The end of the editor?


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Tamsin Stanford - Masters Thesis, 2005:

The role of the editor has long been recognised as a vital part of the print publishing process. However, the World Wide Web offers a new publishing medium that may require a new approach to content and standards of language use.

While previous studies have assessed responses towards language errors in print, the success of organisational websites in communicating, and the differences between print and website writing, little research has been conducted into perceptions of users about the editor’s role in publishing website content.

This thesis investigates whether the way communications professionals working in the non-profit and public sectors perceive website content may suggest that the editor’s role is changing. Based on these perceptions, it considers what the impact might be on standards of language in Web publishing.

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The end of the editor?

  1. 1. The end of the editor?Perceptions about the role and impactof the editor on language standardsin Web publishingTamsin StanfordSchool of Communication, Culture and LanguagesVictoria UniversityPrincipal Supervisor:Dr Michele GrossmanNovember 2005
  2. 2. - 2 -Table of contentsAcknowledgements ...........................................................................................................4Abstract ..............................................................................................................................5Introduction........................................................................................................................6My question in context.......................................................................................................7Narrowing the focus ..........................................................................................................8Communicating the research.............................................................................................8Part 1: Methodology.......................................................................................................101.1 Choice of research method ..................................................................................101.2 Conducting the survey online...............................................................................111.3 Participants..........................................................................................................111.4 Procedure ............................................................................................................131.5 Ethical issues.......................................................................................................14Part 2: Reviewing the literature.....................................................................................162.1 Setting the stage: the editor and publisher in the print environment .......................172.2 Defining hypertext................................................................................................192.3 The new medium demands a new literacy ...........................................................20The reader and writer roles are redefined............................................................22A new type of author emerges.............................................................................232.4 The democratisation of Web publishing ...............................................................242.5 Developing the skills for the medium....................................................................262.6 Dealing with an ever-changing language .............................................................282.7 The human editor takes a back seat ....................................................................29Editing with ease .................................................................................................302.8 The changing role of the editor.............................................................................332.9 Contextualising perceptions about the medium....................................................35Part 3: Research findings and discussion ...................................................................37Websites as a medium for communication ......................................................................373.1 Elements of a website..........................................................................................373.2 Reliance on the medium......................................................................................383.3 Impact of errors: print compared to Web..............................................................393.4 The Web publishing process................................................................................413.5 The editor: role, reactions and scope of involvement ...........................................42Use of programs and guides in preparing content ...........................................................45
  3. 3. - 3 -3.6 Corporate and other printed and online guides ....................................................453.7 Computer spelling and grammar checks..............................................................463.8 Participants rate their own competence ...............................................................483.9 Editing on screen: speed over accuracy ..............................................................493.10 Writing for the Web versus writing for print ..........................................................49Analysing the effectiveness of content ............................................................................51Discussion.......................................................................................................................53Constructing a ‘typical’ communications professional ..........................................54Implications for editors.........................................................................................55Opportunities for future research.....................................................................................55Conclusion .......................................................................................................................57Championing the cause...................................................................................................57A misplaced sense of control...........................................................................................57Maintaining language standards......................................................................................58The editor is dead; long live the editor!............................................................................58Appendix A: Research survey questionnaire..........................................................60Appendix B: Research survey textual analyses......................................................65Appendix C: Research survey raw data...................................................................68Bibliography.....................................................................................................................88
  4. 4. - 4 -AcknowledgementsThe idea for this thesis would not have developed were it not for all those people whocouldn’t care less about spelling, grammar or punctuation, or how to write for the Web.Thanks must go to them for keeping me employed and for feeding my passion.The busy communications professionals who took the time to respond to my survey broughtthis thesis to life and provided me with great material; thank you for your involvement.Enormous thanks go to Dr Michele Grossman, my supervisor, whose expert guidance keptme focused throughout and made this journey a very smooth one.To Dad and Susan: thank you for your unfailing support, for always believing that I could dothis, and for letting me know that it was OK if I decided not to.And lastly, but most of all, thank you to Joe, who made sure I kept a sense of perspectiveand who supported me every step of the way. Without you I could not have done this.
  5. 5. - 5 -AbstractThe role of the editor has long been recognised as a vital part of the print publishingprocess. However, the World Wide Web offers a new publishing medium that may require anew approach to content and standards of language use.While previous studies have assessed responses towards language errors in print (O’Neill,Fontaine & Sligo, 2002), the success of organisational websites in communicating (Durham,2000), and the differences between print and website writing (Gregory, 2004), little researchhas been conducted into perceptions of users about the editor’s role in publishing websitecontent.This thesis investigates whether the way communications professionals working in the non-profit and public sectors perceive website content may suggest that the editor’s role ischanging. Based on these perceptions, it considers what the impact might be on standardsof language in Web publishing.
