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Did a Typo Cost Clinton the Election?

From the world of politics, a lesson in the value of good copy editing.

By Chris Edmonds

In case you haven’t heard by now, it was revealed Tuesday by the New York Times that the hacking of former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email came down to a misspelling: “legitimate” should be have been “illegitimate.” It wasn’t, and that may have cost the Democrats the White House.

An aide who helped maintain Podesta’s Gmail account noticed a suspicious email recommending Podesta change his password for security reasons. The aide sent the email to a computer technician for advice.

Here’s how the Times reports what happened next:

“This is a legitimate email,” Charles Delavan, a Clinton campaign aide, replied to another of Mr. Podesta’s aides, who had noticed the alert. “John needs to change his password immediately.”

 

With another click, a decade of emails that Mr. Podesta maintained in his Gmail account—a total of about 60,000—were unlocked for the Russian hackers. Mr. Delavan, in an interview, said that his bad advice was a result of a typo: He knew this was a phishing attack, as the campaign was getting dozens of them. He said he had meant to type that it was an “illegitimate” email, an error that he said has plagued him ever since.

A lot of people made a lot of mistakes here, leading to Podesta’s team and the DNC falling for a scam the Crown Prince of Nigeria himself would have cast a skeptical eye on, but let’s focus on the copy editing side of things.

This isn’t the kind of error that trips Spell Check; it’s the kind of binary error that only a person (for now, at least) can catch and correct. It’s subtle and easy to read through—we’re talking two letters, after all—but an experienced copy editor spots this 10 times out of 10. A second set of eyes, a pause before hitting “send,” and maybe a different party finds itself out in the Arctic Blast today.

A few quick thoughts from our years working as copy editors and technical writers here at N2 Communications:

Even “technical experts” need editors.

This is something we hear from our clients in the tech, data, and finance worlds all the time: “I’m an expert. People don’t expect my writing to be great.” It may be true that your readers don’t expect Pulitzer-winning prose, but they certainly want your writing to be accurate and understandable.

So whether it’s double-checking that you didn’t write “liquid” when you meant “illiquid” in an investor letter, “non-flammable” instead of “inflammable” in a safety manual, or “yards” instead of “meters” in an engineering RFP, if you’re a technical expert, you probably need a copy editor more than anyone. Your readers are counting on you to get the details right.

Always sweat the small stuff.

Business biographies tend to accentuate the Big Idea, the flashy insight. But if you actually run a company, you know how important the little things are. Accurate accounting, being on time for meetings, seamless customer service—these really matter. The same goes for your communications. So either sweat the little things yourself or find someone skilled and trustworthy to do it for you.

Presentation is a matter of respect.

Bottom line, people don’t have much free time to get through whatever it is you’re giving them. Their effort and energy is a resource. Respect that resource by presenting a clean, crisp message that’s easy to read and intuitively understood.

At N2, we’ve built a team of highly skilled, highly adaptable editors and writers who consistently deliver excellence to our clients. Yes, we weed out typos, but we also safeguard our clients’ reputations in the marketplace. We help our clients get on with doing what makes them great, by doing what makes us great.

Chris Edmonds is director of operations/senior editor at N2 Communications LLC. Reach him at chris.edmonds@n2communicationsllc.com.

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