On Bad Writing, Bad Proofreading and Responsibility

Sotp

Credit where it’s due: Carson Brackney’s most recent post discusses Angela Hoy’s latest  rant against content sites and the people who write for them. In his post, “Content Mills, Angela Hoy, Search Engines and the Quality of Writng” Carson explores who really bears responsibility for bad content. This isn’t to argue Carson’s point, more to discuss the difference between bad writing and bad proofreading and also to touch a little on the responsibility part. I was going to leave a comment on Carson’s blog but it got too wordy, so I’m sharing my thoughts here. Warning: This is kind of wordy too.

Every now and then I like to touch on the topic of bad writing. Because anyone can be a writer nowadays, there’s a lot of bad writing on the web. I’m not going to blame it on web content or low payers, because I know a few high payers who employ writers who, well, aren’t very good. I read “columns” written by high paid celebrities that are absolute garbage. I also know of some sales people who write their own content to sell a product, and bloggers with their own personal blogs who also put out some questionable content.  On the other side of the coin there’s plenty of content on the web that’s terrific but the author didn’t proofread very well. As this community knows, I’m guilty of this very thing (but I hope I’m getting better). Sometimes, it’s not bad writing as much as it is bad proofreading.

So I feel like exploring this a bit…

Using the “Loose” vs. “Lose” Theory

In Carson’s article he makes reference to Angela Hoy’s most recent “investigation” which entailed searching for the word “loose” and citing examples of articles where “loose” was used in the title instead of “lose” in order to prove how web content pollutes the airwaves. In all fairness, “loose” instead of “lose” is a pet peeve of mine as well. However, as we were only treated to the titles of the articles and not the actual articles, all Hoy proved was that someone didn’t proofread. We don’t know if the content is poor, because we didn’t read the articles. Using “loose” instead of “lose” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer, it can also mean you’re a bad speller and a bad proofreader. There’s a difference between bad writing and bad proofreading. I post and run all the time, and though that’s not an excuse for publishing sloppy work, the truth is, it happens and it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to live.

What makes a bad piece of writing?

Granted, some of the articles referenced in her article might be terrible, but Hoy didn’t link to them and I didn’t read them, so I have no way of telling. However, if the whole article was filled with typos, poorly formed sentences and misinformation, I would have to agree it’s a crappy article. If it’s factually correct and well-written, but simply has a typo in the title, I can be forgiving. I’ve found typos in Writer’s Digest on more than one occasion and I don’t see anyone going after them. There’s a difference between bad writing and bad proofreading. Should we publish articles that are victims of poor proofreading? Of course not. However, to say a well written article with a typo is what’s wrong with the world today is kind of silly.

Who bears responsibility

I’m very vocal about writers being responsible for their own writing. I don’t think it’s the fault of the content site any more than it’s the fault of McDonalds for hiring someone who can’t be counted on to show up for work on time. Anyone who accepts any gig needs to do said gig to the best of his ability or move on. However, I also believe content sites need to be more selective with the writers they hire.

The problem here is the content site’s purpose. If it’s a site geared towards hobbyists, there’s a whole different set of standards than the site geared towards putting out “how to” content or news. Getting upset because someone who writes for a hobby site used “loose” is like getting angry at the people who volunteer to put together a community newsletter for not properly structuring a paragraph. You can’t compare a site like Hub Pages to a site like Demand Studios. They have different pay, different requirements, a different purpose, and sometimes, different writers.The content site that wishes to be viewed as an authority and trusted source of information does bear more responsibility than the hobby site. You can’t go after a site for hobbyists and say “you’re polluting the web” because they’re not claiming to put out reputable content. However the site that employs editors and fact checkers has no excuse.

There are a variety of reasons why a bad piece of writing hits the web, but the bulk of responsibility belongs to the writer. It’s the writer who should proofread several times before hitting “send” and it’s the writer who needs to do more than Google and rewrite when researching information. It’s about pride. It’s about not wanting anyone to read something I wrote and seeing “loose” instead of “lose.” The authoritative content sites need to ensure they hire quality writers, and the editors must do their jobs properly, but any writer who habitually turns in poor writing, doesn’t deserve the gig.

