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Editing Lessons

Talking about editing with my composition students the past couple of weeks has got me thinking about the way I edit my own writing, especially these blog posts for The Chronicle.

I know—you probably think I just dash these off without much thought, and some of my posts may have reinforced that impression. But I actually spend a great deal of time trying to get them just right. In The Chronicle, I have a very large potential audience. There’s no quicker or more thorough way to embarrass myself professionally, and perhaps personally, than by saying something really stupid in one of these posts.

Thankfully, I have wonderful editors whose job is to keep me from saying anything too stupid, and they usually succeed. Most of the time, they make me look like a much better writer than I really am, for which I’m grateful.

But even knowing that they have my back doesn’t prevent me from editing obsessively. In fact, the longer I blog, the more obsessive I become, because I learn more with each post about the sorts of things I ought to be paying attention to. I no longer edit just for style and content, or merely to catch typos. I’ve learned that I have to do at least three other types of edits before I hit the “send” button.

First is the “fact-check edit,” to make certain that if I’ve stated something as fact, it is indeed fact and I can prove it. I used to make statements, occasionally, that I just assumed everyone agreed with and accepted as fact, without offering any supporting evidence. These are blog posts, after all, not peer-reviewed journal articles—or so I reasoned. But I’ve figured out that you can’t take anything for granted. A commenter (or 20) is sure to ask, “Where’s your evidence for that?”

Even in a blog post, if it’s for an academic audience, you’d better have a good answer. In fact, it’s much better to provide the evidence up front, in the form of a link, before the opposition has a chance to pounce. Either that, or revise the statement so it’s clearly offering an opinion or referencing general consensus, not stating a fact. And even then, unless the opinion is purely personal, it’s not a bad idea to provide a link.

Next is the “liability edit,” designed to make sure I don’t get sued. I often employ experienced-based examples in my posts, as you may have noticed, but of course I’ve got to take great care that no one I depict in a negative light is identifiable—or at least that I’ve got plausible deniability. (“No, of course I wasn’t talking about you.”) I made the mistake a few years ago of skating pretty close to the edge a couple of times, and I was more than a little nervous for a few months afterward. Fortunately, the statute of limitations has long passed, but I don’t want to deal with that kind of stress again.

Finally there’s the “offensiveness edit,” requiring me to read through the post one last time, asking myself if I’ve said anything that might offend anyone. This is the hardest edit of all, because it’s becoming more difficult every day to predict what might be offensive. Sometimes the most innocuous-seeming throwaway lines end up angering some small group of readers that I had no idea existed and certainly didn’t intend to set off.

The only surefire way to avoid all offense in a piece of writing is to place the cursor at the end and hold down the backspace key until all the text disappears. But of course I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’ve just got to try to be careful and, if I do inadvertently offend, apologize quickly in the comments section.

And if I advertently offend—well, at least I’ll try to provide a link.

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