  6. 6. - 6 -IntroductionIn the early 1980s, before the presence of computers in homes and classrooms brought theWorld Wide Web to the fingertips of many, the focus of much educational research was onthe rise of the whole language approach to reading and its implications for literacy. By theearly 1990s, the educational debate had extended to the importance of grammar in youngchildren’s education, with a question mark over a return to the prescriptive grammarpractices of the 1950s and 60s (Williams, p. 19). The same generation that grew up andundertook its schooling during these debates also experienced the introduction ofcomputers, followed by the arrival of the Internet. For people in this generation, thequestion posed in the title of this thesis might seem irrelevant, as they would find it hard toimagine a world without the editorial support provided by word processing programs. Butfor the previous generation, the generation to which I belong, computers were the catalystfor a change in the educational context, which included a shift towards digital literacy,accompanied by a changing social context.The Internet provided an entirely new medium for communication through synchronous andasynchronous chat rooms, role-playing fantasy games and email. This was followed in1994 by the creation of the World Wide Web – the medium at the heart of this thesis –which more easily enabled vast amounts of what had previously only existed in print tobecome available online via websites: journals, poems, corporate reports and brochures,business directories and advertising – lots of advertising.As we will see, the role of the editor in print publishing has developed since the advent ofprint technology in the 14thcentury to be recognised as a vital part of the modern-daypublishing process. The existence of the Web has provided more people than ever beforewith the tools to publish their work and reach wide audiences. Yet in many cases there isno quality control, leading to vast amounts of content that has not been edited as it wouldhave been, were it published in a pre-Internet print environment. With so many words ‘outthere’, and no gatekeeper checking the standard of content, what is the impact on languageand on standards of written communication?
  7. 7. - 7 -My question in contextI decided to pose the question of the possible demise of the editor for two reasons. Firstly,as a corporate writer and editor of printed and website material for the past eight years, ithas been my perception that the standard of what is considered acceptable for a corporatewebsite is generally lower than for a printed document. By ‘lower’, I am referring in particularto the correct usage of grammar, punctuation and spelling relevant to the particular country(specifically Australian or British English, as opposed to American English) and, to a lesserextent, to the appropriateness of the message for the audience. In my experience, theeditorial processes governing the production of a brochure, newsletter or other printeddocument are more rigid than those followed in the production of online content. Thus Iwanted to investigate whether others share my perception that website content does notadhere as rigidly to the standards we have come to expect of print, or whether the mediumencourages a more relaxed approach to the rules of our language.Secondly, given the traditional role of editors as gatekeepers of language – at the level ofinfluencing and maintaining standards of public language, and of applying the standardsidentified by their organisation as appropriate – I wanted to find out what the current roleand impact of the editor is, or is perceived as being, in the Web publishing process. Thiswould also enable me to hypothesise about what the future might hold for corporate editorsif others shared my perceptions.At the start of my Masters program, my practical experience far outweighed my academicknowledge about the subject of Web publishing and language standards. An encounterduring my first semester with the theory of hypertext sparked an interest in understandingmore about the impact of the medium on writing. In short, I wanted to try to understand whythe content my colleagues supplied for me to edit for the website seemed to be of such alow standard. In the course of writing a critical review essay, I found a distinct lack ofresearch into the language being used on websites. In 2000, Durham believed that interestwas predominantly focussed on aspects of the Internet other than websites, namely chatrooms and email (2000, p. 3). While previous studies have assessed responses towardslanguage errors in print (O’Neill, Fontaine, & Sligo, 2002), the success of organisationalwebsites in communicating (Durham, 2000), and the differences between print and websitewriting (Gregory, 2004), little research has been conducted into perceptions of users about
  8. 8. - 8 -the editor’s role in publishing website content, and the implications arising from theseperceptions for the standard of language contained in websites.Narrowing the focusThe Internet is such a huge beast that it would be wrong to generalise about its content:Snyder (1996) points out that ‘it is just as difficult to talk of “generic” hypertext as of genericprint’ (p. 19). Even limiting the focus to ‘websites’ reveals different genres of content, suchas news, personal blogs, online retailers, e-journals or corporate information, each with itsown writing style and tone to reflect the aims of the organisation or individual, and with‘marketing’ language in particular featuring in website content studies. In the print world,the equivalent would be to compare an encyclopaedia with a church newsletter, wherebudget, strategic aims and resources have a large impact on the standard of the end result.This led me to focus on what people think about corporate websites as a form ofcommunication, and what editorial checks and balances exist, or should exist, in theirongoing production. Do people care if language errors are made on corporate websites, ordo they see the medium as a more relaxed environment for language? Are standardslower, and if so are they acceptable, or even noticeable? To this end, I surveyed a group ofmy peers – communications professionals working for Australian non-profit and public-sector organisations – to examine: Perceptions about the Web as a medium for communication; Attitudes towards the editor function as part of the publishing process; and Opinions and experiences with programs and guides used to prepare content forpublishing, specifically the direction and assistance provided for grammar, punctuationand spelling.Communicating the researchI was raised and educated in a print environment, where even the handful of Maccomputers at my British secondary school were used for design and play rather thancommunication. When I was given a second-hand computer for assignments at universityin 1994, I still ‘thought’ on paper, using the computer only for typing up and printing out myfinal draft. Now I find myself working at a computer five days per week, with even moretime spent ‘online’ at the weekends. A keyboard has become a more natural implementthan a pen, and my thoughts are transferred straight from brain to screen, where they can
  9. 9. - 9 -be easily edited and manipulated. This has raised an interesting internal struggle for me:how to structure and present content created on screen and about electronic content that isdestined for a traditional print medium such as a thesis? As a result, I have tended towardsusing some of the tools I have learnt for effective electronic writing – such as usingparagraph headings that break up long blocks of text and provide visual ‘signposts’ for thereader, and avoiding capitals for titles, apart from proper nouns – while trying to keep withinthe prevailing discourse that is an academic thesis, although this conservative genre is alsogradually changing.I have also made this thesis available on the Internet to enable me to present it in the waymy instinct dictated, with ideas and relevant sections linked electronically, so that eachreader ‘may “transform” the textual body by following alternative pathways’ (Snyder 1996, p.31, citing Moulthrop 1991), while always providing a sense of the ‘whole’ document.The address of this thesis is [no longer active].
