases. Now I simply start with a Web search for the title of the journal. Although the search results may include websites for some services that you have to sign up for or pay for (e.g., ResearchGate), most journals have their own website, and if you delve into their archives, you’ll find tables of contents for issues stretching back decades. Often, the table of contents will provide all the information you need. Some journals even make articles from past issues available for free, as PDFs that are often searchable themselves. This is obviously helpful if you’re trying to verify a quote from an article as well as the details of publication. If you can’t locate the journal’s website, or if you can’t access the article, do a Web search using the name of the article (or an author’s name and some keywords). Frequently you can find details of publication as well as an abstract on a reputable website, such as of a university or federal agency (I look up a lot of psychology articles, and I use the National Library of Medicine as an authority in these matters).

7. Medline Plus
Because the books I work on often mention pharmacological treatments for medical or psychological conditions, I use Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health), to verify the spelling of names of drugs, as well as to find out the generic name of a brand-name drug and vice versa. Use of this site even alerted me to the fact that several of the drugs in a book I was recently working on were no longer on the market. (Government websites are the best!)

8. Wikipedia
I do have an actual encyclopedia that I pull out from time to time–Merriam Webster’s Collegiate. It’s from 1997, so it’s not the most up-to-date reference, but some things don’t change, such as historical events and personages. (If I simply want to check the spelling of someone’s name, I might choose instead to flip to the biographical entries at the back of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.) I try not to rely on Wikipedia as an authority, but sometimes it’s just the easiest place to start when you’re trying to learn more about a subject. The sources that a Wikipedia entry cites, for example, can be useful. A Wikipedia entry can also yield new search terms to use in your quest for information.

If you’re an editor or proofreader, what kind of content do you work with, and what are some websites you’ve found helpful for fact checking?

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