Bad writing isn’t exclusive to content sites

I’ve said it before, if you think bad writing is exclusive to web content sites, read the “Twilight” series. Read the church newsletter and the high school newspaper. Read the newsletter at the Senior center or the weekly Mayor’s address. I find typos on a regular basis in books, magazines, newspapers and on websites. Poor proofreading is everywhere. To say content sites lower the quality of writing on the Internet is like saying the moms who started the neighborhood watch newsletter are lowering the quality of journalism.

Typos vs. Quality

Something I worry about more than a writer using “loose” instead of “lose” is a junior high school kid stumbling upon a piece of fluff in his research and thinking it’s good information. Content sites do bear the responsibility to make sure content is factually correct. Thankfully most schools (and parents) have caught on and don’t allow sites such as Wikipedia or Associated Content to be used as sources or references. Still, folks need to back up their facts. If a writer has no medical experience and they’re Googling and rewriting some bad medical writing they found, a disclaimer would be nice. Personally, I feel people who don’t know a thing about medicine shouldn’t be giving out medical advice, but since there’s no way to police this, we need disclaimers. Folks need to know how writers come across their information. I can overlook a typo if the article contains good information, but I can’t overlook bad information.

News vs. Content

Now, the question was asked if web content sites lower the quality of news on the Internet. I don’t know that they necessarily do. Most web content sites with writers who report the news are relaying the facts so it’s not like they’re getting it wrong. Multiple television stations, websites, magazines and newspapers report on the same scandal. Having someone in web content discuss the same thing doesn’t mean it’s lowering the quality. However, most content sites aren’t reporting news. “How to Tie Your Shoelaces” isn’t news. News and content are two separate puppies.

Are you done yet, Deb?

This went kind of long and I need to wrap it up. I hope it makes sense and I hope I proofread well enough.

Content isn’t evil. Web content sites aren’t evil. Bad writers are everywhere and it has nothing to do with where they work or how much they’re paid. It’s the writer’s responsibility to write well and it’s the editor’s responsibility to to edit. If you’re going after web content sites for a case of bad proofreading, you’re also going to have to go after sign makers, newspapers, sales people, newsletters and magazines. Typos are everywhere. Bad writing should go, but using “loose” instead of “lose” doesn’t a bad article make. It will make me stop and pause. It will make me think more about the writer and the writing, but it’s not a deal breaker.

Who bears the responsibility for bad writing?

Comments

  1. At the risk of annoying people… careless proofing and spelling can be a deal breaker for me. But I’m also getting very tired of the Angela Hoy bashing. Responding to her supposedly lopsided rant with another equally lopsided one does not even things out.

    • Thanks, Fiona. Duly noted. Even removed the “lopsided” bit.

      • No problem Deb. Don’t get me wrong – you know I love the site but I prefer the “rise above it” approach. :)

        • Fiona, I’ve been rising above it for a couple of months now. Actually, I feel I’ve been very reserved. You don’t know what I really want to say on the topic. :)

          However, Carson’s post did get me think about the “loose” vs. “lose” thing. I honestly don’t think one typo makes a bad writer. We all confused ‘right” and “write” now and then. Sure we should catch it, but the times we don’t doesn’t mean we need to hang up our keyboards.

          • You are right about getting stuff confused from time to time. I learned quickly that the FWJ community will find your typos and leave them for you gift wrapped in the comments LOL! I’ve written for content sites & I’ve used them for a quick reference when I need info. Some I avoid entirely because of the poor content/quality, but others I take them for what they are – quick fact sheets.

            I needed to find a way to make fairy wings and one content site in particular was helpful in giving me the basics without trying to sell me stuff like other craft sites.

            Would I use them as a source for an article? No way, but I think most people & teachers have gotten on board with reliable electronic sources.

            As far as ranting goes. Some people yell to the tops of their voices and they get all the attention while those who oppose are told to ‘rise above’ you have a platform and a purpose for that platform there’s nothing wrong with using it and I say that not because you pay me monthly. :0)

      • I wish you didn’t remove the “lopsided” because Angela’s articles are slated. Why is it that Angela Hoy can lie about Deb and post untruths about other companies and individuals but no one can point out the truth about Angela Hoy without folks getting all defensive? Why not complain about the Deb Ng bashing?

        Typos aren’t a deal breaker for me but it depends on where and how many. If a continuously turns in sloppy work it’s a definite deal breaker.

        • I’ve seen a heck of a lot of Angela Hoy bashing too, but that’s my point – what does bashing either side achieve? I have positive and negative experiences with Demand Studios, as I’m sure have many. They’re been great when I needed money in a rush. On the other hand I’ve had editors hold articles for 2 weeks before approving them.