  10. 10. - 10 -Part 1: Methodology1.1 Choice of research methodDenzin describes qualitative research as ‘a situated activity that locates the observer in theworld’ (2000, p. 4). Almost eight years of working as an editor, for print and electronicmedia, and almost 10 years as a Web surfer and consumer, has enabled me to observecountless examples of corporate Web publishing on the Internet. Much of what I encounterhas been written for print and has not been adapted to a user-friendly online format. Someis badly written, incorrectly written, or written so long ago that it can no longer be assumedto be correct. In my experience this is in stark contrast to organisations’ printed publications,which follow a more rigid publishing process and often have a specific review and updatingprocess, with a budget to match. In one non-profit organisation, I have observed theapproval and checking process for printed documents, from promotional postcards toregular magazines, to involve the appropriate department manager, then the communicationsmanager, often a director and always the chief executive; website content, on the otherhand, is very often published with the approval of only the appropriate department manager,who is recognised as the subject expert, following checking by the website editor.These experiences of poorly written content as the face of an organisation have given mean interest in learning what my peers think about Web publishing, what they perceive to bethe role of the editor in this new environment and what they think about websites as amedium in general.Quantitative research methods return a good level of reliability but I wanted genuineopinions from those in the field as I felt that my experiences could influence any options Imight provide in a quantitative approach. I therefore developed a research questionnairewith mainly open-ended questions to encourage detailed answers, providing real insight intopeople’s perceptions. Additionally, allowing participants to provide their own comments(qualitatively) rather than selecting from pre-determined choices would be better for validityfor the purposes of this study (Knight 2002, p. 88). It would also allow me to cover the topicin ‘depth’ rather than ‘breadth’, as articulated by Blaxter, Hughes and Tight (2001, p. 64).
  11. 11. - 11 -1.2 Conducting the survey onlineAs I spend the majority of my working day at the computer, as do those taking part in myresearch, it seemed appropriate and useful to conduct the survey in the online environment.Specifically, building an online survey had the following advantages:1. It enabled me to involve participants located geographically across Melbourne in a waythat would have been more difficult with focus groups or individual interviews, avoidingthe time constraints of participants and juggling full-time work with study.2. Gathering data electronically significantly reduced the amount of time needed to analyseand use the results: as I work straight ‘from brain to screen’, instead of drafting first onpaper, I simply copied and pasted those insights that I wanted to use in the findings,avoiding lengthy transcribing sessions.3. Participants were able to choose the most convenient time for them to complete thesurvey (half of all participants completed their surveys between noon and 2.30pm, and19 of the 20 completed it during their working week between 9am and 4pm).4. Online surveys allow participation to be completely voluntary – participants canwithdraw at any time more easily when the survey is conducted anonymously on acomputer instead of face-to-face.5. Most importantly, it allowed participants to complete a survey about website content andpublishing while they were working in that same medium, allowing me to gauge fromtheir responses some of the techniques and behaviours used by people writing in thisenvironment.The only disadvantage I identified was that participants could not easily ask me forclarification during the course of the survey in a way that would have been possible in afocus group or individual interview setting.1.3 ParticipantsI decided to focus on the publishing practices and perceptions of those working specificallyin the non-profit and public sectors, as their communication channels are not involved indirect selling, and tend to be informative rather than containing what Price and Price (2002)refer to as ‘marketing fluff’ (p. 88). They are required to publish diverse information to arange of different stakeholders clearly and have a focus on the community, as well as a
  12. 12. - 12 -requirement, if not an obligation, to remain credible. Using these sectors has allowed me tomake use of the professional contacts I have made through working in the field.I identified my potential participants as those working within the communicationsdepartment of two government bodies and four non-profit organisations; however, this doesnot necessarily indicate that they are in an editing role. Rather, they are in some wayinvolved in the production of content – both written and graphic – some of which may bedestined for the electronic medium, and some for print. It should be noted that in oneorganisation the department responsible for internal and external communications, includingmanagement of the website and Intranet, is the Public Affairs Department rather than‘Communications’. All participants have regular exposure to the website of the organisationin which they work and are computer literate to the extent that they have enough knowledgeof computers and operating systems to access websites via the Internet and tocommunicate via email.Thirty people were invited to participate. Given the average composition of communicationsdepartments, it is not surprising that the majority of potential participants – just over threequarters – were female. Seven men were invited to participate, but were under-representedin the results, only four of those seven responding. The results are therefore morerepresentative of women, and also of younger attitudes: of those who provided their age, 60per cent fell into the 25 to 34 age group, and only one was aged over 45. Of the 19 whoresponded to the question about the highest level of education attained, 12 heldundergraduate degrees, five held a postgraduate diploma or certificate, and two held a HighSchool Certificate or equivalent.Twenty-one are personally known to me, 17 of whom consented to participate. Of theremaining nine who were recommended as contacts, five completed the survey. Anacceptable response rate for the purposes of this research was 15: Overall 20 of thoseinvited to participate did so, a response rate of 66.66 per cent.A copy of the survey can be found in Appendix A.
