House style… just a waste of time?

This post was originally written in 2013 and has been updated.

In America, they are called copy editors. In South Africa, in a journalism context, they are called sub-editors (or subs). They form a vanishingly small percentage of the world population, and yet they are somewhat powerful.

That’s because much of the text disseminated by the world’s media passes before their eyes and gets fixed, or changed, or mutilated, or left alone. They correct grammar and spelling, they rewrite clumsy phrases, they cut copy to fit an allocated space and in most publications they write headlines. So far, so familiar – most people who read newspapers or news websites or magazines are aware that such people exist and have a vague idea of what they do.
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What is editing anyway? A love letter…

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Editing is the flowers on the windowsill in a beautifully clean and tidy room.

Well, that’s how I think of it anyway.

Writing is creative, and therefore messy. It opens drawers, scatters papers, shakes things up. Gets involved, forgets to tidy up, leaves the coffee cups on the desk. And at the end there is a piece of text: a poem, a novel, a short story, a blog post, a scientific paper.

And then there is editing. Where the papers are gathered and organised, the coffee cups cleared away, the shelves dusted, the piles of books decluttered. And then a vase of flowers on the windowsill in the sun to mark a job well done, a poem or a novel or a thesis made to shine as it was always meant to.
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Everyone is a writer. Everyone is an editor

I know, I know. A writer is someone who writes books. An editor does something important at a newspaper. That’s not you, right?

But every time you write an email, or post something on Facebook, you are writing.

Every time you go to the local print shop and organise a card or a flyer for your business, you are writing.
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Tips for making content look good on the web

Fountain pen nib and writing on a page

Writing in Russian cyrillic script with a fountain pen. Picture: Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons

Is writing for the web different from any other kind of writing?

The short answer is not really.

Writing on any platform should follow the same basic rules: good sense, good grammar and spelling, good reasoning. Clarity and conciseness. Lack of jargon. No padding… and so on.

That said, there are some things that need special attention on the web – and those are largely to do with the fact that the reader is not looking a text on a page. Let’s break this down.

When you are reading text on a page:

* You can see the text in a large context – if it’s in a newspaper or magazine, you can see the article in one glance along with its pictures and headlines and pull quotes and so on.

* You are likely to be spending a little time with text – with a book or a newspaper, there’s a built-in expectation that the reader has sat down metaphorically with a cup of tea or coffee and is going to read and inwardly digest as the saying goes.

When you are reading text on a screen:

* You don’t necessarily see all the related content at once – you have to scroll in one way or another to get to the pictures and other illustrations.

* You might be looking at a phone or a tablet in very small bits of time – quickly in a queue, or while sitting at a traffic light.

Studies suggest that people scan screens in particular ways – there is a whole field of research called eyetracking with keeps tabs on this, and the latest research suggests that people scan a page in a F-Shaped pattern. There’s a lot of detail on that but the takeaway for the purposes of this articles is making an assumption that people start at the top of an article and read to the bottom is not useful. Research also shows that when people encounter text which is not formatted for the web, they are likely to lose interest and click away:

“the vast majority of the web users would rather finish their tasks as fast as possible with the minimum amount of effort; they visit a page because they want to find a quick answer rather than read a dissertation on the topic and educate themselves.”

So the way in which text is formatted can be very important in keeping people reading. Vital elements of formatting for the web (or the smartphone) include:

  • Bolding important words
  • Bulleted lists (like this one!)
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Making sure the important information is easy to find
  • Visually grouping related content
  • Including pictures, maps and graphics

In other words, break the text up. Long screens on text simply don’t cut it!

What makes for a perfect paragraph?

Long ago, at school, there was an English lesson about how and where to break text into paragraphs.

As I remember it, we were taught that that one thought or subject should be contained within the same paragraph, like this in a story from the Guardian:

“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”
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