Reading On Screens is Different: Edit Accordingly


Reading from a screen isn’t the same as reading from a piece of paper. I say this at the risk of a) telling you something you already know and b) sounding like a curmudgeonly Luddite who can’t cope with new-fangled technology.

Many of us intrinsically know this is true. There is more scanning, and in many instances, more distraction to skip to someplace else. Turns out that science backs up the hunch.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education (which I read online), an article was published in the Journal of Research in Reading (which I didn’t read at all) that highlighted the research of Anne Mangen. She gets all metaphysical and says that “digital texts are ontologically intangible,” so we have a different physical relationship to them, it influences our immersion into the material and other outcomes.

The best bit is this line from the Chronicle quoting Mangen: “One effect, Mangen maintains, is that the digital text makes us read ‘in a shallower, less focused way.'”

We accepted this truth about our shallow, scanning and skipping audiences long ago. And we’ve worked to adjust for it as writers. But I had to wonder if I was fully embracing it as an editor.

In the name of efficiency and environmentalism, I generally edit electronically using any of the available markup tools Microsoft Word offers. This puts me squarely in the audience’s skipping and scanning shoes. It lets me make sure that the text accommodates this arms’ length relationship and that the main points can be plucked here, there or anywhere.

But I also have a responsibility to make the work correct and complete. The writer’s little mistakes and near-misses need to be ferreted out and corrected. I can’t do this well if I am skipping and scanning on screen. That requires immersion.

Which means I either need to let go of my resistance to killing trees and marking up a hardcopy with the old red pen or learn to buck nature and immerse myself in my laptop. Although the latter sounds kind of scary and Tron-like. (E-mail me if you are less ancient than I and don’t understand that reference.)

When editing a piece meant to be read on screen, editors play a dual role. We have to experience the content as the reader will, and we have to bring a critical, detail-oriented eye. What do you do to accommodate both?

Barbara Govednik launched 423 Communication in 2001 to helps its clients tell their stories through freelance writing services, coaching and editing services, and employee communication consulting and implementation. Read Barbara’s Being Well Said Blog.

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