Reading Between the Lines

by Alison Lueders

Part of web editing is mechanics – correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on. But some clients also value your perspective on their message. Especially if they have done several drafts themselves, they often discover they are “too close” to really see the content any more. Your fresh pair of eyes can be invaluable.

When clients are stuck trying to articulate their message, some clarifying questions like these can help:

  • What does this mean?  In the simplest case, an unfamiliar word or phrase prompts a look up in the dictionary, Wikipedia or a basic Google search. 9 times out of 10, that clarifies things and you move on. But occasionally, learning what a term means doesn’t make the overall point any clearer. So make a point of asking. A client’s explanation may shed entirely new light on the content as a whole.
  • Can you say more? Put yourself in your readers’ place. If the content raises questions in your mind, then readers may have those questions too. Rather than leave them unsatisfied, elaborate. It may mean adding more text or an explanatory link, but clients sometimes assume their readers know more than they actually do.
  • Who are you talking to? If a client says, “Everyone,” there’s a problem. It’s the same thing as saying “No one in particular.” Fuzzy writing is sure to follow if underneath, your client isn’t sure who their potential customers are. Helping your client identify their audience (if they haven’t already) may go beyond what we normally think web editors do. But a discussion about this can vastly simplify the editing process.
  • Might you consider saying it like this? Light re-writing to make a passive voice active, a word choice more impactful, or a long point more concise can make a surprising difference. But you always need to strike a balance between “cleaning up” the writing and maintaining or enhancing the author’s voice. When the two conflict, err on the side of what the client wants even if it is not what the rules say to do. Often, those points where the client feels most strongly reveal a lot about their values and priorities that you can use to shape the overall content.
  • These are my take-aways – is that right? Articulate – briefly and powerfully – what you think the client is trying to say. One of my clients, a life coach, had drafted 7 pages of web copy. After reading them, I said, “What I take from this is that you specialize in helping people see the extraordinary in the the ordinary places and artifacts of daily life – and thus feel happier.” Not only did it confirm that I was on the right track, but it was clear that the client felt relieved that her message was indeed coming through to someone besides herself. And then we could set about making it stronger, clearer, and more compelling. That’s a happy customer – and one who is likely to come back.

I know that many web editors lack the time and client attention to ask questions like these. But if time and circumstances permit, think about the message itself and see if you can’t make it better by asking questions like those above.

Do you have a favorite “clarifying question” that has worked for you?

Journalists Investigating Military “Info Ops” Find Themselves Subjects of “Infocrafting”

For some web editors, danger may lurk around certain kinds of stories. Take USA Today Washington Enterprise Editor Ray Locker, who was working with Pentagon reporter Tom Vanden Brook on an investigative piece about Pentagon propaganda contractors – “info ops” – whose work was allegedly of questionable quality.  In true cloak-and-dagger style, as the duo was conducting citizen oversight of government, someone was conducting a covert misinformation campaign against them, creating fake Twitter and Facebook accounts in their names, plus creating Wikipedia entries and dozens of message board postings and blog comments, all intended to sully their credibility. Websites were mysteriously registered in their names as well, although they were later taken down following Pentagon inquiries. It was a lesson in what Locker called “infocrafting” and the dangers of working in today’s world of high level technology and the cyberwar. Watch your backs, web editors.

The details, provided recently in USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Tucson Citizen, read like a military intelligence spy novel.

What dangers can you imagine might be lurking behind your efforts to publish The Truth?

The Errant Tweet: Editing Social Media

by Rebecca L. Wells

Whether you’re in a one-person consultancy, a newsroom, or a large corporation, your marketing and communications strategies likely include social media assets that must be edited and curated. But not every social media site is the same. How do you craft an editorial policy that covers all the bases?

While there is no solid consensus on editing techniques for each type of social media site, there are some general guidelines to consider.

The Permanent: Wikipedia, Message Boards, and Blogs
Some social media properties have more staying power. They may show up in search results for years, or have trackable editing that makes any change to the content transparent. Examples of this type of social media include Wikipedia, Linked In, message boards, and blogs.

Wikipedia is somewhat self-policing in that an editing history is visible for every entry. But blogs are trickier: do you edit old posts? Delete them? What merits an update – a typo, or breaking news that contradicts your original post?

The Washington Post handles it this way:

Blog posts should be updated quickly and transparently to correct erroneous information.The placement of the correction should reflect the gravity of the error. Major corrections (e.g., when the headline or driving premise of the blog post is wrong) should be noted in the headline and at the top of the post as well as within the blog item.