  13. 13. - 13 -1.4 ProcedureAn online survey was built using QEDML software (Questionnaire Exchange andDeployment Markup Language). In most cases I mailed the invitation to participate, butemailed several people who were happy to receive information in this way as it is a quickermethod. The invitation contained details of the project, its aims, and information about whattheir involvement would entail. Those who provided their consent to participate wereemailed, thanking them for their interest in the project, and reiterating that participation wasanonymous and voluntary and that they could withdraw at any time, or contact me withqueries. This email contained a link to the website for this survey, not accessible via a linkfrom any other location. Although they were told in advance that the survey would takeapproximately 40 minutes, the survey software allowed me to include a visible ‘measure’identifying their progress through the survey so the participants knew how much moreneeded to be completed. At the end of the survey, a closing page thanked participants fortheir time and provided a link for them to email me if they would like a copy of the finalthesis. Two participants requested a copy and one emailed me to comment on how usefulthe visible ‘measure’ was, so she could see her progress.The first section, ‘Websites as a medium for communication’, aimed to elicit respondents’opinions about how important the different aspects of a website – including design andtechnical aspects – are to them, and how their impressions of an organisation are shapedby errors in print and website communication.Section two garnered information about the processes within their organisation, and theirspecific views and experiences of the role of the editor in the process.In section three, respondents were asked about any programs or guides available to themthat they may use in preparing content, and were asked to judge their own competence incorrect language use. It also asked whether they perceived any difference between writingin the print and electronic media. This section included two brief content analyses of de-identified sample text, which required the writers to shift into the role of readers withoutexplicitly making them aware of this shift. The body text (that is, the main article on thepage, not navigational items or images) from a page on a non-profit organisation’s websitewas presented in two ways: in its original format as it appeared on the website; and as anedited version that used some of the common rules advocated for Web writing, such as
  14. 14. - 14 -chunking information and using bulleted lists for clarity and brevity. In this section,participants were asked to evaluate the two pieces to see if they found one to be moreeffective than the other. The second text was taken from a Victorian local governmentwebsite and was selected for its multiple errors. Respondents were again asked toevaluate the text and were prompted to see if they would make any changes such as wordchoice, spelling, grammar and punctuation. Copies of both texts form Appendix B.The purpose of the final section was to collect basic demographic information that mayidentify a correlation between education, gender, or age, and the responses in the rest ofthe survey.1.5 Ethical issuesUsing the Internet to gather research data raises issues that are different from moretraditional data collection methods. Moreover, this method is still in its relative infancy.Problems can arise ‘when a methodology for conducting research is so novel that there areno universally accepted standards or guidelines for its ethical use’ (Porr and Ployhart inBuchanan 2004, p. 131).In this study, taking into consideration the software and participants at my disposal, I aimedto ensure that my survey results would remain confidential. To minimise the risk ofidentifying respondents, I intended to invite at least two people from each organisation Icontacted. Unfortunately, I was not able to make as many contacts as I had anticipated,which resulted in three individuals – none of whom were known to me personally –representing three different organisations. However, two out of those three did not respondto the invitation to participate. Peden and Flashinski (2004), in their content analysis ofsurveys and experiments online, found that none of the studies they looked at achieved thethreshold for compliance with confidentiality guidelines (p. 15).Confidentiality can be achieved through the encryption of data collected; however, this wasnot a feasible option for this study. The QEDML software was chosen because it would notincur any costs, and a survey could be built in a very short time frame. Technicalassistance was provided by Dr Rebecca Mathews, a registered psychologist employed atmy workplace, who built the survey and had temporary access to the data for the purpose
  15. 15. - 15 -of downloading and then deleting the survey results from the program. Access to theseresults was by password only, ensuring that they could not be accessed by anyone else.Downloaded data will be stored on CD ROM, with password-only access. Dr Mathews didnot have access to any stored or confidential data and is bound by the AustralianPsychological Societys Code of Ethics with regard to privacy, confidentiality and researchethics and conduct.To encourage frank responses, given that many of the participants have worked with me inthe past or work with me currently in my capacity as a writer and editor, the survey wasanonymous and did not solicit information such as organisation, name, or job title. This wasparticularly important for those organisations in which I had only one contact. The result isthat participants’ comments used in the findings are not attributed to any individual.
  16. 16. - 16 -Part 2: Reviewing the literatureIn 1982, Walter Ong wrote: ‘A literate person cannot fully recover a sense of what the wordis to purely oral people’ (p. 12), highlighting the difficulty of considering primary oralitywithout seeing it as a variant of the written. In the same way, the electronic medium underreview in this chapter can only be investigated by seeing how it is not print. If reading andwriting the printed word were not innate for literate people, we would not be so aware of theimpact of the new technology on our reading, writing and learning.The Internet has a much larger presence in, and therefore more of an impact on, Westernsocieties. For example, African nations make up 14 per cent of the world’s population yetrepresent only 1.7 per cent of Internet users, compared to North America’s 5.1 per cent ofthe world’s population making up 23.8 per cent of users (,accessed 26 July 2005). My focus, therefore, is on the writing and language practices of thedeveloped world, although in the future, as Internet technology becomes more widespread,less-developed countries may experience similar opportunities and challenges to thosefaced by the West in the 1980s and 1990s.In this literature review I begin by providing a historical framework of the printed word andcontextualising the role of the editor, looking at its origins in print culture, although I shouldemphasise that this thesis is not about book publishing, or even e-book publishing. Toenable a clearer understanding of the differences between the printed word and hypertext, Inext look at some of the definitions of hypertext by those who are recognised authorities onthe subject. The third section addresses the question of literacy in the electronic mediumand I include some of the theories about the impact on reading, writing and the author, notall of which have been borne out by my study. This is followed by two sections that lookspecifically at website content, both the ability of the general population to self-publish, andthe quality of what appears on websites as those taught to write for print discover a newmedium. I then provide a brief context for the final parts of the review by suggesting thatlanguage has continually been developing, with online written language another phase in itsdevelopment. An investigation into how technology and style guides are influencingpeople’s language standards is followed by the final section of the review, in which Iexamine what shape the role of the editor might take in the future.
