Should blog posts be edited?

The Washingtonian, like any good magazine, has a robust protocol for fact-checking and copyediting everything from full-length features to headlines and captions. (You wouldn’t believe how often captions have errors.) When its writers started doing blog entries for the growing website, those followed the same protocol.

One writer in particular objected. As an investigative reporter, he had scoops that weren’t meant to age even a few minutes, he said—they had to go up ASAP to beat the competition. The editors got that, and it’s true that the writer’s work was leading the magazine into digital ascendancy. But it’s also true that haste makes waste, loose lips sink ships, and so on. “You have the best dirt, Harry,” I told him, “but even you have been known to make mistakes.”

“Moi? When have I ever made a mistake?”

“Yesterday, when Lynne caught what you wrote about X. And before that, I saved your butt with Y. And then there was Z ….”

“Yeah, okay. But this is solid, and there’s no time for anyone to check it.”

This went on for months. Most of the time everything checked out, though I sometimes fixed grammatical bugaboos, from misspellings to left-out words. Occasionally I caught a major screwup. That, I told him, is why we check. Still, he chafed, and eventually word came down: No more checking. Just post it.

The 24-hour news cycle has won pretty much everywhere, and to paraphrase another quotation, they who hesitate are lost. But I wish everyone would agree to hesitate—just long enough for both a fact check and a copyedit.

There have been plenty of embarrassing factual errors both online and in broadcasting because of the rush to be first, the initial misreporting of the Obamacare verdict being just one. That’s the subject of another post. But a good copyedit can be done in minutes, and clean copy isn’t just an aesthetic nicety. “There are few bigger turn-offs for readers than grammar and punctuation flaws in a piece of writing,” wrote Charlotte Beckham, a British editor/proofreader/blogger. “Such mistakes indicate to the reader that the article has been written in haste, lacks attention to detail, and/or has been completed with little effort.”

In short, it speaks to credibility. Even dating sites now inform profile writers that other users think less of those who can’t spell or don’t bother with punctuation. What do you think more “professional” readers think of blogs and other social media that aren’t up to the standards of the printed publication? Should standards come down at the same rate as the use and readership of paper?

Authors of books have griped for years about the dearth and death of editing. Errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, use of words, and more on the Washington Post website are downright embarrassing, and readers of the dead-tree version regularly write in to complain about the lack of copyediting. And according to former ReadWriteWeb senior writer Marshall Kirkpatrick, a survey on the crowdsourced copyediting service GooseGrade led to this conclusion: “Spelling and grammatical errors harmed [readers’] opinion of a blog, their willingness to spend time on the site and to share its content nearly as much as perceived factual errors did.”

“Grammatical Gaffes Annoy Readers and Erode Our Credibility” is the title of an op-ed by the appropriately named Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star, who wrote, “Numerous newspaper credibility studies have concluded [that] readers don’t care whether reporters are rushed, staff count is down, or editors are too busy posting content online to catch grammatical gaffes.” Quoting former ombudsman Don Sellar, she added that editing errors “erode public confidence in a paper’s ability to get anything right.”

If professional bloggers—and those who aspire to such status—don’t have a copyeditor to back them up, they do at least have advice from Charlotte Beckham on doing it themselves:

1. Read your writing as though you did not write it yourself.

2. Consider whether your writing makes too many presumptions as to the reader’s understanding of the subject.

3. Consider the presentation.

4. Send the post to a friend or colleague for feedback—if time permits.

She elaborated on each of these points, and you can see the details here. (She also, sorry to say, made two small grammatical errors, which I corrected when quoting. I couldn’t very well not correct them, right? Occupational hazard and all that ….)

The post has many complimentary comments, including these: “Proofreading is important; it makes a piece of text more effective” and “It may seem time-consuming, but it is worth the time as it will help make you and your site look more professional.” Charlotte, Marshall, Kathy, and Don would surely join me in agreeing.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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