McLuhan Studies : Issue 2

Home Page

Next Article

Previous Article

Table of Contents

Author Index

Title Index


James Taylor

Editing for the electronic age


* About the Author 1. Summary 2. Editing for the electronic age
3. Moment of revelation 4. Doing it differently 5. The unique quality
6. An internal index 7. Who's in charge here? 8. The end of linear thinking
9. Design functions 10. Working in layers 11. Never finished
12. Get on, or get left behind ** Contact information  

About the Author

James Taylor is an honorary life member of the Editors' Association of Canada (formerly the Freelance Editors' Association of Canada). For seven years, he was a member of the Editorial Standards Committee of that organization, and was instrumental in developing their publication Meeting Editorial Standards. He is a past chair of the Book and Periodical Council of Canada. He has been an editor and writer for just under 40 years, in radio, television, commercial magazines, and book publishing. In 1981, after 13 years as managing editor of the 300,000 circulation national publication of the United Church of Canada, he co-founded his own publishing house, which grew to have annual sales of $2.5 million. He has written ten books, around 1,000 magazine articles and columns, and has edited around 100 books.

Return to contents



Professional editors today are using computers as a tool, but their mindsets remain fixed on print and paper. Few editors have recognized the new demands that will be made on them as computers become the medium for information transfer, rather than merely an intermediate tool. As computers increasingly become the vehicle for transmission of text, the requirements and responsibilities of editors will change. Most articles about the new information age have focused on the technology involved; this article attempts to begin consideration of how that technology will influence the nature and handling of content.

Return to contents


Editing for the electronic age

Over the last decade, editors have learned to use computers. Even those editors who most resolutely opposed the coming of computers, who insisted for years on editing with "hard copy," have yielded to the inexorable pressure of technology. They have learned to use computers as an editing tool. Some merely use the computer as a means of printing out their beloved hard copy from disks provided by authors. Other have made the leap to editing on screen, manipulating electronic text directly.

In almost all cases, however, they edit as if their finished product will be read on paper. That assumption, unfortunately, is wrong. Increasingly, text today bypasses paper entirely and appears on computer screens around the world. (How pervasive this trend has become, I will leave to others to define. My concern is not how much the screen is used, but the effects of that practice on the profession of editing.)

Few editors, in my experience, have recognized the difference between editing ON a computer, and editing FOR the computer.

Return to contents


Moment of revelation

In a recent editing workshop, one of the participants asked: "Is there any difference between editing a newsletter that's printed on paper and editing a newsletter that's sent out on line?" My immediate reaction was that editing is editing, wherever it is done. My second reaction, since confirmed in a variety of deliberately cultivated conversations, was that there IS a difference.

None of the abundance of materials about Internet publishing, Web pages, etc., however, seem to recognize this difference. They deal mainly with the technology; they have little or nothing to say about handling the content. They assume either that content is irrelevant, or that handling it is the same as working on paper.

Although the Internet originated in the networking of university computers, I'm convinced that academic publishing is WORST suited to presentation on screen. Generally speaking, it's long. It's wordy. It uses abstract and unappealing noun-based subject headings, and it uses them rarely. It has long, complex paragraphs. As a result you can scroll through whole pages of material without seeing a clear indication to tell you what you're reading. And it depends on building a case through a linear development of ideas.

Return to contents


Doing it differently

A friend puts a professional nursing journal on line. The nursing association hired him because he understood computers, not because he was an editor. But he soon discovered that simply transferring paper-based text to the computer screen didn't work. Against his will, he has been forced to become an editor, amending and adapting for the screen the text that had already been professionally edited for print.

Here's some what he has had to do:

* Shorten paragraphs - often dramatically.
* Insert sub-headings - at least one per screen.
* Break articles up - sometimes into separate shorter articles, sometimes into a main article with a collection of sidebars.
* Create graphics and charts to supplement or, sometimes, to replace text.