  17. 17. - 17 -2.1 Setting the stage: the editor and publisher in the print environmentThe printing press changed the course of human history. It produced aninformation revolution. It changed what human beings know, and how we think.(Spender 1995, p. 1)Writing as a technology, which Ong defines as a coded system of visible marks, has existedsince around 3500 BC (1982, p. 83). Cultural definitions of writing have changed over time,however. In mediaeval Europe, ‘writing’ referred to the transcribing of manuscripts;authorship was ‘practically unknown before the advent of print technology’ (McLuhan 1967,p. 122) and scholars were no more than ‘a humble service organization’ (ibid.), responsiblefor copying the work of others by hand. The scribe was not the originator of the text; in fact,‘[any] copyist…who changed anything, was not seen as creative – as making an originalcontribution – but was likely to be charged with corrupting the text’ (Spender 1995, p. 2).Only in the mid-1400s, with the advent of the printing press – a new technology – did writingcome to be viewed as ‘authorship of original material’ (Warschauer 1999, p. 2).The influence of the church in Europe was reflected in the fact that it was the originator ofthe overwhelming majority of manuscripts before the 15thcentury. Yet by the early 1700sthe printing press had brought power to a new group of social actors: printers, usuallyknown as booksellers, who were ‘enlightened businessmen’ (Couturier 1991, p. 17-18) andprinted whatever they thought they could sell. Despite being legally acknowledged as the‘creator of original works that were his property’ (Baron 2001, p. 69), a writer had littleauthority in the printing process, and the editor function as we know it today did not exist.Professional writers often made their way into print publishing as a ‘proof corrector ratherthan an author’ (Febvre and Martin, in Spender 1995, p. 70), and in Britain were notrecognised as owning their intellectual property until the introduction of copyright laws by anAct of Queen Anne in 1710 (Spender 1995, p. 72).In From alphabet to email (2001), Baron takes a close look at the evolving relationshipbetween speech and writing, from the days of manuscripts to the 21stcentury. Shedemonstrates that the changing notion of what it means to be an author, and the lack ofstandardisation of language and punctuation, is nothing new and can be seen developingthroughout history. The apprehension that accompanies new technologies is also an oldconcept: scribes commonly objected to the printed book on the basis ‘that it loweredstandards’ (Spender 1995, p. 7). And in 1492, the Abbot of Sponheim stated: ‘Printed
  18. 18. - 18 -books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed booksare often deficient in spelling and appearance’ (Baron 2001, p. 44). Similarly, Ong (1982)refers to Plato’s suspicion of writing as a ‘mechanical, inhuman way of processing knowledge’(p. 24) that destroyed the memory. Ong draws an analogy with modern fears of theintroduction of computers (p. 78), and Crystal (2001) discusses a similar reaction totelevision in the 1960s (p. 4).One of the main effects of the printing press was on the appearance of the written word.Whereas manuscript grammar had varied according to teacher and location (Eisenstein1983, p. 53), standardisation began as printers recognised the need to appeal to thebroadest possible audience, by eliminating what Spender (1995) called ‘the whims ofspelling and the phrases of dialect which would have made their books less readilyunderstood by a wide public’ (p. 13), a phenomenon Ong (1982) terms the development ofa ‘grapholect’ (p. 8). Early editors took the form of ‘compositors‘, those in the employ of theprinters who ensured that the style of punctuation ‘fit the printing house’s (or individualcompositor’s) notions of appropriateness’ (Baron 2001, p. 181). This suggests that nosingle overarching standard existed, and as Baron points out, ‘just as today’s abundance ofdictionaries and spellcheckers hardly ensures correct spelling…printers’ edicts didn’tguarantee consistently spelled texts’ (ibid., p. 99). Publishers today still have their ownhouse style, and an editor’s role and obligation is to apply that style. However, as we willsee, spelling at least is less open to interpretation and personal preference than in the past.While the typewriter may have been credited in 1882 as an aid to learning to ‘read, write,spell, and punctuate’ (McLuhan 1964, p. 282), the advent of the first word processingcomputer in the early 1980s had a more profound impact on the roles of the editor andwriter. Conventions that had formed over centuries of print meant that authors, typesetters,graphic designers and editors had clearly defined roles in the publishing process. The newtechnology suddenly empowered the author (or editor, academic or bookseller) to controlthe whole process, from writing, editing and submitting ‘manuscripts’ to marketing anddistributing the finished product (Feeney 1985, back cover). Yet Feeney’s 1985 guide tonew methods and techniques for publishers showed a lack of foresight, reluctant to advocatea move away from the traditional print-based editing system, as ‘copy editors make poorkeyboarders and it is uneconomic, therefore, to copy-edit at a terminal’ (ibid., p. 28). As wenow know, by the late 1980s the word processor had found its way into homes and schools
