Student guest post: The importance of online editing

by andybechtel

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Laura Hoxworth is a senior studying reporting and French at UNC-Chapel Hill. She loves traveling, everything to do with language, and occasionally playing the ukulele. Follow her on Twitter or check out her blog at http://curelesscuriosity.wordpress.com.

Copy editing is a thankless job. When it’s done well, it’s invisible – and, as follows, it’s one of those jobs that readers only notice if it’s done badly. And according to new research, they will notice.

In a presentation given at the American Copy Editors Society conference in Phoenix, Wayne State University Assistant Professor Fred Vultee showed that readers have an idea of what a good news story looks like and will notice significant grammar errors or confusing organization.

The problem is, with the rise of blogging, citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle, online editing often gets shoved out of the way by a pressing emphasis on speed. But according to this research, while readers might rarely finish a good article and exclaim, “Wow, that was some fantastic editing,” they will notice bad (or nonexistent) editing. And that will come back to haunt you.

This seems to go against the newer trend of speed over accuracy. But I would argue that solid editing is even more important when it comes to the Internet. Here’s why: With such an abundance of information and a wide spectrum of credible and not-so-credible sources online, significant errors in online stories (particularly at a website without a well-known print edition) are more likely to affect readers’ perceptions of the website’s credibility in general.

Catching an error in print is less of a big deal because the reader knows, on some level, that establishing a print publication takes time, people, money and a certain amount of credibility. Websites can be thrown together by anyone. Catching an error online is more likely to make the reader doubt the website’s credibility, and turning to another news source takes just the click of a mouse.

This research is an interesting addition to the debate on the evolving state of journalism, but I think it’s good evidence that we can’t sacrifice copy editing for speed, especially online.

There’s also the bigger picture. We need to remember the purpose of those things we editors hold close to our hearts: grammar, punctuation, organization, etc. It’s all for the sake of clarity. As Vultee noted, no one is going to blacklist a publication (or a blog) for a misplaced modifier. But the goal of copy editing is to get the point across in the most clear and effective way.

So while it’s important that websites stand by copy editing to avoid damaging their credibility, producing clean copy should be about more than whether readers will notice it or not. Maybe they don’t notice us (as they shouldn’t, if we’re doing our job well). Regardless, producing the best copy possible is a way of showing respect to our readers and demonstrating that our first priority is making sure they understand what’s going on.

And let’s be real: If we don’t have copy editors to look out for grammar and organization, who will?

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