Let me cup my hand over my mouth and whisper in the most secretive manner a confession into your ear: yes, it’s true, I edit, from time to time, none too extensively, some of my already published posts. As far as I can tell, this leaves no trace on WordPress; if you were to stumble onto one of my older posts not having been forewarned, you would think that it is now as it’s always been*. Dear readers, do you think that there’s something underhanded, something not quite kosher about that?
Of course, there’s nothing suspicious about editing before publication — indeed, publication without editing must be a nightmare for any reader forced to consume the text in its incipient form — or revisions after the writing’s debut to the public. As a notable example, consider Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which the author revised and republished no less than six times during his life. Indeed, one cannot mention Whitman and Leaves of Grass without uttering some variant of the phrase “he spent all his life writing and rewriting his masterwork”. (Given a chance, I would sum this up as “He came. He wrote. He tinkered. A lot.”) For all that and for leaving behind no definitive version of Leaves, we think no worse of him for it.
The difference, obviously, is that Whitman left behind traces of his having changed his mind, having deleted and put back, having expanded and retracted, having chewed over the words, picking one morsel for one edition and a different one for the next. In short, his fallibility is documented. What about ours?
When we publish something online and then change it later it, the original disappears into the ether (or, at least it can) and only the polished & spinned version remains. Are we being dishonest with our readers when we do it? Or, even lacking readers, are we being inauthentic to ourselves by masking our mistakes and presenting only the most up-to-date versions by which to be judged (either at future date, by future readers, or by the reader in the mirror)? Changing our mind is one thing; maintaining the facade that we were never so foolish as to have thought otherwise is another, and an iffy affair at that, no?
(*I dearly hope that if I have any readers, she will read this footnote. Before you think me a complete cad, please let me clarify that I’ve never edited a post to change a substantive point. I’ve only done it to spruce up my writing, when on a reading a few days after posting, I found a turn of phrase or word no long to my liking. On a single occasion, I did it to fix a mistake in my dates: last Friday was the 9th of the September & not the 8th. I suppose, however, that unless you have subscribed to have my posts emailed to you at first publication, you will have to take my word for it.)
(PS. How do you insert proper footnotes into WordPress posts?)
Modification #1: I’m aware of the opposite problem, that sometimes our internet traces linger past their welcome and cause us endless trouble. I’m choosing to look at another thing is all.