  19. 19. - 19 -in Western societies, and in 1994 the World Wide Web was launched, giving the massesaccess to a new technology and a new form of writing – hypertext.2.2 Defining hypertextThe concept of the book…has been replaced by the text, fragmented,contradictory, incomplete, relativistic, arbitrary and indeterminate. (Kernan1990, p. 144)Snyder’s 1996 book, Hypertext: the electronic labyrinth, remains one of the definitive textson the subject of writing in the electronic medium. At a time when the Web was in itsinfancy, she addresses the impact of electronic writing on the reader and writer, anddiscusses the implications for teaching. Whereas the printed page fostered a ‘sense ofclosure’ (Ong 1982, p. 132), Snyder describes hypertext as ‘essentially a network of linksbetween words, ideas and sources that has neither a centre nor an end’ (p. 18), andexplains how readers construct their own ‘hybrid documents based on associational linksrather than linear sequences’ (p. 17), thus differentiating it from word processing anddesktop publishing.This builds on Landow’s discussions of hypertext before the Web was invented. He writesof the need to abandon ‘ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity, and replace themwith ones of multilinearity, nodes, links and networks’ (1992, p. 2). In particular, it is thisability to create links between pieces of information that ‘disturbs our linear notion of textsby disrupting conventional structures and expectations associated with the medium of print’(Snyder 1996, p. 17).In the organisational setting, it is clear that the Web has a great deal to offer. In 2000, theAustralian Government embraced the electronic medium and its features, ‘which enhancethe value and usefulness of the information. Hypertext links, history, backtracking,annotations, bookmarks, formatted copying and printing are functions which paper productscannot provide’ (Guidelines for Commonwealth Information Published in Electronic Formats2000, p. 31).Links – specifically their ability to create intertextuality – are one of the defining features ofhypertext, and indeed of organisational website writing today. Bolter (1991) describes the
  20. 20. - 20 -intertextual relationship as occurring ‘everywhere’ in print (p. 164), providing examples ofnovels, magazines, encyclopaedias, grammars, and dictionaries. The difference is that ‘theelectronic space permits us to visualize intertextuality as no previous medium has done’ (ibid.).While websites have certainly fulfilled Bolter’s vision of intertextuality, the electronic mediumoffers a paradoxical situation whereby a website can offer less choice than a printedpublication, through either the deliberate choice of the site’s creator, or bad design.Spyridakis (2000) posits that the ‘reading of print materials can in fact be more nonlinearthan reading of hypertext because the routes with print documents are endless and theroutes in hypertext are constrained by links’ (p. 359). David Crystal (2001) believes that thewebsite owner ‘has total control over what we may see and what may be accessed, andalso what links we may follow’ (p. 203), a situation that has no equivalent in print: even if theauthor of a printed book chose to give the book no chapters, no headings, even no pagenumbers, a reader could still open it at any stage and move around to a different part, orread it from start to finish and make sense of it. If a website owner creates a page that hasno links leading out of it – by accident or by design – a search engine can still index it,providing a way in but leaving the reader effectively stranded once they reach that page.It became clear by the mid-1990s that to enable a full understanding of the impact ofintertextuality, hyperlinking, and the interconnectedness of content and design, the mediumrequired the teaching of a new literacy to acknowledge the impact of this new writing space.2.3 The new medium demands a new literacyWhat we have at present is an intriguing technology whose operations compelus to radically revise our print-derived notions of reading, writing, text, languageand closure. (Snyder 1996, p. 122)Print literacy is defined as ‘the ability to read and write’ (Tuman 1992, p. 2) but, in thecomputer age, it becomes difficult to retain this definition when the meanings of ‘reading’and ‘writing’ have changed and become unstable (ibid.).In Literacy Beyond Books (2000), Nancy Kaplan explores ‘the meanings embedded in theterm [literacy] and the values attached to it’ (p. 210) and responds to the feeling amongsome professors of literature that the World Wide Web is causing a literacy crisis (p. 208).She suggests that the concerns about literacy caused by widespread new technology are
  21. 21. - 21 -not new, and that it is less about the technology, and more about those who fear theimplications for society, such as a loss of power and authority: ‘The same sort of plaint risesevery time a new technology for writing begins to permeate the cultural sphere’ (ibid.).As computers began to appear in schools and universities for teaching purposes in the1980s, two main camps arose: those who embraced the change, and the free flow ofideas and information facilitated by the electronic medium, which at last enabled thedeconstructionists to demonstrate what they had been trying to communicate for decades;and those who foresaw a decline in print literacy as the authority of the author was eroded,and the characteristics and impact of hypertext removed the student’s ability to reflect onthe text and thus construct literary theory.Myron Tuman’s unease that the ‘champions’ of hypertext were seeking a new literacypractice to get rid of the hierarchy of the print they know (1992, p. 78) is in stark contrast tothose ‘champions‘, such as Lanham, Bolter and Landow, who celebrate the ability ofhypertext to facilitate ‘a critical and dynamic approach to literacy that is an extension of thebest traditions of the print world and finally fulfils the vision of critical literacy to reconfigurethe text, author, and reader’ (Warschauer 1999, pp. 11-12). Kellner (2002) envisions abroader definition of literacy that includes technical knowledge and skills (p. 162) but seesonline literacy as a continuity of the old, not a replacement: ‘Traditional print literacy takeson increasing importance in the computer-mediated cyberworld as people need to criticallyscrutinise and scroll tremendous amounts of information, putting new emphasis ondeveloping reading and writing abilities’ (ibid., p. 158).According to Kaplan (2000), Tuman’s primary concern is that the links in a hypertextprevent scholars from truly contemplating the text, as their existence disrupts the cognitiveprocess. She sees this concept of literacy as ‘an idealized condition’ (p. 219), and is criticalof literary theorists Myron Tuman and Sven Birkerts for applying the terms ‘literacy’ and‘reading’ to only ‘critical reading’ (p. 215).Technology itself does not appear to change literacy; more precisely, new technologychanges society, and that has an impact on literacy (Warschauer 1999, p. 1). It took theindustrial revolution, not just the invention of the printing press, to create mass literacy inEurope, demonstrating how ‘technological change intersects with other social, cultural andpolitical factors to help determine how literacy is practiced’ (Warschauer 1999, p. 3). For
