Thursday, August 13, 2009

Copy-editing - can it be crowdsourced?

A popular trend in Web-land these days is called crowdsourcing. In a nutshell, crowdsourcing is using the collective efforts of a really large number of people to tackle a specific problem. As it turns out, the Web is a fantastic tool for gathering large numbers of people from around the world and focusing them on a task.

A notable example of crowdsourcing occurred recently in Britain. The British government released a set of documents detailing the expense reports of all its MPs. The publicly-available documents amounted to roughly 459,000 pages, presenting a monumental task to anyone that might want to figure out exactly what their government is spending money on.

The Guardian, a UK newspaper, put up a website that allows visitors to review these expenses one page at a time and flag any that seem questionable. If an expense is flagged by multiple people, it becomes a candidate for investigation by the paper.

The Guardian realized that its own small staff would never be able to scrutinize such a mountain of paperwork, so they decided to crowdsource the problem. So far, that decision has paid off. Many questionable expenses have been brought to light, and the people responsible are being held accountable for their actions.

Recently, I started thinking about how one could apply crowdsourcing to writing. Writing is traditionally a solitary pursuit, but I think that there are opportunities here. While it doesn't make sense to crowdsource the writing of a first draft, some of the other steps in the process might be viable candidates for help from the crowd.

The research process has already been greatly assisted by crowdsourcing. Sites like Wikipedia,, or even Flickr are excellent resources, and are actively maintained by thousands of users worldwide. 

Manuscript review lends itself nicely to the application of help from others. In fact, there are already several websites that use the power of crowds for the purpose of reviewing manuscripts or short stories. I will talk about a few of these in a post to follow in the next few days.

I started thinking about other steps in the writing process, and realized that copy-editing might be an excellent opportunity to utilize the efforts of the crowd. Like wading through mountains of government expense documentation, copy-editing an entire manuscript can seem like a near-impossible undertaking. 

What if there was a website that allowed writers to submit their manuscripts (or short stories, or articles) and have others copy-edit their work? I'm just brainstorming here, but I'm thinking that the process might work something like this:

1. Writer submits their work to the site for copy-editing.

2. The submission gets chopped up into page-sized chunks of about 500 words. These chunks are anonymized, so that editors can be impartial, and also so that no one can piece together the entire manuscript.

3. Other users of the site volunteer to copy-edit. I'm thinking that most of the users on the site will be writers, and the expectation will be that one should copy-edit the work of others if one expects others to copy-edit for them. An "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" sort of arrangement. Or perhaps a writer would need to accumulate a certain number of points or credits (earned by editing the work of others) before they are allowed to submit their own work for editing. 

4. A user requests work to copy-edit. They receive a single page-sized chunk to edit, which is a reasonable amount of work to deal with. They copy-edit the page and modify the text so that it is correct.

5. When the editor has completed the edits, they submit the edited page.

6. The original writer receives status updates via email, and can log in to view the editing that has already been performed. They can compare the original page with the edited page, and can therefore see exactly what copy-edits have been suggested.

7. The writer can take all the editing suggestions they've received and apply whatever edits they deem appropriate.

So what is the carrot here? With crowdsourcing, there needs to be something to entice people to contribute their time and energy. In the example above, the Guardian played on people's innate distrust of government to turn them into watchdogs. They also turned it into a bit of a game, adding a "leaderboard" that tracked the most productive users. The copy-editing site could do something similar - have some sort of points system and reward the top-contributors with recognition or some other perks. Or it could be that you need to do some copy-editing of other submissions if you want to get your own work copy-edited.

That's the basic idea. Now I'll do a little crowdsourcing of my own: what do you think of such an idea? As a writer, do you think the site would be something that you would use? Something you'd contribute to? I look forward to reading your comments.


  1. Interesting idea, but what would be the incentive here?

  2. I think that the best incentive would probably be that editing the work of others will allow you to get your own work edited. This incentive model has been employed by several reviewing sites that I've seen, and it appears to be fairly successful.

    Another incentive could be the building of your personal brand. If you are an aspiring editor, this could be an opportunity to get your name out there.