Blogging and writing

Who cares about accuracy?

Graham Wheeler, who wrote a book of homebrew recipes with famous beer writer Roger Protz, jumped into a comment thread over at Ron’s blog recently to defend his sometime collaborator. Ron was being a bit sarky about Roger’s apparent wilingness to trot out stories about beer which have been largely discredited. Graham’s argument seems to be (heavily paraphrased):

  • professional writers are too busy and skint to be accurate and
  • no-one but weirdos and nerds care about accuracy anyway — accuracy doesn’t sell to the man in the street.

Would any professional writers out there agree with that?

When we were starting out learning about beer, we bought one of Roger’s books and enjoyed it, but we were working on the assumption that he was at least trying to be accurate.

22 replies on “Who cares about accuracy?”

I think that’s bollocks (though unfortunately, true, and not only in beer writing). If you don’t have time or can’t be bothered with checking facts, then write fiction.

Another thing is when someone writes based on inaccurate facts he/she had strong reason to believe were otherwise. That can be forgiven, provided the author acknowledges the mistake when proved wrong.

Um… I’d like to think of myself as a professional beer writer these days, and I think accuracy is extremely important. The clue is in the ‘non-fiction’ label on the back of the book.

It depends how seriously you want to be taken. I wanted Hops & Glory to be the definitive history of IPA, and that’s why I devoted two years to research to make it as accurate as I possibly could. Pedants frustrate me as much as anyone, but there’s a very wide gap between pedantry and churning out hearsay and Chinese whispers. I try to state the facts I know, then use ‘most likely’ deduction to suggest what’s probably in the gaps between those facts, making this distinction clear with language along the lines of ‘this happened’ and ‘this probably happened’.

I hope the resulting book means I’m regarded as something of an authority on IPA. But if I was to refer to myself as, for example, “The World’s Leading Beer Authority,” (now where did I get that phrase from?) I’d probably do a lot more research than I already do, and would think it was supremely important that anything I wrote at least reflected the most up-to-date and comprehensive understanding of the subject, even if it didn’t move that understanding on.

And it’s not just beer pedantry, it’s understanding the context, which in turn helps you understand the beer better. One source on IPA, written by someone close to the heart of this discussion, contained the line “The English first colonised India in 1782”. Period. This would have come as something of a shock to Clive of India, who won the Battle of Plassey in 1747, thereby establishing British dominance in Bengal.

In the unlikely event that any passing general reader was to read this having studied Clive for GCSE history, they could think ‘well, he got that wrong, what else has he got wrong? I can’t trust any facts here’.

And if you can’t trust the facts, what’s the point in reading it? Entertaining, witty, vivid, well-written prose? Oh my, there’s a whole other can of worms…

I think there’s a continuum, with hardcore research at one end and more knockabout stuff at the other. There’s space in the world for both, as long as each declares what it is. I also think that as beer myths are debunked, anyone repeating them should at least preface it with “The popular tale told about [insert topic here] is…”.

I’m a very keen cook, and know a lot about Spanish cooking as, being half Spanish, I spent many weeks each year there during my teens (and before, but I wasn’t such a keen cook at age nine). There’s a lot of utter nonsense passed off as “Spanish” cooking, but that’s not to say that the food described isn’t tasty.

I’d also agree with Pivní Filosof about acknowledging mistakes. As someone with a book coming out shortly, I know that people will find errors in it, and am keen to (a) be corrected and educated and (b) admit that I made a mistake. I’ll probably end up maintaining an errata page on the web for it (a short one, hopefully).

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, gents.

So, what we’re all saying is: writers should be as accurate as they can; acknowledge where they might be wrong or haven’t been able to do thorough research; and have a bit humility when they’re proved wrong?

God, I’m always concerned about accuracy when I write, for a start I don’t want to be sued and as someone who studied history at degree level I also hate the way myths develop about the past, unless of course you want to bend the narrative to your worldview. Regarding beer’s history I think it’s so in flux that I stay away from it, who knows what a future Ron will discover lurking somewhere.

As someone with even modest academic and professional experiences in journalism, I can affirm unequivocally that accuracy is and ought to be the chief obligation of a (nonfiction) writer – particularly a reporter – who wishes to be taken seriously and regarded as both ethical and responsible.

Given that beer writers do from time to time enjoy doing a little reporting of their own, and sharing of objective facts, and even perhaps participating in what can be called “journalism,” there really shouldn’t be any excuse made by them or others for careless fact-checking and spreading or creating misinformation.

