At some point in my career as a writer, I started to accept jobs that included copyediting other people’s writing. That was when I discovered something a little horrible — there are lots of terrible writers out there who think that they are excellent writers. And lord almighty, people pay them for it. The knowledge was enough to disillusion me to the point of not wanting to write for a few hours. Thankfully, I got hungry and I remembered that I needed money for food. So I got back to work.
But moving on from the horror and continuing to do my job doesn’t change the fact that I really, REALLY wish some of the people who go into professional writing these days hold up standards for their work.
It’s not like the writing profession never had standards.
It used to be that the majority of reading materials published — whether for journalism, advertisement, or literature — went through a strict editorial process which ensured that a written piece flowed right and used accurate information. The act of writing and publishing was held in such high regard and was associated with the idea of high-level craftsmanship. If you mean for anything to be published, you better make darn sure that it’s worth publishing.
These days, it’s a little bit different.
I’m not saying it’s the Internet, but it’s probably the Internet.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Internet. It ensures that I have a job even when I’m stuck at home with mustard stains on my really old (but comfortable) slacks. But I’m also aware that it’s not exactly the best place to find quality content.
Oh, sure. These days, businesses and independent professionals are all trying to leverage the Internet to create a stellar reputation for themselves. For the most part, it even works; just look at all the “gurus” we have now. The creation of good and useful content is more important than ever, especially for entities and individuals such as these. But the problem is that some methods of online promotion — black-hat SEO and the like — have made bad writing acceptable and even VALUABLE over the Internet. As long as the keywords were there a certain number of times, you can rank high in search.
It doesn’t really help that search engines rewarded a high volume of back links regardless of content quality. Of course, things have changed over the last year or so (thanks to the Google Panda and Penguin updates). But by the time the changes were made there was an entire group of people who’d benefitted from spammy and badly-written articles: the writers and article spinners who got paid for generating lots of articles for cheap, and the website owners who got high rankings for engaging in bad SEO practice. And with competition so stiff and fast-paced who has time for quality control?
Then there’s arrogance of artistry.
The other thing, apart from '90s-style SEO. that probably contributed to this sad state of affairs is the concept of “self-celebration” and “unbridled creativity” that the Internet culture fostered. We now have a generation of people who feel that everything they have to say or express is important and inherently awesome, and thus needs to be shared with the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter if what you put out there makes no sense or has grammar errors; there will be people out there who will agree with you and praise you for what you have to say.
My point is that a lot of people I’ve met who claim to be writers tend to be very sloppy with their own work because, in their heart of hearts, they feel like the raw drafts of their work are already masterpieces. If you point out that they made some kind of mistake in the blog post they published (for example), they tend to retort that Hemingway didn’t edit his own work — completely forgetting that Hemingway had an editor who cleaned up his writing before it was published.
The fact is that there are many writing guides out there that tell people to not obsess over the craftsmanship of their work for the first draft, so that they can get through it — and people like reading those. The issue comes up when the wannabe writers don’t read on (and this happens remarkably often) to find out that the point of doing that is so you can revise your work effectively at a later time. With the modern speed of life (nearly impossible to keep up with), people find waiting impractical; they’d rather post without editing just so they can be first, or just so they can get praise ASAP.
We really need to re-establish the standards
As a professional writer and copyeditor who takes pride in this line of work, being lumped in with people who don’t take this as seriously as I do can be really depressing. I’ve lost opportunities to people who charge much lower rates (despite sub-par writing) because some clients don’t see the difference between good writing and bad writing. They want to pay me ridiculously low rates because I “basically offer the same thing.” I think there really is something wrong with this picture, especially now.
If businesses and professionals really want to have a stellar online reputation, then they need to get really serious about written communication. This means making investments in terms of both time and talent. It means re-establishing standards that publishing used to have. You can do it fast, if you want, but you still have to do it RIGHT. Because the world is watching, and now WRITING MATTERS.