Many media outlets and personal bloggers follow this rule. For example, if you have published a post complaining that cable service is down in your neighborhood, and those services are reinstated shortly thereafter, you should edit your post to reflect that. Your statement was valid given the situation, but you don’t want to misinform your readers.

A less obvious issue is what to do when you discover a typo. If you are merely changing a “thier” to “their,” it would be more distracting than it’s worth to call that to your readers’ attention. You have not changed anything of substance; you’ve merely corrected a spelling error and made your post easier to read in the process.

Corporate blogs
Corporate blogging can be a different, and less transparent, example. As an editor, you should make sure your writers are familiar with libel and defamation laws; you also must ensure that your legal department reviews content before you post it. This could prevent you from being asked to remove information that was already published.

Message boards
Some website message boards can show up in search results for years. Yet it is a method of communicating that often focuses on short-term (and therefore quickly outdated) content.

The best practices for message boards are similar to blogs; you should provide transparency and clarity for your readers. For example, if you posted a link to a site that is now broken, and the page is still prominent on your site or through searches, add a note to your original post that says “ETA: this link has now been changed to (provide new link).” (ETA is an abbreviation commonly used by online community posters; it means “edited to add.”) You can also add disclaimer language warning readers of outdated information that will appear with old posts. You should not, however, worry about correcting old news or outdated information as a rule; it’s an archive and readers should understand that.

If some of your message board threads are very out-of-date, lock them so users cannot post new messages that may keep old pages high up in search results.

The Ephemeral: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest
Some social media sites, unlike Wikipedia and blogs, produce more ephemeral, or short-term, content.  On Twitter, frequent users may post several tweets a day, but if followers are not checking often, they may miss several of those tweets and only see a few that were most recently posted.

News feeds on Facebook are similar. If your rogue post, rife with misspellings or a link that doesn’t work, shows in others’ timelines before you can delete it, it won’t last for long unless somebody captures your error with a screenshot.  But if it has been out there for a while and collected “likes” and comments, leave it and issue an updated or corrected post.

To delete or not to delete?
Regardless of the nature of the site, there are times when you need to update content you have published. If breaking news impacts a story you posted, for example, you should update your Twitter or Facebook feed with that breaking news. As with blogs, if you have to fix a minor typo that bears no weight on the matter at hand, deleting a post to replace it with the correctly spelled version is fine.

On these dynamic social media sites, you should be careful to credit any other people who have provided content you are referencing. On Facebook, if you are sharing something one of your friends shared first, it’s appropriate to say “via.” For example, if your friend Debbie Brown posted a review of Jimmy’s Deli that you noticed and now you want to post it too, you should post it as “Jimmy’s Deli Review via Debbie Brown” (with Debbie Brown’s name linked to her profile).

On Pinterest, if you are re-pinning somebody’s pin, they are automatically credited; and if you want to change the description of an item, it’s understood that users add their own labels. So you don’t need to call out the fact that you have changed the wording of the original description. But if you are using the original description, you should make sure that it is appropriately written for your audience and your brand.

Twitter has a more complicated etiquette. If you are quoting another person’s tweet, you should use the QT (quote tweet) abbreviation so the original tweet appears in quotes. If you are shortening a tweet so you can fit it and your comment within Twitter’s 140-character limit, you should use the abbreviation “MT” (modified tweet). Otherwise, you are editing someone else’s words without acknowledging it.

Because the social media landscape is ever-changing, you should review your policies on a regular basis. One good resource is the Social Media Governance site, which provides a list of links to social media policies for dozens of organizations, from the US Navy to the New York Times.

Wikipedia Balances the Taut Line Between Accuracy and Editorial Control

Who polices accuracy on your website? Probably you as web editor, right?

Wikipedia uses a large battery of editors to guard the accuracy of its millions of articles, and still, its reputation is often questioned. A recent article in The Atlantic highlights their dilemma as they try to balance between remaining open for anyone with knowledge to update information and managing those with strong opinions but little other standing who insist on pushing their views on the site.

In this case, a topic expert with new information from recent research tried to update an article on a subject important in American history. But his startling new information didn’t match the popular view on the topic, so the Wikipedia editors – who often aren’t topic experts – reverted the entry back to its original form, which was then less accurate.

If you have ever been involved in a content dispute with someone on Wikipedia, you know this can be frustrating for both sides. Someone has to be the arbiter, yet not everyone can be expert enough on every topic to know what is a genuine revelation and what is someone’s obsession – who is knowledgeable and who is not.

Was Wikipedia right to revert the content back? As a web editor, what’s your take on it?