Wednesday 22 August 2007

Read it and weep

A recent opinion piece on by Gary Kamiya sings the praises of editors. While the relationship between writer and editor is sometimes cast as prickly (genius vs grammar nazi; 'my precious prose' vs 'that's not actually a word') Kamiya points out that sometimes it can be mutually beneficial:

Early in my editing career I was startled when, after we had finished an edit, a crusty, hard-bitten culture writer, a woman at least twice my age, told me, "That was great -- better than sex!"

I make no such exalted claims, but there's no doubt the editing process can be an intimate and gratifying experience for both parties. Although, to pursue our somewhat dubious metaphor, there are also times when writer and editor, instead of lying back and enjoying a soothing post-fact-check cigarette, stare emptily at the ceiling and vow never to share verb tenses with anyone again.

Later in the piece, Kamiya argues that editors are even more necessary in the internet age, with content pouring online from more writers than ever before.

I agree. Writing online is different from writing for print publication.

People drop into a web page from wherever and expect to understand what's going on (imagine opening a book at random and expecting to understand what the protagonist is up to after scanning the first two lines). People read web pages - and paragraphs on pages - in a rough F shape, meaning key words need to be loaded up in the first sentences of each page and each paragraph within the page (see the heat map below). The rough guide to length is: write it, then halve it. And add some bullet points.

For all that I agree with it, you still lose some beauty. You lose passive sentences. You lose paragraphs that build to their point, not launch with it. You miss the finely-wrought sentence full of carefully crafted clauses. No one scrolls down to your pithy or poignant final sentence. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" becomes "Rich men needs wives" (probably 'partners', really). It's not a bad thing, necessarily - it's just a different way of using words. In some cases, I think it's important to keep the distinction.

Image: An eye-tracking 'heatmap' showing where readers' eyes fall on a webpage - red means high attention, blue little attention, grey is untouched. From Jakob Nielsen,

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