We all experience things in life out of our control, from work-related issues to family drama to genetic impacts on our health and well-being. Unfortunately, depending on the circumstances, it may not be obvious to others when we might be affiliated with something we cannot manage, direct, or change.
When Writing Spirals Out of Control
As a writer, I’ve had many times when readers misinterpret articles I’ve written, or else come across articles that, despite having my name as a byline, are far out of my control. When those articles are about birds, tempers can become heated and I’ve been subject to more than one passionate criticism for something I had no hand in.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 2003, and have published thousands of articles for a wide range of clients – newspapers, magazines, newsletters, blogs, websites. Early in my career it was still the era of self-addressed, stamped envelopes and print publications, with articles carefully curated prior to publication. Once printed, an article did not change, as even today the technology does not exist to edit or update a piece when hundreds or thousands of copies have already reached the physical hands of readers.
In the digital age we all now inhabit, however, writing is much different. While I carefully vet every article I submit to a client, ensuring clean copy, accurate facts, and eye-friendly formatting, once I submit the piece and it is published on whatever platform the client uses, the article is out of my control. Any number of people – editors, website designers, coders, etc. – can change the piece at any time, with just a few taps of the keyboard.
Over time, I’ve had many articles dramatically altered after I submit them. In the print era, this typically included a discussion between myself and an editor to ensure the piece stayed true to its intent, as there was no going back after publication. Today, however, a piece can be quickly and mercilessly changed even years later, and I receive no notification of that fact. There is virtually no attempt to keep an author apprised, especially should the writer no longer be actively working for that same online publication or client.
I’ve worked for dozens of different clients over the course of my career, and as clients’ needs change or focuses shift, contracts, work, and commitments come and go – that is the nature of the business. But this means, however, that my work is frequently out of my control.
Bird Articles Flying Free
This can be especially troublesome as online articles have become more visual over the years, relying on photos to catch readers’ eyes. While my text is always carefully written, I don’t always have input into what photos may be associated with a piece.
Several times, I’ve had completely inaccurate photos added to an article – wrong species, incorrect geography, misinterpreted behavior. As a writer, I don’t control the visuals of a piece, and while I can sometimes bring such issues to the attention of a senior editor or site manager, often nothing is changed.
Even when such issues are flagrant errors – a photo of kingfishers in an article about hummingbirds, for example – corrections are not often a priority. Instead, the focus is always on more new content, more quickly, because with so much information available to readers, a fast pace is essential to keep ahead of competing markets.
I don’t blame those who introduce errors – we are all human, and mistakes can and do happen. But those errors become associated with the byline – the author’s name – with no mention of who may have been responsible for adding poor photos, committing formatting errors, or inadvertently introducing typos into a piece.
At that point, I tend to get angry emails from readers. As a digital author, I keep an active online presence, not just through this blog but through social media, author pages, and online resumes. This makes it easy for a concerned reader to contact me, and I encourage such communication. What I don’t encourage but am still subject to, however, is denigration and insults.
I have had my writing critiqued in emails full of errors and misspellings, my resources questioned by readers who provide no resources of their own, and my experience slandered by those who have never written professionally. I’ve been called names, told I should never write again, and been ordered to instantly correct articles I wrote years ago, that have changed many times since out of my hands and belong to clients I haven’t worked for in years.
I wish I could correct every error introduced to work I’ve created, to protect the integrity not just of my professional presence, but of the articles I provide, because I believe in my writing and want to share it with readers. I don’t, however, have that power – no writer in the digital age does. Trust me when I say it makes us all angry, no writer likes to see their work twisted or warped, and no writer wants to mislead readers or be associated with inaccuracies or sloppy work.
What We Can Control
But what can we do? Remain civil to one another, no matter how impassioned we may become. I welcome all readers’ emails and messages, but no one has the right to be disrespectful or insulting to anyone, no matter the topic or circumstances. I always try to respond to readers politely, explaining the situation and expressing my regrets for the misinformation or other concern, even if it is most decidedly out of my control. I understand passion, and passion about birds is one thing that binds us all as birders. I cherish that connection.
In these days of heated passions on a wide range of topics far beyond birding, we should all try to practice a bit more civility. There are many storms in life, and often we have to fly straight into them and face our challenges head-on. We can do so with the grace of birds in flight, or we can create even more turbulent storms with rudeness, accusations, and inflexibility to others’ unique circumstances.
How will you fly?