Editing matters to readers. Many smart people know it and therefore use copy editors. Other smart people are a bit overconfident and don’t recognize that their writing has flaws, or are misguided and don’t see the importance of what an editor could do.
Carelessness in writing erodes credibility. A new university research project offers substantiation. I was there when Fred Vultee of Wayne State presented the study results at the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference in Phoenix this past March.
Editing the news
In the study, participants read several edited and unedited newspaper articles. (I’m leaving out particulars. As William Safire would say, “you could look it up.”) Vultee measured the readers’ assessments. Among other findings, the study determined that:
- Readers notice grammar errors and find them troubling and distracting.
- Readers notice errors of consistency, writing that is confusing, and words that are misspelled or misused.
- Readers can tell edited from unedited stories in significant ways.
- Editing makes a statistically significant and moderately strong difference in the way audiences perceive the professionalism, writing quality, organization, and value of news articles.
Editing informal writing
The Wayne State study involved news articles. Readers expect a certain standard for news writing; after all, newspapers employ professional journalists and copy editors who are supposed to get it right.
But what is expected outside the world of news publishing? Do readers of other kinds of information care about professional writing versus amateurish writing? Let’s take one of the most casual kinds of writing: reviews posted online by consumers.
As a matter of fact, readers of online comments care too.
On May 10, Slate reported on research conducted by Panos Ipeirotis at NYU’s Stern School of Business. The professor studied consumer reviews posted on the Internet. As it turns out, negative reviews that are well written help sell more products than glowing reviews that are poorly written. Companies have discovered that their customers’ ability to write well is a reflection on the businesses. As Slate’s Michael Agger points out, “If a bunch of illiterate people like to stay at a certain hotel,” the hotel suffers for the flattering yet ungrammatical reviews posted online. But “if someone can’t spell awsum, we may be inclined to devalue their opinion of trail running shoes.”
Editing for business
Wayne State’s study participants drew conclusions about a newspaper’s quality from grammar errors they’d noticed. Companies wanting to drive sales are challenged by their customers’ inability to spell in online reviews.
How important is it, then, for professional firms to use copy editors before presenting proposals and reports to clients? Is a company’s high regard chipped away when it delivers documents containing flaws? You bet it is.
Weakness in writing reflects poorly on a firm, distracts readers from intended messages, and undermines trust.