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Let Sanity Prevail - 3/13/2012 -

Everyone’s a publisher these days, which means more people are reading content that is not carefully crafted and edited. Don’t let the slackness seep into your own publications.

By Carla Kalogeridis
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Why has the quality of writing declined so dramatically? As someone who regularly works with good writers, editors, and professional freelancers, lately, it’s not uncommon for work to cross my desk that my old McGraw-Hill boss back in the 1980s would have tossed back at the writer after reading no more than the first couple of sentences. When and why did we make the shift from high-quality writers to high-volume, error-prone content producers?

The "democratization of publishing” is primarily responsible, according to Mark Nichol, editor of the blog, Daily Writing Tips, and a former editing instructor for UC Berkeley’s Extension program. "Thanks to the dramatic increase in options for businesses and organizations to disseminate information by way of text online and in print, and because the ease of self-publishing affords everyone access to the same media, more and more people who don’t pay attention to such details are writing and being read, which of course exposes so many more people to errors,” Nichol explains.

This means that errors in everything from hyphenation, punctuation, and spelling to grammar, syntax and usage is multiplied virally because, as Nichol points out, "fewer people are reading rigorously written and edited prose, and more people are reading writing crafted with less care.” This, he believes, is the culprit in the decline of quality in published writing over recent years.

There are two reasons that the overall quality of written content has gone slack. First, fewer people are actively seek good writing. And second, publishers and editors ("the erstwhile guardians of good writing,” as Nichol puts it) often compromise the quality of their products because they have eliminated all labor-intensive practices—including those necessary for producing high-quality writing. Without a doubt, the checks and balances found within a full-size magazine team that led to great writing in my days at McGraw-Hill are contrary to the lean staffs and lean-business strategies so prevalent on publishing teams today.

This issue brings up a question Nichol is surprised people don’t ask more often: "In the realm of writing, if so many people do something seen as wrong or nonstandard, doesn’t that make it right?” he asks. "After all, that’s how new laws are written and how societal mores changes. And that’s how language changes.” In other words, if the majority of writers write, "You and me” at the head of a sentence instead of "you and I”, what makes the former usage incorrect and the latter one deemed the acceptable way? Shouldn’t the majority rule?

The answer, Nichols says, is because language doesn’t turn on a dime. "For sanity to prevail, there must be a period of time between shifts in rules of usage and punctuation and other elements of writing,” he explains. The willful teenager says defensively, "Everybody else does it,” and the parent reacts, "Well, if everybody else went and jumped off a cliff, would you?” Nichol counters, "By the same token, we need to scold writers by saying, ‘Well, if everybody uses comma splices, does that mean you should, too?’”

In the end, Nichol says editors must remember that popular usage is not a standard, and neither is it a guidebook. His advice: Adhere to the rules—unless you have an indefensible reason to break one now and then—and exhort other writers and editors to do the same.

Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing. Thank you to Mark Nichol for granting permission to excerpt from his blog post, "The Right and Wrong of Writing.”


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