What Is the Lifespan of an Error?

There has been much coverage lately of a new book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal called The Lifespan of a Fact. It relates the years-long debate between D’Agata, an essayist, and Fingal, a fact checker, about whether artistry and accuracy can cohabit in the same nonfiction essay. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the book itself, as Craig Silverman says, “isn’t, you know, factual.”

Picture of a Broken Window by Fen OswinWhat interests me here about the book, though, is the obverse question implied by the evocative title:  What is the lifespan of an error? Rightly or wrongly, we tend to believe that the truth is eternal, that facts live forever, and that, by contrast, mistakes sooner or later die off unaided. Hence our attitudes about errors tend to be lax. But on the Internet, at least, errors are surprisingly resilient.

Some online errors seem to be beyond fixing. In a compelling article yesterday, Ars Technica writer Nate Anderson told the story of how the owner of a Spanish campground has struggled to get Google to de-emphasize search results for the camp. Those results highlight grizzly photos from a disaster that struck the camp more than 30 years ago when a passing fuel tanker exploded, killing 200 campers.

The issue is particularly tricky because the event did happen and is historically important. But is it highly relevant to a search for a camping spot? No one seems to think so. For a variety of understandable reasons, however, the search results live on.

This example is not an error of fact, of course, but of emphasis and context. That’s why it’s hard to fix. Errors of fact should be, by comparison, easily righted. And yet too often they aren’t, mostly because no one cares enough.

There are, unfortunately, abundant examples of this problem, but I’ll restrict myself to just two.

As Rebecca Hoffman happened to remind me yesterday by linking to it from her blog, I wrote last June about the problem of malignant typos. In my post, I noted that prominent blogger and journalist Frédéric Filloux had left uncorrected for two weeks an egregious misspelling of New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s last name as “Settler.” Yesterday, in a new post, Filloux wrote of the importance of “proper editing and proofing,” giving me hope that his own error might by now have been fixed. But no. A quick check showed that the misspelled “Settler” appears permanently settled.

Filloux’s careless typo is, I suspect, a lost cause. I have higher if slowly diminishing hopes for a more recent error that I noticed last Thursday and shared with its publisher. In a post comparing the print-on-demand services from CreateSpace with those from Lightning Source, the CreateSpace cost per page was stated to be 12 cents per page. If that were true, a 100-page book would cost at least $12.00 to print, and legacy publishers everywhere would be smiling. In fact, though, the cost is 1.2 cents per page, or $1.20 for a 100 page book (not counting the cover). After five days, the mistake has not been corrected. But it’s early yet.

Is it rude or petty of me to point out so publicly these seemingly minor errors? I’ll let you decide. But my belief is that the future of the Internet may depend on how we react to such small mistakes. The situation calls to mind the broken windows theory of the recently deceased James Q. Wilson, which posited that tolerance of small crimes leads inevitably to bigger ones.

Though controversial in criminology, Wilson’s theory may prove true on the Internet. The more complacent we are about small errors, the more likely it is that we will eventually be plagued by large ones.

Photo by Fen Oswin.

Embrace Your Errors

MUD day 5:

When I embarked on this month of daily, rapidly written blog posts, I knew my tolerance for typos and other errors would be sorely tested. And indeed, yesterday I committed one of the homophonically confused errors I’ve made since the beginning of my publishing career, writing “died-in-the-wool” rather than “dyed.”  Once I might have been upset by the discovery of my mistake, but my recent reading has persuaded me that a few errors now and then, once recognized, can be good for both readers and writers.

In this morning’s Los Angeles Times, the editors published a note under the headline “Didn’t anyone edit this?” As the paper’s “reader representative” Dierdre Edgar wrote, “When readers write in about errors, it shows they care, and that’s a good thing.” While there are other ways of getting readers to interact with you, the occasional mistake can be good for a writer’s engagement with readers.

But there’s a better reason for writers not to feel too bad when realized they’ve goofed: It’s a valuable learning experience. I’ll leave the last word on this to Kathryn Schulz, a writer I discovered only yesterday through a wonderfully written New York Times review of Haruki Marukami’s new novel 1Q84.  In her book, On Being Wrong, Schulz eloquently explains why the occasional error is not only tolerable, but beneficial:

Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.

Innocent and Malignant Typos and the Case of Filloux v. Jarvis

Picture of a fainting heroine

Overdosed on typos?

As one who cares more than he should about such things, I’ve been spending way too much time today mulling over Rob O’Regan’s recent post on eMedia Vitals, “Can you spare 15 minutes in the battle against typos?”.

