Welcome to another post in the Content Creator Basics series. Here, we’ll share our go-to tips for flexing your freelance writer muscles—whether you’re writing content for someone else or for your own blog. Check in each month for more tips to sharpen your online content writing skills.
Whether you write blogs, books, or scientific papers, you’ll often need to cite outside sources. While including facts and statistics from reputable sources usually amps up your piece’s credibility and supports your argument, it can have the opposite effect if the facts aren’t represented accurately.
Few writers intentionally misrepresent their source material, but inaccuracies can crop up from a lack of understanding, an effort to paraphrase, or a simple calculation error. In this blog, we’ll cover the basics of accurately representing all outside information in our web writing.
Make Sure You Have Context
During your research, you may be tempted to skim your sources and extract the statistics that support your point. This saves time, but it can cause you to misunderstand or misrepresent the data. Whenever you choose to include outside facts in your piece, make sure you read the entire source to ensure that you have a full understanding.
Suppose you’re writing an article about back safety in American workplaces. A quick web search takes you to this website, and a brief scan gives you an eye-catching statistic: “£15 billion estimated cost of injuries and ill health from current working conditions (2017/18).” You may choose to rewrite this fact as follows: “Every year, American workers pay $15 billion in medical bills as a result of back injuries at work.” This may seem like a harmless paraphrasing, but in reality, the sentence is now filled with inaccuracies.
The obvious problem is that this data was gathered in Great Britain and as such doesn’t necessarily apply to the American workforce. Additionally, British pounds aren’t the same as American dollars, so the figure is inaccurate.
However, the problems go even deeper than that. The original figure applies to workplace injuries and poor working conditions, so the damages shouldn’t be attributed solely to back injuries. The phrase “[e]very year” is also problematic, as the information gathered only applies to 2017 and 2018. Even the claim that workers pay that much money in medical bills is dangerous, as much of this is expected to be covered by insurance.
By carefully reading the source material, you can ensure that you represent the information accurately.
As a general rule, any string of seven words or longer should not be pulled directly from an outside source unless you are citing a direct quote. However, this doesn’t mean you should restructure the sentences at will, either. Whenever you cite information, try to leave the vital words intact when possible. You need to both avoid plagiarism and leave the original fact intact.
Suppose you want to discuss how to eat a kosher diet, traditionally practiced by people of the Jewish faith. This website provides a lot of useful information on the topic. Let’s go over a few examples of how a well-meaning writer could misrepresent the information in this source:
“Drinking blood is not kosher.” This is technically true, but it’s misleading. Any blood at all breaks kosher, including trace amounts of blood in meat, so this statement could lead to a misunderstanding.
“Only cuts of meat from the hindquarter are kosher, not from the forequarter.” The opposite is true. The lists of kosher and non-kosher meats are adjacent and don’t have bold headers, so read carefully to avoid these kinds of mistakes.
“Cheeseburgers aren’t kosher.” Kosher eating forbids eating meat and dairy together, and while cheeseburgers fit this description, the reader should also know the rule itself, not just an example.
“Jewish people can’t eat shellfish.” The problem here is the word “can’t.” Jewish people have the ability to eat shellfish, but they choose not to.
As you can see, making a seemingly small change to how a fact is worded can fundamentally change its meaning if you’re not careful. This can misinform readers, decrease the credibility of the writer, and weaken the bond of trust between reader and writer.
Don’t Change the Numbers
If you read that 50% of a company’s employees are female, you could rephrase this to say that half of the employees are female, or one in two, or ½. Each of these is correct, but that doesn’t mean you should simply switch from one to another for fear of plagiarism.
Let’s say you use “half.” If a reader wants to consult the original source, they may scan the web page or use a search function to locate the word “half” because that’s how the statistic was represented in your blog. One half may be functionally identical to 50%, but the transition makes things tricky for readers who try to verify the information.
Let’s say the company actually has a 50.04% female workforce. This is fairly close to 50% but not identical, so if you really need to round instead of citing the number as written, say something like “around 50%.” If the figure is actually 53.4%, rounding it to 50% is too great a change, so you should round to 53% or simply say “more than 50%” or “over half.”
Remember, plagiarism is trying to pass off another writer’s work as your own. If the original source says “This company has a 50.4% female workforce,” you could easily rewrite this as “50.4% of this company’s workforce is female” to avoid a long string of duplicated words. Since you’re going to include a hyperlink to the original source, it’s okay to leave the core of the sentence intact, including the format of the number.
In short, quantitative facts should be as accurate as possible and easy for the reader to verify. If this sounds like a lot to keep in mind, consider the easy solution: simply cite the number exactly as it’s originally stated.
One of your primary goals as a writer should be to create content that is both accurate and unique. This can be tricky at first, but with a little practice, you’ll have it mastered in no time. What do you do to maintain accuracy in your writing? We’d love to see your tips and tricks in the comments.