  22. 22. - 22 -Kaplan also, it is the prevailing ‘material, social, and economic conditions’ that affect literacy(2000, p. 212). In the 21stcentury, the prevailing conditions are of people having less timeand being confronted with so-called ‘information overload’, which may contribute to thebehaviour of scanning and skipping around text to find as much as possible, as fast aspossible (Ohi 2001, p. 11).The effect of the word processor in homes and classrooms in the 1980s was to begin to blurthe boundary between language, design and technology, raising issues for editors, readersand writers. It was no longer possible to take for granted the literacy that had becomeinnate – new forms of literacy were needed. The vision that Tuman had in 1992 was of anew type of literacy: Online literacy would be ‘more practical, less theoretical, and newliterates themselves [will be] valued to the extent that they are team players, not traditionalintellectuals’ (Tuman 1992, p. 123), placing an emphasis on ‘collaboration andcommunication’ (ibid.). Similarly, Warschauer (1999) describes the characteristics of theinformation revolution as ‘a flattened hierarchy, multiskilled labor, team-based work, andjust-in-time production and distribution’ (p. 9). Tuman’s vision seems to have become reality.The reader and writer roles are redefinedChanges in our traditional understanding of the terms reader and writer, and the boundariesbetween them, are discussed at length in the literature on hypertext. The electronicmedium has the effect of making people aware of the part technology plays in the creationof text in a way that had become invisible, or ‘unchallenged’ with print (Reinking 1997, p.630). Reinking suggests that this new awareness ‘may lead us to reflect about howtechnology affects reading and writing, which in turn affects our conceptions of literacy’(ibid.). Spender goes so far as to suggest that the terms reader and writer are ‘almostmeaningless in the cyber-context’ (1995, p. 90), supporting Tuman’s statement in 1992: ‘Wehave hardly begun to giving all writers the ability to produce published forms oftheir own texts will affect our notion of authorship or how giving them the ability to integrategraphics into their documents will affect our notion of writing’ (p. 58).Bolter recognised the impact that the new medium would have on the reader and writer,creating a whole new writing space. His seminal book, Writing Space (1991), explores theeffect of the electronic medium on the way we think, particularly when the reader changesroles to become the creator of a text. The fact that hypertext enables the writer to movetext around on screen and edit easily has an impact on the way we approach writing.
  23. 23. - 23 -Snyder (1996) draws heavily on Bolter’s earlier work, describing how ‘writing with acomputer blurs the line between thinking and writing but also shapes to some extent theways in which we think’ (p. 5). She sees the electronic writing space as enabling ‘aninteractive relationship between writer and reader’ (p. 3).A new type of author emergesThe collaborative nature of online writing, its lack of boundaries between texts and lack oftextual autonomy (Landow 1992, p. 74), combine to undermine the idea of what we meanand understand by ‘author’. According to Alvin Kernan (1990), by the 1980s, ‘the author,whose creative imagination had been said to be the source of literature, was declared deador the mere assembler of various bits of language and culture into writings that were…simplycultural collages or “texts”’ (p. 2). In this environment, the author of a text ‘is merely thepersonage charged with collecting and arranging such material’ (Snyder 1996, p. 63).Yet not all those who have written on the subject believe that the changing role of theauthor is a phenomenon particular to the Web: as Naomi Baron (2001) demonstrates,Foucault, in 1977, envisioned the individual author being replaced by ‘author-function’ (p.92) and also in the 1970s, in The Death of the Author, Barthes challenged the notion oftraditional authorship: ‘The meaning of the text is found…in the mind of the reader’ (ibid.).Rather than indicating an epistemic change, then, it appears that the arrival of the computerbegan an overlap between the two literacies, as Poster (1995) asserts: ‘Periods or epochsdo not succeed but implicate one another, do not replace but supplement one another, arenot consecutive but simultaneous’ (p. 21). Poster also sees electronic writing as ‘[continuing]the tendency begun with handwriting and print: it enables the removal of the author from thetext, increases the distance, both spatial and temporal, of the author from the reader andaugments the problem of the interpretation of texts’ (ibid., p. 69). Similarly, Tuman (1992, p.66) believed that the new literacy would ‘enhance’ the old, not replace it immediately.The future for authoring, according to Tuman, means a return to the manuscript days ofmultiple authorship, when old ‘scriptors’ wrote the work of others and added to it,‘commentators’ added their own work to others’ to explain it and ‘auctors’ added others’work to explain their own (1992, p. 64). In this context, the writer would be responsible fordecisions over the appearance and layout of the text, removing the need for an editor.