          Here’s an idea. Why not get Deb and Angela together in a blog post? Not in a personal attack kind of way but to bring them both together in a discussion about where common ground lies, and a chance to respond to each other’s concerns.

          • I agree Fiona, and I really do try to avoid the bashing. I have no desire to go tit for tat, to be honest. I had to mention the post today because of the reference to Carson’s piece and because of the point I was making between typos and proofreading, but honestly, I have to desire to get into it with Angela Hoy.

  2. When writing content for SEO purposes, some clients will ask for versions of keywords to be misspelled. If the mistakes rank well in keyword searches, they may be deliberately included in web content. That isn’t the fault of the writer if they are following instructions. Blame it on the way search engines work and Internet users search for information.

    • Actually, Jodee, that’s a whole other ballgame but for this purpose, I do blame the writer. This is another of my pet peeves. No self respecting writer should ever deliberately write typos for the search engine. Not for all the money in the world.

    • Well that’s a new one for me. Deliberately misspelling? Oy!

    • This has always bothered me too – Luckily it is now obsolete.

      As Google (and, in their wake, other search engines) are now allowing for common transpositions and other ‘speeling mistakes’ (:-)) in their searches, a good client will no longer be asking for this kind of work.

    • I had no idea Jodee – wow!

  3. Over the last 6 months or so I’ve noticed an increase in typos and grammatical errors in the better newspapers because they all cut their editing/proofreading staff (guess that wasn’t such a good idea).

    When it comes to typos and some grammar mistakes, I know writers have a difficult time finding them on their own, especially when the writing is done on a tight deadline. I can proofread other people’s work, but I know my own work needs an extra set of eyes.

    When it comes to quality of work on content sites, it’s up to the publishers to invest in editors and writing coaches to provide their writers with advice. It’s either that or they’ll have to attract better writers. If these sites want to survive, it’s important that they improve the quality.

  4. I’m going to take a moment to vent about one little sliver of your post…

    Your comments re: disclaimers, medical information, etc. really resonate with me. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a medical expert. I’m not a nutritionist, an herbal healer or even all that interested in the nuts and bolts of health issues.

    In the past, I’ve been asked to write articles on these topics. When I’ve accepted the offers, I’ve ratcheted up my research, cited sources, used conditional language and have avoided giving any specific recommendations to the reader. Instead, I’ve tried to focus on introducing subject matter concepts and pointing them in the direction of a medical professional. I also “embed” what one would probably consider a disclaimer.

    I’ve occasionally taken that same attitude when writing about home improvement topics. I’m confident that my advice about cutting drywall won’t kill anyone, but I’m not about to suggest that anyone but a licensed professional should mess around with electricity.

    The fact that there’s a lot of bad advice out there on the ‘Net doesn’t surprise me. There’s plenty of in the “real world,” too. What does surprise me is when I see it coming from people who obviously aren’t “hobbyists.”

    It’s one thing to find a poorly written (not so) helpful hint from someone who obviously doesn’t know the difference between a vitamin and Vicodin. When I see potentially dangerous junk coming from talented writers who clearly take pride in the quality of their *writing*, I’m amazed.

    I’m even more amazed that the purchasers of the content would publish it. All moral and ethical obligations aside, those articles represent a huge steaming pile of potential liability.

    With respect the whole of your post… I agree that it doesn’t make any sense to compare every use of the written word with the literary ideal. Different publications (online and offline) serve different needs and taking some to task for a failure to meet standards in which they’re not even remotely interested seems silly to me.

    I proofread client work, but I don’t spend a great deal of time proofreading my blog posts, comments, etc. As such, I leave a trail of typos behind me wherever I go. I hope that if I type “Sshe” instead of “She,” “theyre” instead of “they’re” or (God forbid) “loose” instead of “lose,” that folks will be willing to look past it every once in awhile instead of playing Webster or whacking me with the Hammer of Grammar.

    Groovy post and thanks for mentioning mine!

  5. The paragraph re: typos vs. quality really resonates with me. That is the real danger of content mills. They are putting out huge volumes of lightly researched material that ranks very high on search engines. However, the remedy to this is to teach students how to identify reputable sources. My wife is a librarian at a high school and she makes this a core piece of her education.