Someone who merely wishes to entertain with or make money from his writing has avenues available that are appropriate for that; but let’s leave objective fact-gathering and reporting for people who are motivated to do it properly.

I don’t like the idea that you have to choose between being accurate and being entertaining. I used to be familiar with the example of this in reverse – “proper historians” being annoyed at their colleagues who had sold more books. No matter that their books were just as well researched – if you’d sold your book outside the academic world, or worse still, to telly, you must have sold out.

Mind you if a brewing scientist in a white lab coat had written Hops and Glory chances are it would not have been half a knockabout a read as Pete’s book (‘Brazil is a big country and the boat was approaching the shore. I wondered about the Ph in my water.’). Let’s have accuracy and entertainment together to produce a good read whether in print or on line, a bit like the balance between malt and hops to produce a good beer.

Accuracy is very important indeed. If I am ever wrong please will somebody tell me? Nicely and to one side would be nice.

Yes, it has to be entertaining, but we could all slip to the depths of tabloids if we wish and not let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The big problem is inaccurate sources. There’s a great book called Hobson-Jobson, all about Anglo-Indian words and phrases and written in the late 19th century by a couple of old India hands, which says that Hodgson’s product was only ever known as “beer” in India, not “pale ale” – so I repeated this, because they looked like reliable sources. More recently I’ve read much more stuff from the early 19th century, and the statement is simply not true: Hodgson’s WAS called pale ale by people writing about it in India (though not “India Pale Ale”). Hobson-Jobson is wrong. And I have repeated that error. Which hacks me off. But while your faith can’t be blind, you do have to trust your sources a little, or you’ll have no narrative at all.

Are some topics not more difficult to be accurate about than others? Martyn’s point about the accuracy of sources begs the question about whether pre-scientific era writings can be expected to be held to a scientific standard of accuracy. I would think that Unger’s work on the taxation of beer in the low countries in the middle ages can be trusted due to the need of the medieval authorities to maximize revenue… but then again, a finger on the weigh scale recorded in the ledger can do wonders in the counting house. What care the literate payees circa 1450 for the illiterate payors?

And while I appreciate Pete’s desire to be the definitive book on IPA, I don’t read it as such because it is in the form of an odyssey. I look at a book like Hornsey’s as a definitive book on brewing history but that is because it is heavy and there are few jokes or at least moments of personal introspection. Ron’s book to be circa 2015 when he synthesizes the research he is sharing with us may be of the same sort but it is a long way from raw data to page 937. Or it may end up as another book entirely – an odyssey about his hunt for the data. That would be a good book, too. But would it be as accurate even if likely more entertaining?

For me the most important thing is the attribution of source. As long as I have footnotes (or their evil cousin endnotes) I can judge the quality as a reader and the author can admit the dependency. This frees us from the tyranny of accuracy as a personal accusation.

‘professional writers are too busy and skint to be accurate’ – isn’t this a little like saying doctors are too busy to wash their hands?

And saying ‘no-one but weirdos and nerds care about accuracy anyway — accuracy doesn’t sell to the man in the street’ is completely undermining the reader – only the most educated in that area may spot the inaccuracy, but that’s irrelevant.

I think there’s an obligation to be accurate, unless it’s written as satire. Even the fiction writer needs accuracy. As a reader it’s entirely expected and the book is trusted.

Nice post, interesting!

Accuracy matters, absolutely. Anybody who thinks the ‘man in the street’ ain’t interested in getting the facts right should have a word with Anthony Beevor, Simon Schama or even Bill Bryson.

I just discovered the whole controversy about Protz’s writing by looking at his blog, and find it quite surprising. The bullethole in his foot is pretty massive.

In my experience, the chap who truly *was* the world’s leading beer authority cared deeply about accuracy *and* entertainment, plus education, enlightenment, politics, history, society, etc, etc.
His name was Michael Jackson.

Another writer once made a detailed description of the production of a historic beer I used to help brew & got numerous details totally wrong (although to be honest, our own brewery tour guide was much, much worse!).

The same writer later edited a beer & pubs guide that (along with a TimeOut guide) described the beers I brewed as filtered, pasteurised and artificially carbonated, when in fact they were none of the above.

I’d have preferred more accuracy, and wrote him a polite letter to invite him to come to see for himself. I didn’t receive a reply.

Bailey, I will still read your blog and a couple of others, and will comment whenever the mood takes me! Keep up the good work.

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