Like O’Regan, I suspect, I have an unhealthy sensitivity to typographical errors. To this day, I’m still suffering post-typographic stress from the discovery 27 years ago that in my first published book review, for the Nashville Tennessean, I asserted that the novel’s protagonist died from an overdose of “heroine.”

Much of the pain of that error came from the fact that it was permanent. That day’s press run was done forever. The only comfort I could take was in the knowledge that few people would read the review, fewer would notice the mistake, and all would throw the paper out a few days later.

In today’s online media, of course,  it’s easy to repair such mistakes (as I’ve done in my archived version of that fateful book review). What’s odd is how few people bother. Though O’Regan is too nice to name the writers or publications, he notes that three of the four errors he cites have yet to be corrected, several days after publication. (Me, I’m not so nice: Come on, Stefanie Botelho and Folio: magazineSilicone Valley is almost as embarrassing as heroine.)

In those rare moments when I can look at them dispassionately, I can see that most typos are innocent. Some people will be amused by Silicone Valley; no one is hurt by it.

But there’s another class of typos that, left uncorrected, suggest a subtle malignity. For the reader, they are indications that the writer’s argument might not be trustworthy. A recent example, for me, is Frédéric Filloux’s critique earlier this month of a Jeff Jarvis blog post on the status of the article in journalism.

In my opinion, Filloux simply gets it wrong. I could respect his view, however, if I thought he was actually trying to get it right. But a critical typo, uncorrected now for nearly two weeks, suggests that he isn’t trying, and worse, that he doesn’t care to. “To support his position,” Filloux writes, “Jarvis mentions Brian Settler’s coverage of the Joplin tornado.”

Settler? Nope. The New York Times reporter’s last name, of course, is Stelter.

Is failing to spell Stelter’s name correctly an innocent mistake? Maybe at first (though even then it’s a sign of carelessness). But after two weeks, it starts to fester. It would undercut even the most thoughtful argument, not just Filloux’s impulsive rant.

In a subsequent attack on Jarvis’s advocacy of process journalism, Filloux says, “personally, I’d rather stick to the quest for perfection rather than embrace the celebration of the ‘process.’” I would suggest to M. Filloux that the quest for perfection begins at home.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. As Jarvis says in a comment on Filloux’s post, “publish first and correct later has *always* been the rule, except now we can publish earlier and correct sooner.”

Should you care as much as I do about typos? I don’t recommend it. To be a productive writer, you need a tolerance for innocent slip-ups. But if you care about the truth—not to mention perfection—you’ll make sure they don’t turn into malignant ones.

Should You Edit Guest Posts? 5 Tips for Better Copy

There’s wide agreement in the blogging world about the benefits of guest posts, both for the guest blogger and the blog owner. There seems to be less consensus, however, about the logical next question: If you use guest posts, should you edit them?

In a way, I’m asking a trick question. As I explain below, the moment you accept an article, you’ve already started to edit it. Not to finish the job would do a disservice both to your guest blogger and to yourself.

The real question, then, is just how much editing you should do. To judge by the quality of many guest posts I read, the answer too often seems to be: little or none. Publishing a guest post exactly as it comes to you might seem the easiest way to proceed, but it’s a false economy. By following the five editorial principles below, you can maximize the appeal and impact of guest posts while minimizing your effort.

Give fair warning. If you plan to use guest posts on your blog, you should publish submission guidelines. If nothing else, it’s a great way of signaling that you welcome contributions.  But more importantly, by setting the ground rules and expectations clearly in advance, guidelines serve an important editorial function. When you let writers know what you need, they’ll do some of the editing for you.

It’s important, though, to keep the tone of your guidelines positive. The point isn’t to scare contributors off but to give them a helping hand. Good examples of clear but encouraging guidelines can be found on Copyblogger and ProBlogger; sound advice on how to write them is offered by One Stop Blog and Men with Pens.

If you only use guest posts on rare occasions, you don’t need published guidelines. But you should agree in advance with a guest blogger about how you will handle the copy, what publishing rights you are acquiring, and so on. The last thing you want is an unhappy guest blogger.

Choose wisely. Of all editorial activities, the most important is the decision whether to accept or reject a submission. When you publish a blog post, you are taking on legal and ethical responsibility for it. You don’t need to agree with your guest blogger’s point of view—in fact, it’s a good idea to look for a point of view that challenges yours. But you do need to make sure that it comports with the editorial mission of your blog.

Even if a guest post suits your mission, it may not warrant publication. If it seems too obvious, simply repeats other posts you’ve published, or will require too much work to make publishable, you may want to turn it down.

Above all, don’t agree to publish something before seeing it. Allow yourself leeway to turn something down once you’ve read it. It’s possible to reject a guest post gracefully and without creating hard feelings, but only if you haven’t already promised to use it.

