Sunday, March 12, 2017

If strangers make mistakes, should you correct them?

Recently, I was forwarded a link to an opinion column written by a recent college graduate. In the column, the writer wrote passionately and clearly about the challenges she and others faced trying to search for jobs in Manhattan where, according to the Elliman Report, the average rental price for a one-bed apartment runs $3,933, and the median rental price is $3,369. Rents were high, the kinds of writing jobs she sought were scarce and she had little luck securing offers, but, nevertheless, she persisted.

It was clear from the writer's bio that she had been quite active trying to create a portfolio of writing to show potential employees. In addition to the column I read, she also had created a few different websites focusing on travel and entertainment.

When reading her opinion column on a website where writers appear to edit their own pieces, however, it was impossible not to notice that it contained several typographical, grammar, and usage errors. Immediately, my mind went to the fact that any prospective employer checking out the writer's online pieces would more than likely be concerned about finding such errors when considering her for a writing position.

In addition to writing a weekly ethics column, my full-time job is teaching people how to write, or, more accurately, to write better. I urge students regularly to remember that whatever they publish on the internet, whether it pays them a handsome fee or is done gratis, should be as polished and professional as possible since readers will judge the quality of their work by what's out there.

As an associate who works in Manhattan and whose opinion I respect pointed out, however, the column writer was not a student of mine and I had no relationship to her. I'd never read any of her work before her column was shared with me. My associate advised that if the writer had been one of her employees or a mentee, she would find a way to talk with her about the mistakes. "If not, I don't think I would discuss it directly."

But it nagged at me whether the right thing for me to do would be to contact the writer and offer her some unsolicited feedback. The risk might be that such an email might strike her as condescending or odd given that she didn't know me from Adam.

I emailed the writer, mentioned that I enjoyed reading her column, but pointed out that it contained quite a few errors. Within minutes, she responded, thanking me for my honesty and asking if I had any suggestions on how she might improve her self-editing skills. I directed her to some online writing, editing, and grammar sites. I also suggested she consider attending one of the seminars offered by The Op-Ed Project, an enterprise set up to train under-represented experts write and place strong opinion columns. (Full disclosure, I am a volunteer mentor-editor with the project.) The writer graciously thanked me and indicated she planned to follow up on the suggestions.

It would have been simpler not to say anything, and to hope that someone who knew the writer would offer advice. But contacting her took little effort, seemed the right thing to do, and was what I hoped someone would have done for me when I was starting out on my career. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, while I support your unbidden help to your contact(s), it seems to me that this type of help, while justified, sadly points out a common finding in younger people. In other words, I am sorry to say that many younger people commonly have the trait of, while being bright and eager, unfortunately, as a group, too many younger people have apparently grown up exhibiting the careless traits you pointed out. I think it was correct of you to point out the errors, but it is sad to see that younger people have grown up not learning proper punctuation and spelling skills.

Charlie Seng

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