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Tim Green

Sun Tzu and the Art of Words

Internet discussion forum
Self-awareness online
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As editors and writers, we are all conscious of the need to consider our target audience. See Understanding My Reading Communities as an example. This requires self-awareness to avoid inflicting our own biases on our readers. If Sun Tzu had been an editor, he might have said, “Know your audience, know yourself. A hundred editing contracts, a hundred successes.”

Self-awareness is also important in focused internet discussion forums where a typical exchange starts with a question. In editors’ groups this may involve terminology, localization, or obscure grammar. The asker is looking for a qualitative answer. (Online forums are unsuitable for quantitative studies because respondents do not necessarily represent a cross-section of anything.)

The first 20 or so respondents who say “Answer is X” really want to help. After that, however, the 21st identical answer adds little, and the 40th even less. (A recent question in a technical forum elicited quick consensus but answers continued to roll in. After a week, answer 400 appeared saying the same thing as the previous 399.)

Certainly, after a long string of identical responses, a well-supported explanation of a contrary answer could be useful. But what motivates the 100th or 400th person to provide an answer identical to the vast majority of answers already posted?

Perhaps Person 400 did not take the time to glance at the comments and realize that the group had achieved consensus hundreds of answers previously. Perhaps Person 400 is insecure and wants to demonstrate to others, but mostly to themselves, that they are not ignorant. In any case, I contend that this demonstrates lack of self-awareness, and that answer 400 is more about the respondent than about an actual desire to help.

This is an example of the communication value depending on context. The message may be very useful in one context while identical words carry no direct information hundreds of responses later.

Of course, in international groups, people in different time zones may have different perspectives. An early consensus could represent Canadian viewpoints (“Answer is X”) while different views emerge later (“Answer is Y in Australia but Z in Europe”). If the asker needs to know that the answer is X everywhere, they should say so up front… and that requires awareness of the effect of one’s own actions (in this case, questions) on others.

Useless online posts are harmless and easy to ignore. However, they obscure useful information and broadcast respondents’ lack of awareness. Again, if Sun Tzu was writing today, he might have said (online, of course), “It is a wise person who knows when to post and when not to post.”

So as editors, we learn that words have no constant message; the information they convey depends on the context in which they appear. And the reach of our internet communications may reveal to others aspects of ourselves that we do not even understand. Luckily, Sun Tzu assures us that “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Do we possess sufficient self-awareness to seize that opportunity?

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4 Comments on “Sun Tzu and the Art of Words”

  • Anita Jenkins


    “…answer 400 is more about the respondent than about an actual desire to help.”

    Yes, yes. I taught elementary school at one time and realized that most adults are much like kids, except adults are better at hiding their greed, competitiveness, hostility, etc. Somehow the internet, this relatively new medium, unleashes what people are successfully hiding in most of the face-to-face contacts.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    I think many editors regard the editorial chat lines as a kind of club, so they want to join in the conversation even after the original question has been answered. Certainly, many of these quick responses can be very useful.

    More perplexing is why most of the posts focus on narrow technical and language points. They seldom raise big issues in publishing and communications – such as different attitudes toward editing in different countries, required standards and qualifications to be an editor, or the borderline between heavy editing and ghost-writing. If researchers in future decades use these databases to analyze the profession of editing in the early twenty-first century, they will conclude that we were concerned with small technical matters rather than large ideas relating to our profession. I wonder why our discussions have gone exclusively in this direction …

    • Anita Jenkins


      Rosemary and I share this bewilderment. When I worked in a deputy minister’s office, the discussions at meetings often strayed in the direction of trivial concerns and away from the larger issues. I wondered if it was just too hard to grapple with such things and more comfortable to talk about a missing comma.

  • Anita Jenkins


    The Editors’ Weekly blog will perhaps show future researchers that we did talk about larger issues sometimes. 🙂

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