The Five Finger Test
I've had the privilege of working for NBC Sports across eight Olympic Games. In my role in the Research Room -- the so-called "Brain of the Broadcast" -- I supervised about thirty folks who were the eyes and ears of the network. Logging sports, making predictions, finding cool stories to pitch -- it was a crazy, thrilling, and stressful way to experience the Olympics. And no matter what we worked on, or what was happening, there was only one Golden Rule to which we subscribed: the Five Finger Rule.
"When you are answering a question," I would tell the researchers at their orientation, "you need to feel as confident about your answer as if you were confirming how many fingers you have on your left hand."
This is a lesson I've been trying to emphasize with my graduate writing students. While the crux of them in this MFA program want to write fiction, I have been talking a lot lately about the kind of research a writer has to do, and how confident he or she needs to be that it's right. Writing about a baseball game? Visit the stadium. Is a character going to the emergency room? Better see what that's like. It doesn't matter if characters are real or not -- their experience needs to be.
I keep thinking about the Five Finger Rule as I work through what are called "second pass page proofs" for ONE GOAL. How many times have I read these words? How many times have others? There's first draft, second draft, editor's notes, and then editor's notes again. The agent reads it. Copyeditor. Lawyer. Production editor. Proofer. Second proofer. I read it every single time in between these folks, perfecting the imperfect.
My mother, of course, gets a turn.
Good writers make every attempt to get everything right -- at least the things that are in our control. There will be things that readers disagree with. Critics. Lovers. Haters. But the facts, the grammar, the reporting -- all of that is on the writer. And while I know some mistakes will remain, what I tell students, and what I tell myself, is to take a look at the hands on the keyboard and pause to think about what someone can know about them, what I do know about them. And then I make sure I am as confident about what's in my pages as I am about the fingers on my left hand.