Editing for the Next Generation of Readersby Jeffrey Japp
As I read Tony Selfâ€™s article â€œWhat If Readers Canâ€™t Readâ€ in the February 2009 issue of Intercom, I began thinking about how editors should revise the way they edit textual content for the next generation of readers.
According to Self, â€œThe speed at which information can be retrieved through tools such as Google is causing readers to become impatient. An Akami study in 2006 found that 75 percent of people would not go back to a website that took more than four seconds to load.â€ He continues by asserting that â€œour reading is moving toward skimming information horizontally, or reading snippets of text from different sources, rather than in-depth vertical reading.â€
So how should we as editors respond to this trend? First, it is imperative that we shorten and streamline copy by removing all superfluous information. Too much text in a topic, whether it is in print or online, will increase the readerâ€™s frustration at not being able to locate information quickly enough. Shortening text can be difficult because we deal with writers who may view every word as important and SMEs who feel that every possible bit of information should be covered in-depth. However, to ensure that we are communicating effectively to the target audience, we must be firm in our resolve to shorten and streamline copy.
The other area where we as editors can make an impact is in creating and editing indices. While this is less of an issue when a professional indexer is involved in the project, often budgetary constraints force writers to create their own indices which may not be as functional. On a recent document I edited, the index was little more than a copy of the Table of Contents. Because an index can help readers locate the precise location of the information they need, it is likely that there will be a shift from using a TOC to locate information to using an index. Self goes as far as suggesting that we abandon TOCs in electronic documents altogether.
If you are an editor who is not also tasked with writing, it may be prudent to get involved with writers early in the project. With an understanding of how documents should be structured to facilitate rapid location of information, we can assist writers in the development phase of a project by suggesting guidelines on how to design hierarchies of information. While this is less of an issue for organizations that employ structured documentation, it is invaluable for those still using more traditional documentation practices.
As content delivery changes, we as editors need to adapt the way we work to ensure that we assist in delivering content that is helpful and intuitive to our users.