Amateur Writing Mistakes Kill Credibility

Watch out when you cut yourself. According to an otherwise very professional-looking medical website, you might get a ‘staff’ infection.

Somebody wrote that — really?

Yes, really. I went on a recent late night hunt for information about preventing infection and there on quite a spiffy medical site was that little gem: one risk if wounds aren’t cleaned properly is a staff infection.

I clicked out and kept on hunting for trustworthy information. If the writers of that article don’t know the difference between ‘staph’ as in staphylococcus, and ‘staff,’ I’m doubtful if their medical advice is reliable.

Maybe that was one of those late night spell checker goofs we all know about. But we also know why proofreading with your own little eyeballs is also essential - spell check is not always your friend.

Or maybe the writer really thought that’s how you spell the shortened form of staphylococcus.

Any way you cut it, though, that error undermined the site’s authority.

The error itself is a common one. It has to do with the phenomenon of homophony — two words are spelled very differently, but sound exactly the same. More common examples include son/sun, wary/weary, the ever popular two/to/too and so on. It’s a huge problem in a language like English, where sound and spelling shifts have created many many soundalike words. And many an unwary writer has gotten trapped with this kind of mistake.

But because that’s so, it becomes essential for writers to stay on their toes. And when your words can affect someone’s health or welfare, it’s even more essential to take as much care with checking yourself as you’d expect from a medical professional.

Words matter. And the wrong one changes everything. It destroys credibility and damages the writer’s authority.

Mark Twain famously said. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” It’s a quote much beloved of writers, and something of a cliché, but the point remains true.

Words are the essential tools of the writer’s trade. It’s our job to know them intimately and use them wisely and well. Silly confusions like its and it’s may not seem particularly important but those kinds of mixups signal a writer who’s unskilled, sloppy or both.

Careless structure, bad grammar, lazy errors — writing mistakes don’t just hurt a writer’s credibility, they also drive away readers who might really need the information you’re offering.

Lightning and lightning bugs are about as similar as staff infections and staph infections. What they have in common, though, is an uncanny capacity to undermine a writers’ authority — every single time.

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