    And I agree with you about the news issue, too. I think the problem with news runs much deeper than the people who regurgitate what the 24 hour cable news is already spouting. Even CNN is guilty of the headline that ends with a question mark (“Global Warming Proved a Hoax?”), which makes me die a little inside each time I see it.

    That being said, I am very discouraged by the state of the content I regularly find when running search engine queries. I feel like that the only good reads I find are ones recommended via Twitter or linked from another respectable blog. The top 10 results on any given search query is now just filled with Associated Content, Examiner, Helium, EZineArticles, eHow and other sites that are likely to have little to offer.

    • Ezine articles is a huge sore spot for me because it’s mostly filled with articles selling something. It’s affiliate links or articles used to drive traffic. I really wish the owners of these types of places would at least enforce a disclaimer policy.

      • Disclaimers? Now there’s the thing. Expecting a disclaimer presupposes that a given site’s content is intended as legitimate information in the first place. For many of the sites, content is intended only as bait. The artifical lure needs only to look like a tasty minnow long enough to get the fish to click. So while accuracy, quality, and the authoritative expertise of a writer would seem a no-brainer, it’s not even on the list of concerns for some. So while I admire your optimism and support your push for higher standards, it’s a little like expecting full-disclosure in a prospectus for a scam investment.

  6. Hubby just sent me an email from work using loose instead of lose. He’s a writer too and since it was a personal email I’ll let him off… this time. ;)

  7. I’ve kept quiet about the Writers Weekly/Demand Studios saga until this morning, when I wrote about it on my newest blog. As I proofread I noticed that I had written “write” where I should have written “right.” It happens to the best of us. :)

  8. Ah Deb – your proofreading slack does bug me. In general, I tend to take posts, articles, books – anything really – less seriously if there are typos, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, etc. As you said – the writer should bear responsibility for their own writing. Yet you let your own work here slip through with a mistake:

    “and it’s the editor’s responsibility to to edit.”

    Hire me Deb! Let me proofread your posts. I value your quality thoughts and keep reading – but it pains me to overlook the typos. I make the effort to read what you have to say. I want you to make the effort to keep it looking professional.

  9. Carson’s post was tacky in terms of low-rent language, repetitive, needed editing and bashed someone who genuinely tries to help writers. He even admitted he didn’t proof it. Gosh, who wouldn’t hire him?

    • I don’t know, Star. Your comments here are always anything but positive, yet you seem to find clients. I suppose there’s a market for everything?

      I know I’ve told you this about a kajillion time, but please read our comment policy regarding personal attacks. Thank you.

      • Hi Star. Sorry you didn’t like my blog post or my language choice. I suppose we could dig up some of your more interesting blog posts and take a bright red pen to them, too. We’d have to find one first, though. Care to point me to a few of your greatest hits so we can subject them to a quality review?

        I don’t know why you’ve maintained this bizarre five-year snarky vendetta with me. I must really get under your skin because it seems almost personal. You frequently have something negative to say, but those remarks never really get to the substance of the issues under discussion.

        Maybe we should get together some time and hash things out. You might just find that, colorful language aside, I’m not that bad of a guy. Drinks are on me.

        Have a great weekend. I’m going to spend the rest of mine enjoying some family time.

        Your cheeseball bottom-feeding amigo,
        Carson

  10. This is where i come in and steer the conversation back on topic. I really hate deleting rude comments, so if we can keep it respectable, I’d be grateful.

    Let’s steer it back – Is it bad content or bad proofreading and who bears the responsibility for ensuring writers put out clean, factually correct work every time?

  11. You know, at least half of my friends do not live in an English speaking country. English does not come naturally for them at all and at times they write in ways that are not so easy to follow.

    I learned a long time ago that the quality of the ideas expressed and the quality of the presentation are not so much divorced as they are “never married”. I don’t have a copy in front of me to check right now, but I have no doubt that NBC’s piece on exploding Ford gas tanks from a few years back was masterfully written by writers who know how to craft a sentence perfectly. It was still factually incorrect, intellectually disingenuous and absolutely garbage.

    Meanwhile my friend Vlad writes incomplete sentences, one word paragraphs and misspells every eighth word, but to hell if I haven’t learned many valuable things from him.

    I guess that was a long way around saying “spot on”.

  12. I do have to admit that “loose” instead of “lose” irritates me greatly. I think it’s because I see this typo all over the Internet.

  13. That’s why it is best to know if your proofreader has a wide knowledge in different fields. Bad information=quality & reputation

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