Yes, many of the same things are happening in print. Doug Gibson, publisher of McLelland and Stewart, Canada's largest trade book publisher, attributes it to what the music industry would call crossover. "The effects of computer reading habits are spilling over into print," he commented at an authors' conference. "Books and periodicals are going to look more like Web pages."

Return to contents


The unique quality

But there will always be one way in which print cannot emulate the screen. It cannot hotlink items. Readers have to take the material in the order in which the author chose to present it. On paper, they cannot fast forward to the next related reference in a thread of thought.

It's true, as veteran editor Dennis Bockus remarked, that skilled readers have always been able to skim pages, picking up key references. But until now, the READER has had to do that skimming. Computer users expect the EDITOR (or the author) to provide those connections for them.

The difference is simple: between the computer as TOOL and computer as VEHICLE.

As a tool, the computer made no significant difference to what editors did. It was, in effect, simply an improvement on the typewriter, as the typewriter was a an improvement on the pen. They all led the content through to a fixed output on paper.

As a vehicle, the computer changes both the medium on which the reader receives the content, and the way in which the reader receives it.

The technology that causes the difference is hypertext.

Historically, all new technologies have taken a skill that used to belong to the individual, and transferred it to the less skilled. Originally, only stone masons knew how to split and dress stones. That skill made stonemasons so valuable that they were not bound by citizenship and national boundaries; they were "free masons" able to travel without impediment wherever they were needed. Industrial saws that could cut stone transferred that specialized skill to anyone who could operate the machinery. Once, public speaking was limited to those with trained voices; they projected so that thousands could hear them, unassisted. The microphone and amplifier made that skill available to anyone.

So too with editing. Hypertext takes the skills of assembling and organizing ideas -- a skill that authors and editors like to think all readers should have, but that in fact only a few do -- and enables even the most obtuse reader to pursue a particular notion through a manuscript.

Return to contents


An internal index

The process is rather like providing an internal index. Historically, if readers wanted to look up all of a book's references to, say, the Amazon River, they would check the index at the back of the book. Producing that index required highly specialized skills. Indexers - editors who specialize in creating indexes - have their own professional associations.

In an electronic text, the index does not come at the end. It is built into the text. The technique is "hotlinking"; the tool is HTML (hypertext Markup Language). HTML enables the editor to highlight certain words and phrases and to connect them to related ideas elsewhere, in the same text or in other texts. Simply by clicking a button, an unskilled reader will expect to be guided seamlessly along a single thread in the whole complex tapestry of thought that is a book or periodical. Or, perhaps, into other manuscripts and sources entirely.

But someone has to do that hotlinking. That someone will be either the editor, or the author. So far, though, I have found few editors who acknowledge this new responsibility.

Return to contents


Who's in charge here?

To add a further level of complexity, the new medium transfers control for this process to the reader.

Traditionally, the writer and editor controlled what the reader had available. The reader received the words in the order that the writer put them down and the editor amended them. Short of cutting the book or magazine apart, the reader had no other choice. The reader was also given a selection of visual images: pictures, tables, charts, etc. The size of these visuals, their position relative to text, was all predetermined.

That is no longer true. Multimedia and interactive capabilities often enable the "reader" to shrink or eliminate visuals or to expand them to fill the screen. Hypertext means that the reader no longer necessarily reads the text in the order the author/editor intended. And if the hot-links lead to other sites (sources or texts), the reader is no longer limited to the material that the author or editor provides.

Hotlinking means that editors and authors lose the control they once had over the process of comprehension. Readers now in control of what will be read, when, and how.

The author and editor can no longer count on words and ideas building cumulatively. Each idea will have to stand on its own.

Return to contents


The end of linear thinking

Editors, if they wish to continue being editors in this new electronic age, will have to recognize and adapt to certain new parameters.

Attention spans, for example, are shorter on screen. Articles will rarely run more than about two screens in length; longer pieces will resemble collections of sidebars.

