Throw a bunch of seasoned journalists in a bar and it shouldn’t take long before they start comparing war stories about assignments that went awry. Missed flights, bad interviews, and obstructing PR reps are all standard fare, but most journalists aren’t as quick to discuss their own shortcomings.
Nobody likes talking about screwing up.
In 20-plus years as a writer, I should be grateful that, when pressed, I can only think of two real clangers. The first error was listing a set of tour dates in the wrong month; the other was a near-the-knuckle joke about a celebrity I was briefly convinced would get me fired.
Both passed without incident.
Unfortunately, it was my turn to sit in the idiot’s chair again last week. It didn’t matter that more than 15 years had passed since my last (known) faux pas. Knowing I made a mistake still stung like a taser.
The article in question, which was published by The Daily Telegraph, profiled a popular website/chat forum for men called PistonHeads. I meant to draw a comparison to Mumsnet, a site for women who want to discuss everything from kids to cooking to jobs, but the name got twisted in my head to Netmums, which is a separate website for new mothers.
I didn’t realized my mistake until scrolling through the comments section of the online version. A few readers were critical. Then came an email from someone at Mumsnet asking me to fix the problem.
I fired off a meek and apologetic email to my editor asking him to make the necessary amendments, which he did without fuss. But I was so annoyed with myself I told him I wouldn’t invoice for the story or darken his inbox with a feature pitch again.
In hindsight, it sounds melodramatic, and it probably was. But it was a natural reaction. A printed mistake is every journalist’s biggest nightmare—and it’s hard to shake off the feeling you’ve not only let yourself down, but also the person who entrusted you with the story.
A long walk helped me calm down and regain perspective. Nonetheless, the incident was a sobering reminder of just how fallible—and exposed—we freelancers can be.
I bring this up because if you haven’t committed an error that riles up a digital mob, there’s a good chance you will at some point. When it is your turn, I hope the short guide below helps you move past the blunder.
Stop, pause, relax
Whatever you do, do not throw your laptop out of a window. In that crushing moment of realization, it’s natural to jump to worst-case scenarios, which might involve anything from a disappointed editor to litigation, but think of all the spelling mistakes and errors you’ve spotted over the years. Deep breaths. The letdown will pass.
Resist immediate damage control
I’m not suggesting you deflect blame, but a frantic phone call or email to an editor can only throw petrol on the fire.
Before addressing the mistake, you should figure out who spotted it and retrace your steps to understand how you got the incorrect information in the first place.
When you need to take action, keep the groveling apologies to a minimum. I’m not saying you need to be defensive, but editors are probably more accustomed to dealing with errors than you might expect.
Clear your head
Once you’ve acknowledged the botch, it’s important to step away from the computer. Go for a run. It might also be a good idea to turn off your phone so you don’t sink into a deeper funk with a series of ill-conceived text messages.
Before writing this article, I discussed professional gaffes with a few freelance friends to see if they, too, had horror stories. They all did.
Once you’re calm, talk about what happened with people close to you. You’ll vent; they’ll listen. Maybe you’ll share a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Maybe you’ll eat it all by yourself. But talking about it with a clear head is an important step as you try to move on.
Racked by guilt and feeling at your lowest, it’s all too easy to promise an upset PR rep or interview subject you’ll make things right with a gushing blog post or a compensatory article in another publication. Don’t.
Mistakes happen in every line of work. If a waiter brings you the wrong drink, you don’t get the whole meal comped. If the subway gets delayed, you don’t get a free ride (and the subways are always delayed).
If you’re a diligent writer, however, your mistakes will be so rare that they’ll leave you shell-shocked. So by all means fix things if it’s appropriate and possible, but go easy with the offers to try and get them six pages in Forbes.
There’s actually another reason for maintaining a little dignity: By apologizing profusely and admitting you’ve been a clattering donkey of a writer, you’re accepting liability, and that’s something your editor may not want.
I remember a freelancer—who contributed to a publication I also wrote for—telling a source some quotations had been slightly changed in print. In an attempt to distance himself from the error, the writer showed the interviewee the quotations he’d submitted, thus shifting blame squarely on the editorial team and validating the interviewee’s complaint in the process.
It wasn’t an unreasonable act of self-defense, but the writer got himself blacklisted by the editor, who thought him “spineless.” And because the tweaks were minor and certainly not libelous, the writer would have been better off keeping quiet.
Any unfortunate mistake that makes it to print should serve as a reminder that you can never check things too many times before pressing send.
A common problem is that during the writing period certain ‘facts’ calcify in your head. These details may be wrong, but since you’ve forged the narrative in your head, they turn into hard-wired truths.
Sometimes these truths are so basic that it wouldn’t even occur to you to review them. So cast your eye over every paragraph during your last proof and put a question mark over every statement you make. Details like names and dates are especially easy to get lodged incorrectly into your head, but every claim should be triple-checked.
Unless the mistake really is a career-killer, there’s a good chance the episode will blow over far sooner than you first anticipated. By tomorrow, readers will have a new collection of mistakes to correct.
No one pats you on the back for the 99.9 percent of your writing that is accurate, so don’t dwell too hard on that irksome 0.1 percent. Freelancing is hard enough. You’ll survive just like me.