How digital technologies are changing the way we edit text

The craft of copy editing requires the ability to read text and make suggestions to improve grammar, punctuation, clarity, and consistency of style. With the ongoing development of digital technologies (hardware and software), people are changing the way they write, and this has had a profound impact on editing. For now, the rules of grammar are holding steady, and for the most part, people agree with having a consistent style throughout a piece. But change is happening in how people view punctuation, style elements (e.g., italics), and clarity (plain language). In this post, I will explore how copy editing is changing alongside new media and what the future might look like for editors. 

I began freelance editing in 2012 by copy editing and proofreading manuscripts by self-published authors. Then a few years ago, I began editing government media products, such as news releases and speeches, and web and social media content. Editing book manuscripts versus web content couldn’t be more different, and it has given me an interesting view into the changing landscape for editors. 

Advancements in storytelling 

Humans have been telling stories for a very long time, including pictographs found on cave walls. Oral and visual storytelling eventually gave way to written words on papyrus scrolls and paper, which then led to the printing press and typewriters, and finally, to computers with keyboards and touchscreens as we know them today. With each new medium, we have adapted to it, including changing the way we tell stories. 

The English language, as a medium (and form too, according to Wolfe 2010, 245) is constantly evolving. We see new words and spelling variations pop up all the time (think Brexit). The length of stories has also evolved since new mediums create greater efficiency in writing and reproducing text. And the treatment of text (editing) has naturally evolved too as our patterns of story consumption change. For example, one of the earliest texts, the King James Bible, was first written on scrolls and had “no spaces between words and sentences, no periods and commas, and no chapters” (Wolfe 2010, 245). 

The medium, or the technology, we choose to use for storytelling has an impact on how we receive and experience that story (Castells 2000, 9). Just think about how different of an experience it is to read a print book verses an ebook. The form changes our reading experience—the lighting, the way the book or device feels in our hands, the turning or swiping of the page, the way the words appear on screen—and that impacts how we edit the text. 

Changes to the editing process and aesthetics 

Let’s compare the editing process for a book manuscript versus web content. 

To edit a manuscript, it is best to follow an established style, for example, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS). After speaking with the client and scanning through the manuscript to get a sense of the writing, the editor would read page by page and use the track changes and comments features in Microsoft Word to mark up the text. All this while referencing the 1,026 pages of the CMoS for guidance. The style guide has been around since the University of Chicago first opened in 1891, and it contains an answer to just about any kind of editing question you can think of. 

But we do not live in a world of book manuscripts anymore. We live in a fast-paced online environment of instant information consumption at the touch of a button on our smartphones. We’ve moved from reading to browsing. As Hayles describes, “Print is no longer front and centre but must be absorbed in a multimedia online environment” (2010, 44). This has led to changes in how text is presented to the reader—words look different on paper than on screen. Our aesthetics are changing too the more we rely on the online world for content. 

By contrast, to edit content on a government web page, an editor would follow the Canada.ca Content Style Guide. It is an online style guide to create consistency across government communications, but it takes some time to get used to. Its recommendations contradict the CMoS. Why? Because it’s focused on how people consume information online and on accessibility. For example, Canada.ca calls for: 

  • using numerals for all numbers (e.g. The minister made 2 announcements this morning) 
  • avoiding em dashes (this is a hard one—truly) 
  • using underlining only for linked text (URLs and emails) 
  • avoiding end-of-line punctuation in vertical lists such as this 
  • using sentence style for headings (capitalizing only the first word and proper nouns) 
  • embedding links in the text instead of showing the URL or email addresses 

Style decisions are no longer made exclusively by language experts. It’s now a joint effort with IT professionals who decide on the medium's technical aspects  (e.g. underlining only applies to URLs). We can see how this interdisciplinary relationship was inevitable if we consider that computer science programs have been evolving the coding language over the past few decades and now the majority of our communication takes place online. 

As we can see, editing rules directly correlate to the medium. A book is edited in a certain way, while a web page is edited in a different way. The content is different, the editing is different, the audience is different. Each medium offers a different experience to the reader. 

The future of editing 

Going forward, with more people writing stories in digital environments, and self-publishing, we could see a shift in the presentation of online text. Writers who are publishing only ebooks, blog stories, or fan fiction are likely going to be influenced by web writing, with shorter paragraphs and less intricate punctuation and styling. We will likely also see a shift away from longer works to shorter stories or series, influenced by learned behaviour from social media reading.

We may see advanced algorithm that can detect and analyze all the best lines of prose in the past few hundred years and use that as context to write a machine novel. Why not? We already have professional machine translation, such as DeepL. Perhaps the mechanics behind machine writing and translation will eventually lead to machine editing? Computers will have the brains for it, but will they have the heart or the art? 

We may also see more database-driven text, which could lead to new developments in data visualization. This would result in more multimedia storytelling of complex ideas that are visualized in a way the affect people in a meaningful way. 

An interesting futuristic debate concerns Google’s Library Project, which aims to build a searchable database of the world’s books online. On one hand, it could provide incredible access to knowledge (Drucker 2016, 48). On the other hand, it muddies the issue of authorship and could lead to a “global flattening of expression into a global mush” as aggregators efficiently seek out partial content without presenting the full arguments (Lanier 2011, 46–47). 

Overall, with the ease of creating and disseminating content online, we will likely continue to see a loosening of traditional copy editing conventions as new forms of multimedia communication become adopted by the crowd. 

References 

Castells, Manuel. 2000. “Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society.” British Journal of Sociology 51, no. 1 (January/March): 5–24. 

Drucker, Johanna. 2016. “At the Intersection of Computational Methods and the Traditional Humanities.” In Digital Humanities and Digital Media: Conversations on Politics, Culture, Aesthetics and Literary edited by R. Simanowski, 44–70. London: Open Humanities. 

Hayles, Katherine. 2010. “How We Think: Transforming Power and Digital Technologies.” In Understanding Digital Humanities edited by David Berry, 42–66. Thousand Oaks: Sage. 

Lanier, Jaron. 2011. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Vintage. 

The University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff. 2017. The Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. 2019. Canada.ca Content Style Guide. Ottawa: Government of Canada. See https://www.canada.ca/en/treasury-board-secretariat/services/government-communications/canada-content-style-guide.html. 

Wolfe, Cary. 2010. “Language.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies edited by W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen, 223–248. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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