How to “Take Back” an Online Error

Facepalm

Everyone makes mistakes, but if you goof online at your author website or in social media, the potential for ruin these days is downright scary. That doesn’t mean you should hide in fear or shame. Handling a correction or retraction with grace and honesty will assure readers that you are professional and trustworthy.*

I’m not talking about fixing a careless typo in a website or tweet, in which case a quiet correction or deletion might be the best course. I’m thinking about times when the error is controversial or dramatic, when the original post is likely to have been quoted or reposted elsewhere, or when the error has the potential to hassle or harm readers or smudge your reputation. A book reviewer gets the book title wrong; a food writer botches a recipe; a novelist pushing out chapter 32 of a serial is reminded by readers that a character featured in chapter 31 died in chapter 17—each must decide on the best course. At some point, so-called stealth editing becomes unacceptable.

Is a Change Necessary?

Start by deciding whether it’s necessary to revise your post. Ask yourself what harm or inconvenience the original information might cause if left uncorrected.

  • Will it create an inconsistency in your style or message that will distract readers and raise questions? Some audiences have a greater tolerance for imperfection than others.
  • Could it inconvenience or endanger readers who use the misinformation?
  • Could the error inflict emotional pain?
  • Could it damage your personal relationships with others?
  • Will it harm your credibility or professional standing or sales of your work?
  • Does the error violate the stated rules of a closed group?
  • Does it violate the customs and expectations of the community or platform?
  • Could there be legal repercussions?

Making the Change

Once you’re sure a correction is needed, how best to proceed? How you correct an error is just as important as whether you correct it at all.

Corrections in blog posts and pages

In increasing degrees of transparency, here are some choices for correcting a blog post or web page.

Silent correction. Fix the error without comment. This is usually appropriate for minor spelling and grammar goofs, especially for a post that’s only been up for a short while and hasn’t begun to get attention, or for an old post that’s all but forgotten, and when the error isn’t likely to harm or inconvenience anyone.

Acknowledgment without specifics. Make the change or changes silently, but note at the end of the sentence, paragraph, or post that it has been edited. The location of your note will give more or less of a clue to the nature of the corrections without spelling them out. Use square brackets to signal that your note was added by the author or editor (see CMOS 6.99). Adding your initials or name is optional if you’re the only writer involved.

[Updated June 15, 2020.—NFE]

[2020-06-15: Corrected to reflect recent events.]

Acknowledgment of specific changes. Change the text silently, but in your note explain what you did. Apologize if appropriate. Note how the first example’s use of the passive voice shows less ownership of the error than the second example. This “mistakes were made” approach is best reserved for mundane errors.

[June 15, 2020: “1876” corrected to “1874.”]

[Correction, June 15, 2020: Throughout my original post, I confused Sapinski with Karpaski. I’m sorry for the confusion! It’s fixed now.—Rufus]

Option: In rare instances, it might be useful to show the editing in place by striking through deletions and underlining insertions.

In 2012 Karpaski Sapinski wrote a vicious review of Sapinski’s Karpaski’s novel, and sales dropped immediately. [Edited June 15, 2020.]

Prominent announcement of corrections. This kind of correction is best for when your original post could cause real trouble. Change the text and place a date-stamped note at the top of the post explaining that it was edited, with whatever specifics you think are needed. Use a different size or color of type for the note or put it in bold or italics for visibility.

NOTE, June 15, 2020: The original version of this essay contained a number of errors in my quotations from Renny Stern’s poetry, which have now been corrected. I’m very sorry for any inconvenience.—R.

CORRECTION, 2020.06.15: In my original post, I accidentally omitted the word “not” from the first sentence, which made me appear to say the opposite of what I meant. Many readers wrote to express shock and anger. I feel terrible about this; I hope you will forgive the lapse.—Gertie

NOTE: In the original version of this essay, I wrote “Sapinski” every time I meant “Karpaski” and vice versa. I’m very sorry for the confusion. The names have now been corrected.—Rufus, June 15, 2020

Announcement without corrections. Occasionally a writer will note an error without changing the original post, perhaps feeling that it’s dishonest to change the original in any way. This is rarely a good idea. It puts an unreasonable burden on readers to sort out the correct information, and it increases the chance that the error will continue to spread if your original text is copied and pasted for quotation elsewhere without mentioning the mix-up. If you have a good reason to make the original version available, paste a note at the top that the post contains errors and add a link to the corrected version.

Corrections in social media

As with website posts and pages, corrections in social media posts call for judgment. If the platform allows editing and automatically labels changed comments and posts as “edited” (such as on Facebook and Instagram), it’s easy to fix a mistake using any of the tactics mentioned above to acknowledge a correction.

Some platforms, notably Twitter, don’t accommodate corrections. In that case, if you spot an error within minutes of posting, the best course is to delete the item and post a revised one. If you find the error after your post has been shared, deleting the original is not always wise—especially if you’re a celebrity whose posts are instantly shared and reshared. It’s better to be up-front about the mistake.

How to go about it?

Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute writes frequently about correcting online errors. His article “How to Correct Website and Social Media Errors Effectively” (American Press Institute, September 24, 2014) is well worth your time. Although Silverman’s focus is on journalism, much of his advice is applicable to creative writers who post online. A few ideas I liked best:

  • At platforms like Twitter that don’t allow original posts to be edited, Silverman would resist deleting the original. Instead, he suggests, write your correction in a reply to or a comment on your original post so it will be permanently linked to the original. Use ALL CAPS to shout the correction.
  • To help spread the word, send corrections to those who shared or retweeted your original (or at least to the most influential ones).
  • Thank the person who pointed out the error.

For especially egregious errors, Silverman recommends also posting a new, separate notice of the correction that links to the original post or includes a screenshot of the original with the correction.

Deleting Instead of Correcting

Given the difficulties in truly ridding the internet of anything once it has appeared, deleting content tends to cast more suspicion on the deleter than an honest admission of error. If the material is dangerous in some way, however, delete it and replace it with an explanation. On the other hand, it’s normally unnecessary to delete content merely because it’s out of date, as long as the original date of the post is displayed. If the out-of-date material warrants revisiting in a new post, add a note at the top of the old post providing a link to the new one.


* For corrections to published books and journal articles, see CMOS 1.68, 1.90–91, and 1.112.

Photo: Facepalm, by Hobvias Sudoneighm, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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