Everyone makes mistakes. Whether you do one post per week or 50, something is going to go wrong and it is important to be prepared for those mistakes before they happen.
They key to respect and trust while blogging is not to never make a mistake (though keeping them to a minimum is important), but rather, to handle the ones you do make gracefully while learning from them.
So how should a blogger handle their mistakes? There are many different rules and suggestions, but there are a few generally well-accepted practices that seem to work in most cases.
Spelling, Grammar and Minor Changes
If you make a mistake that is not a matter of fact, such as spelling, grammar or punctuation, you can usually just push a corrected version live and not make any note of it. Though some sites and forums have a custom regarding noting that a post was “edited for grammar”, the specific error usually isn’t cited and this is only common when posts automatically display an “edited by” time stamp.
For the most part, if you find a grammar and/or spelling error that does not change the meaning of a post, you should feel free to edit it and move on. Mistakes happen but it is better to fix the mistake, when practical, than leave it.
Minor Factual Errors
Errors of fact are the most difficult to deal with. Some bloggers have the instinct to quickly rush in and fix the mistake, others want to delete the post and still others want to just create a new one. Unfortunately, none of those responses work out great in the end.
Fixing the mistake with no mention does not allow those who come later to understand that there has been a correction, deleting the post does nothing to fix the error and creating a new post, though a good solution for RSS subscribers, does nothing to help those who stumble upon the first post from Google or via an external link.
If the error is relatively minor and doesn’t change the overall post, such as getting a person’s name or a specific fact wrong, WordPress offers a simple solution to the problem, namely the strikethrough button. If you use the HTML editor, you’ll notice a “del” button at the top and those who prefer the visual editor will see what looks like the “ABC” but with a line through it. What it does is strikes through the text you want to remove and, in the HTML code, adds a time stamp for when the change was made.
I am striking through this text and, if you view the source, you’ll see that it adds a “datetime=”2009-05-19T19:31:01+00:00″” to the tag, indicating when I pressed the button.
Then, in the post itself, you can add the correct information after the strikethrough, either as a parenthetical or as new text.
This lets readers of the post know that there was an error, what it was, and what the change is. This keeps transparency to the maximum and, since strikethrough text is very visible, it actually draws people to the error, unlike a correction in a footnote.
Major Factual Errors
If the entire crux of your article has been compromised, more drastic action may be necessary. For example, if you wrote a post about an upcoming game being released next week and, it turns out, that the game won’t be released for another year, a simple strikethrough will probably not be enough.
Though these errors should be fairly rare, especially for blogs that attempt to follow up and do their homework, they can still happen. Fixing them, however, is no simple task.
It is important, first and foremost, to make sure that readers who stumble across the existing post know that the story is an error. Posting a header saying that the story is “Updated” with the new information at the top of the story is a good beginning. If needed, you can provide additional information in an update section at the end of the post, similar to what others do when a breaking story is unfolding, but it is important to ensure that every reader of the post sees the new information first.
However, given the nature of RSS and that many readers may not have read the full story but did skim the headline, it may be wise to go ahead and post a new entry on the topic, one you can reference prominently in the original post. If the post in error is short, you can consider doing a massive strikethrough and adding new text at the bottom. However, removing the erroneous information, without at least explaining what it was, gives the appearance of trying to “hide” the error. Given the fact that Google Cache and the Web Archive both likely have old copies of the page, it may not do much good anyway.
Being upfront about the error and doing everything you can to clarify it is, quite literally, the best thing you can do for your reputation and for yourself legally.
If you’re lucky, you will spot the error yourself and can handle it appropriately. However, odds are that most errors will be pointed out to you by readers, either via comments or emails. Should that happen, it is important to acknowledge and thank the reader for their help, ideally in the comments and in the post itself if appropriate.
Remember, you want to encourage people to notify you of corrections and inform you when you make mistakes. For every person that lets you know of an error, it is probable that a dozen saw it and said nothing. Readers who report mistakes are not your enemies, they’re people trying to help you and should be treated as such.
There are many blogs and Web sites that seem to let mistakes languish even after they learn that they aren’t true. In addition to harming their reputation (this is a common practice of gossip sites), it also carries with it legal risks.
Defamation law, in this case libel, makes it very dangerous to knowingly publish false information that may harm the reputation of another. Though defamation suits over Web postings are still fairly rare, they are becoming increasingly common and the damages awarded have been very high.
Though a good correction policy may not remedy all of the legal issues of publishing false information in the first place, it makes a lawsuit much less likely and mitigates against any damages that could be awarded.
Though it is best to be accurate with everything you publish but it is equally important to be ready in the event of a mistake to handle it swiftly, accurately and with transparency. Giving your readers the appearance that you are hiding your mistakes or simply doing nothing about them may not only hurt your reputation among your readers, but also may hurt your chances in the courtroom.
Since we’re all human, it is best to start planning for our mistakes before they happen even as we work to ensure that we don’t make them in the first place. Though no one wants to go through the humiliation of having to publicly admit they were wrong, it’s a part of life on the Web and a part of being a responsible person both online and off.
The good news is that very few mistakes are lethal. Most people get up the next morning and resume blogging none the worse for the wear. The only way most mistakes can become disastrous is through poor handling of them.
If you plan smart, keep your mistakes to a minimum and are open about the errors you do make, most people will forgive you for being human.