Tidy up. At the very least, you must look for and fix typos and grammatical errors in guest posts. It’s one thing not to do this for your own writing: you have only yourself to blame. But you owe it to guest bloggers to show off their work in the best possible light by cleaning up obvious writing goofs. If your own grammar ain’t so hot, find a proofreader. There are plenty of good ones looking for work.

Avoid salvage operations. Once you’ve made the obvious fixes, you may see other changes that could improve the post. If they are relatively simple, you can suggest them to the author. But beware attempting too much reconstruction. I know from many years of rescuing submissions for B2B publications that with enough work you can make almost anything publishable. But the cost is high, and most of the time, you should avoid the effort. You’ll generally do better finding another author or writing your own post.

Ask for approval, not forgiveness. Editing is a collaborative art. No matter what changes you make to a guest post, whether it involves a single punctuation mark or a total makeover, you should allow your contributor to review the edited copy before publication. Most of the time, your contributors will be thankful for the fixes. But when they’re not, it’s better to find out before you click the “publish” button.

When you publish a guest post, you’re hoping to benefit yourself, your reader, and your contributor alike. A little thoughtful editing will help make sure you succeed.

Are you looking for a guest blogger? Or would you like to write for B2B Memes? Let me know.

Three Ways to Annoy People and Produce Great Content

At first glance, the idea behind content marketing is straightforward and appealing: by publishing great content, you can win friends, influence people, and achieve your marketing goals. But like all great ideas, it’s not as simple or as sunny as it first appears.

The problem is this: To make great content, you sometimes have to be a wee bit obnoxious.

If you’ve worked much with journalists and editors, you understand. The trait is not genetic, but occupational. They are as nice as anyone else, but if they do their jobs right, they will often rub people the wrong way. In my days overseeing a large editorial group for a B2B publisher, my counterpart in sales was fond of telling me that advertisers found our editors arrogant. They weren’t, and he knew it. But they were scrupulously insistent on getting their facts right, being open to all points of view, and serving the readers.  This sometimes made them look like jerks. It’s a perception that most editors learn to accept as the price of doing their jobs well.

Within a publishing company, there is high tolerance for irksome editors. But in a content-marketing setting, staff and stakeholders new to the publishing ethos may be less understanding.

Don’t let that stop you. If you want to produce great content, you must risk irritating people in one or more of the following three ways.

1. Care about details. In my experience, the most annoying of all editorial specialists are proofreaders. Why? Because they care deeply about details. Their role is to find mistakes and point them out to you.

This doesn’t make them many friends, and leaves them vulnerable to ax-wielding executives who declare, as one has in my presence, that there’s no value in paying someone to rearrange commas.

But commas and other details do matter. Editorial details are to content as fit and finish are to automobiles: they account for the difference between a functional product and a great one, and between humdrum and robust sales.  If you don’t believe me, ask Zappos.com. As BoingBoing reports, by having user reviews on its site proofread, Zappos has demonstrably increased its revenues.

Proofreaders as a dedicated job function are well-nigh extinct, but the activity is just as important as ever. And their attention to detail matters not just at the end, when you’re proofing copy, but from the very beginning of the process. If you don’t worry about details when you’re doing the research and writing, no amount of proofreading will fix the resulting problem.

2. Keep asking questions. How do you get all those details right? By asking questions. Or more specifically, by asking annoying questions. The five W’s are just the beginning. You have to ask questions that may make you look skeptical or hostile. And you have to keep asking questions after everyone else is sick of the topic.

What’s more, the questions should not be limited to the people interviewed for stories. Everyone involved should be asking questions like why you’re covering this event and not that one, or how this story fits your mission, or what outcome or action you’re looking for, or one or more of Bob Steele’s 10 ethical questions.

If your goal is just to generate copy, you’ll never need to ask any irritating questions. But if you want to bring your reader as close as you can to an accurate and complete understanding of the topic, your questions will sometimes have to be probing and even disruptive.

3. Insist on finishing. As with any other product, obsessing over details and searching for and correcting flaws won’t do any good if you never ship. The practiced editor’s equally annoying solution here is a firm insistence on meeting deadlines.

As the deadline looms, people will inevitably beg for an extra hour to review copy, check a fact, or polish their phrasing. You must disappoint them. Others will want to get home in time for supper. You must resolutely point them to the vending machine down the hall.

Enforcing deadlines will not make you popular. But increasingly in the social media era, timely publication is a critical component of great content.

In listing these three editorial imperatives my point isn’t that deliberately unfriendly behavior is good for content. That’s not a strategy for long-term editorial success. Rather, it’s this: if you aren’t willing to ruffle some feathers now and then, your content will never soar.