Editors will also have to learn "parallel thinking" (a term invented by Edward de Bono for a more intuitive way of making mental connections between ideas) instead of their traditional linear thinking. "Editing for the computer means the end of linear thinking," said Tom Vrandenburg, past president of the Ottawa chapter of the Editors' Association of Canada.

Linear thinking is logical, analytical, sequential. Words and ideas flow in an orderly pattern. Parallel thinking is more intuitive. It takes leaps, often unpredictably. To oversimplify, traditional editing is left brain; electronic editing will have to be right brain.

Return to contents


Design functions

The electronic medium, rather than the editors (or designer) takes over the traditional "mark-up" role. On paper, the producer determines such crucial factors for readability as line length, type size, typeface. These are now determined by the receiver's technology, not the producer's. Line lengths may be a virtually unreadable 80 characters; text faces may come out in sans serif or, horrors, Courier. The page shape is now landscape, not portrait.

To provide more white space (and variety) on the screen, paragraphs will probably have to be done block style rather than the traditional first line indent. Paragraphs will probably have to be shorter and punchier--a long academic paragraph that fills the whole screen or window with unbroken text will be quickly clicked off.

Return to contents


Working in layers

Editing may well have to take place on multiple levels or layers. Hotlinking will happen to both to their own and to other materials.

Layer one might be the text itself, with its accompanying visuals. Hotlinking will take place within that layer to other portions of the same text.

Layer two might be what we have traditionally thought of as footnotes and references. But instead of merely identifying the source, the reader will be able to view the original directly, with the quotations in full and in context.

Layer three might take the reader out of the provided manuscript entirely, into other related texts or materials, stored on other computers, in other sites. It could allow the "reader" to hear the actual interview from which the quote was taken, see part of the movie, watch the news item, read the book...

Of course, at that point, the editor and author lose control completely. They are now dependent on someone else's hotlinks. Readers might return to the provided text, or they might follow other hotlinks to other sources entirely.

Return to contents


Never finished

There will be no such thing as a finished work. Everything will be a "work in progress." Editors are accustomed to completing their work. Typically, the publisher expects editors to "sign off" when they turn the manuscript over to the production department (or someone) to format into finished pages.

But in electronic publishing, there are no finished pages. Ever.

If, for example, an electronic publication has a hotlink to someone else's site, someone will have to check regularly to ensure that the link still leads to the intended reference. The other source is under no obligation to check with hotlinked sites before replacing some of the material on that site. Editors will become something very like "custodians" of a text or site, maintainers of a text's integrity. If a hotlink fails, the "custodian" will either have to find an alternate reference, or delete the link entirely.

Furthermore, because the text is not fixed on paper, it can be continually corrected and amended to take account of new information. Indeed, it will have to be, to avoid appearing dated, by comparison with other instantly accessible materials. (This has implications for copyright that I don't want to get into here. Suffice it to say that copyright presumes a "fixed" work.)

Return to contents


Get on, or get left behind

For seven years, I was a member of the Editorial Standards Committee of the Editors' Association of Canada. During that time, we produced two publications. Professional Editorial Standards (1991) defined the skills expected of an editor; Meeting Editorial Standards (1996) enabled editors to self-test their competence.

In the spring of 1997, the members of the committee met again to assess the changes required - if any - in defining editorial competence. They concluded that if editing is limited to print on paper, the existing standards still held up well. But if electronic readership is considered, it's a whole new ball game.

That's how much things have changed, in just six years.

The electronic medium is changing the profession of editing. The change won't happen immediately, but it will happen. Editors who fail to adapt to the new medium will find their scope for editing increasingly restricted. Editors who do make the transition will find that they have to learn new skills and aptitudes that they never needed for print on paper.


Author contact information:

e-mail address:
mail address: 1450 6th Street
Okanagan Centre, BC, Canada, V4V 2H7
telephone: (250) 766-2571
fax: (250) 766-5255

Return to top of page