Report on the CSE General Meeting on Wednesday 29 March 2023


by Maurice Nevile, Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra

Websites, blogs, vlogs, apps, ebooks vs. pbooks … how are we to understand the digital world, and edit and publish in it? What are the particular characteristics and challenges of digital texts, of “digital writing styles” and “publishing on the screen”? At the 29 March General Meeting we were fortunate to hear from Pamela Hewitt about Editing digital texts. Pamela is an accredited editor who has worked in publishing for over 30 years. After an in-house career in educational and academic editing, she established Emend Editing, a freelance practice specialising in fiction, memoir and narrative non-fiction. Her presentation covered the following: what the digital revolution means for publishing; editing for digital audiences; evolving business models; and, in the Brave new world of digital text, new approaches to reading and marketing.

Pamela noted that in digital publishing editing is a moving target: technology changes and the content of digital texts can be constantly updated or expanded, and may be accessed across multiple platforms, formats and devices. Digital texts incorporate images, but also “rich assets” such as audio and video clips, and various means for readers (or ‘users’) to enter, exit, and navigate within and beyond. So, writers and editors must be conscious of varied or possibly even fragmented forms of reading and understanding: “screen text challenges our notion of structure”.

Among many practical comments, Pamela highlighted how the astute use of links can maximise “screen real estate”, avoid repetition, and better guide readers (allow them to “drill down”), but that too many links can be distracting, and perhaps they can best appear after the site’s main text is established, to keep and entice the reader for longer. Also, it can be wise to have maximum word counts for particular ‘fields’, and short summaries are valuable. Of the text possibilities of various forms of media, Pamela reminded us that “bells and whistles can be fun … if they’re relevant”, but it’s “more than just visual gimmickry’. On wider issues, she offered a handy summary of ‘Publishing then and now’. Significantly, whereas in the past publishing ‘customers’ may have been booksellers and libraries, for digital and online texts now writers and editors commonly deal with readers directly.

Pamela brought many ideas together in her brief discussion of apps for two texts. We were told the multimedia “lavish production” for T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ cost a staggering $250,000 but recovered that amount in just six months. But which publications lend themselves to apps, and what of the “imaginative experience of reading”? Should a reader first encountering a text experience its non-interactive (older, original) version? She says time will tell as digital natives grow up.

Particularly eye-opening for me were Pamela’s very timely comments on her experiences, in preparing this presentation, of AI aids. She found ChatGPT to be helpful for finding references but noted some limitations – for example, it was less adept at synthesising. So, while noting the value of keeping up to date with technology and likely innovations, Pamela reminded us to “be cautious of the latest shiny thing”. Still, as an academic editor and writer, and short-form poet, when she expressed confidence in ChatGPT’s ability to improve, to learn, I lifted my wine and shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

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