One of the most popular articles on The Proofreader’s Parlour is a guest post contributed by my colleague Shani D’Cruze [find her on LinkedIn) in 2012: “Can you proofread my thesis by tomorrow?” – Editorial Freelancing in the Student Market. It’s not just popular; it’s also professional – its content addresses an important issue that many editorial freelancers wonder about (the ethical issues of working with students); and it’s well researched and cites its sources to professional academic standards. Shani’s a scholar as well as an editor, and it shows in the way she presents her ideas and in the way she backs up those ideas by linking to evidence from other sources. Whether every reader will agree with her is not the point. The point is that her article has rigour.
Just how original are we, really?
How many of us have ever had a truly independent thought or idea that no one else has considered? We’re social creatures. Our ideas and opinions are always shaped by those with whom we work, live, socialize, learn from, and engage with face to face and online. Whatever we think, say, write, blog about – it’s all moulded by our interaction with other people.
For example, I’ve considered the issue of editorial rates here on the Proofreader’s Parlour. But Rich Adin, Erin Brenner, Melanie Thompson and Adrienne Montgomery are just a few examples of colleagues who have rich and valuable material in print and online to help editorial freelancers think about the money questions. If I want to improve the quality and integrity of my articles on editorial pricing, it makes sense to ensure I refer my readers to these or other appropriate resources when I’m blogging. Why? Corina Koch MacLeod of Beyond Paper Editing explains:
[C]iting your sources lends your writing credibility ("Hey! I’m not the only one who has raised this issue"), and it’s important to give credit to the author, even if you disagree with his/her position. Your readers will then see that you give credit where it’s due, and that you trust them to come to their own conclusions, therefore incurring the reader’s trust in what you have to say. The blogosphere is a conversation, and it’s good manners to address speakers.” (You've Got Style, Douglas and MacLeod*)
Trust, credibility, manners – three great reasons to cite others. And what’s to lose? There’s no disadvantage to offering readers access to other resources that can help them to see the bigger picture. There’s no disadvantage to demonstrating an awareness that ours isn’t the only voice.
Why we sometimes drop the ball
I know why I’ve not been as diligent with sourcing other views on a topic I’m discussing (it’s not an excuse but an explanation) – blogging is something that I do in my spare time, squashed hastily into the small space left over once I’ve attended to work and family commitments. It’s much the same for many of my editorial colleagues who blog. Writing regular content, and maintaining the passion for doing so, means blogging is often a fast-and-loose process (unlike writing a book, for example) – we get an idea and try to take it from brain to blog when we find that spare half hour.
There’s a sense of informality to it, of sharing a stream of consciousness. For me, that’s the danger point – I’m so busy trying to get the ideas out that I know there have been times when I’ve not just stopped, stepped back and considered waiting for yet another spare half hour in a few days’ time to help me go that extra mile and research what else our community is saying that’s relevant to the readers of my article.
But there's another issue – and for me it's a much trickier one to come to terms with. I recently published an article that was inspired by two authors – one with whom I agreed and one whom I felt had given bad advice. I chose to cite and link to the author with whom I had sympathy and omit any mention of the author whose advice had irritated me. I simply kept the point general. My justification at the time was that I didn't want to drive traffic towards information that I thought was poor. But in doing so, I took the choice away from my readers. I didn't trust them to come to their own conclusions. A few weeks ago I was convinced I'd made a good decision. Lately I've been questioning that decision. I've realized that I don't always write my blog articles in the same way I write my books. And that's got me thinking ... did my decision mean I sacrificed trust, credibility and manners in order to control my blog, my space, for my ideas? Have I compromised respect for my readers and their ability to judge for themselves? Sticky questions.
When one has put a lot of effort into building a vibrant blog, the idea of giving attributed, linked space to those with whom we disagree can be testing. Balancing the feeling that we reserve the right to publish and cite what we like with a readiness to trust our readers' ability to make their own decisions is so very hard! But academics do this every time they write a book or a journal article. For me, that's something worth paying attention to.
Have my past blog articles been as rigorous as they could be in terms of citing other relevant sources, other voices? Sometimes? Often? Nearly always? I’m not sure of the answer to that. Certainly the I case cited above has given me food for thought. What I am sure of is that I want to do better. I know I can do better. Just making a commitment to stopping, stepping back each time and thinking about what else is out there that’s relevant to what I’m saying means it should be better. As will having the courage to give linked/cited space to viewpoints with which I disagree.
One thing's for sure – when we commit to rigour, we take an important step towards substantively improving the quality of what we do. Given that most bloggers are passionate about their blogging, embracing rigour is a no-brainer.
Yes, blogging is fast and loose. Yes, it’s informal. Yes, there’s bound to be an overlap of ideas. Yes, there's bound to be a difference of ideas. But don't I owe it to my colleagues and readers to ensure that I cover the bases? Don't we all as soon as we decide to carve out a space for ourselves in the blogosphere?
If you’re thinking of setting up a blog as part of your editorial business communication strategy, you might like to take a look at Corey Eridon’s useful guidelines on internet etiquette and attribution (How Not to Steal People's Content on the Web, 2012), including citing blog articles, social media content, guest and ghost writers, and images – all the recommendations are sensible and digestible.
Eridon emphasises that sharing is good for business, but attribution is key: "Share content; share links; share ideas; share data; you name it. In fact, the inbound marketers who love to share usually see fantastic results because of it! ... You're supposed to share content, but you're also supposed to give credit where credit is due" (ibid.).
A commitment to a more rigorous search for alternative viewpoints, and the appropriate attribution, takes more time and effort, but actually not that much more when one’s dealing with 1500 words of copy. Academics are required to carry out these searches (and attribute accordingly) as standard. Many of us in the editorial community are paid to check that they are doing it well.
With that in mind, should editor/proofreader bloggers aspire to the same standards as a matter of course? Should we, in a bid to give space to alternative viewpoints, always seek to include links to others' relevant content, and are we obliged to do so even when we don't agree with the author's line? Or is the blogosphere a space that should embrace more flexibility, where the blogger reserves the right to control their space more tightly? More sticky questions, no doubt with sticky answers!
*You've Got Style by Carla Douglas and C.K. MacLeod is due for publication in 2014. I thank the authors for their permission to quote material from this book prior to publication.
About Louise Harnby
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing and Proofreading Business. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn.
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I am an Advanced Professional Member of the UK's national editorial society. Visit the SfEP website for more information.
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