  24. 24. - 24 -Snyder (1996, p. 8) is confident that writers trained in print will adjust to the demands ofonline literacy.2.4 The democratisation of Web publishingPeople who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary toeducational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to stringsentences together for the edification of others. And there is no editing on theInternet! (Truss 2003, p. 17)Throughout its history, the printing press has reinforced the divide between the reader andthe writer, mainly for reasons of economics. Bolter (1991) sees the ‘costly and laborioustask’ of printing (p. 148) as widening that divide, and is critical of the attitude that ‘the act ofprinting itself makes these opinions worthy of our attention’ (ibid., p. 149). The ‘new writingspace’ at the heart of Bolter’s book removes the ‘special’ nature of being an author (p. 152),since almost anyone (in the affluent Western world, at least) can become an author throughthis new technology.In the Web environment of democratised authorship, ‘there will be no teacher, editor,publisher or bookseller to vet or validate what goes public; it could soon mean the end ofthe rejection slip and the demise of the gatekeeper’ (Spender 1995, p. 86). McAlpinewelcomes the prospect of self-publishing more positively, seeing the Web as providingauthors with ‘no excuse for languishing in the shadows, mournfully unpublished. They canno longer blame the cold hearts and bad judgment of editors who reject their preciousmanuscripts.’ (McAlpine 2001, p. 225). However, in the case of the eBook she isdescribing, she does acknowledge the value of the editor intervention in the process to‘correct the grammar or cut the excess verbiage’ (ibid., p. 229).The lack of a central control – such as an editor – to determine whether texts are worthy ofbeing published has resulted in people today using the World Wide Web to publish anythingand everything, which, as Yellowlees-Douglas points out, includes a great deal of work that‘no publisher would ever be caught putting into circulation’ (n.d., p. 1). The ease with which‘every computer-equipped, reasonably wired person can be a publisher or “contentprovider”’ (Moulthrop 2000, p. 267) has led to an explosion in online publishing over thedecade of the Web’s existence: In September 2005, popular search engine Google™indexed more than eight billion website pages (, 17 September 2005).
  25. 25. - 25 -In one sense, this fulfils the vision of the man credited with inventing the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, whereby ‘anyone (authorised) should be able to publish and correct information andanyone (authorised) should be able to read it’ (Berners-Lee 1999, pp. 41-42).While information can certainly be easily published and read on the Web, Berners-Lee’sexpectation of anyone being able to ‘correct’ information has certainly not come to pass.True, the electronic medium offers a feature without parallel in print, that of correcting, orupdating, information over time in a way that cannot be compared with the issuing of errataor new editions of printed books. But literature suggests that attitudes towards the Web as amedium remove any sense of urgency over correcting mistakes. This perception is clear inMcAlpine’s writing guide, in which she suggests that ‘…it’s never too late to fix the wordson a web site’ (McAlpine 2001, p. 2). It is a sentiment shared by Gerstner (1998), whosays: ‘It’s not like print, where mistakes live forever. You can change the web sitetomorrow’ (p. 17).The medium does allow for many inaccuracies to be corrected, be they factual orgrammatical, and for arguments to be updated as further studies are conducted. This,Burbules believes, results in ‘more highly refined content, via multiple revisions: correctingerrors…modifying works’ (1998, p. 117), although he continues: ‘Such relentless tinkeringfor the sake of marginal improvements can become wearisome, and it is doubtful how manyreaders would continue to reread versions of a paper to get the latest state of an author’sthinking’ (ibid., p. 121). The role of the editor is still not mentioned as part of this process;the assumption here is that the author will be doing his or her own correcting. A significantdisadvantage of this flexibility is that a website author can remove all traces of an argumentpublished only on the Web, without any thought to those that may have quoted andreferenced the article. The only proof would be if the researcher had printed orelectronically stored a copy of the article at the time it was accessed. Similarly, a grosserror in a study published on a website might be seen, believed, and even printed bythousands of readers before a correction is issued.
  26. 26. - 26 -2.5 Developing the skills for the mediumThe method of delivering the message to the viewer has changed almostbeyond recognition, but the fundamental principles which govern themanipulation of characters, words and pages in the ‘old’ world of printtypography are still vitally important. (Pring 1999, Introduction)The early days of the Internet and hypertext led to demands for a complete rethink aboutour approach to writing, as the electronic medium began to reshape our thinking. Somepeople took the time to learn a new literacy to help them approach hypertext in a differentway but the results of self-publishing, both written and visual language, vary widely. AsCrystal (2001) points out: ‘Just because a new visual language is available to everyonedoes not mean that everyone can use it well’ (p. 46). The websites that Crystal refers to as‘untutored typographical hotchpotches’ (ibid., p. 204), and Dorner (2001) considers ‘unevenat best and dismal at worst’ (p. 115), indicate that amateur publishers have not yet becomeWeb literate. Other writers add their lament about the standards of writing and layout ofthose with no experience or training, including Burbules (1998, p. 118), Ohi (2001, p. 3),and Baron (2001, p. 215).In print publishing, ‘several pairs of eyes may scrutinize a document…publishers providecopy-editors and proof-readers to eradicate unintended idiosyncrasy and implement housestyle’ Crystal (p. 207). It must be questioned, therefore, whether the poor quality of amateurwebsites is due to the medium being different, or to what Crystal describes as the ‘checksand balances’ (ibid.) being absent, one of which would traditionally have been the editor.Judy Gregory believes that there are many similarities between writing for print and writingfor the Web, which would suggest that the lack of an editor as part of the checking systemis the key. In her 2004 article Writing for the Web Versus Writing for Print: Are They ReallySo Different?, Gregory aims to debunk some of the much-quoted maxims about writing forthe Web, to demonstrate how similar the two can be, and in fact how writers for certaingenres of print writing could benefit from employing characteristics of what is accepted asbeing ‘good’ website writing. She examines seven of the key differences highlightedbetween print and website writing, and concludes that ‘many of the underlying principles ofwriting apply to both media’ (Gregory 2004, p. 276). This argument is supported by authorsof writers’ guides, such as McAlpine (2001), according to whom, ‘the hallmarks of goodwriting are identical, whether the writing appears on paper or on a monitor, whether it’s anovel, a business proposal, or a web page’ (p. 10), and Jennie Eley, website reviewer for
  27. 27. - 27 -the Plain English Campaign: ‘Whatever medium they are writing for, people need to keeptheir language plain and their sentences short!’ (McManus 2003, p. 82).For Gregory, genre – that is, the ‘recognizable communicative purposes of documents’(2004, p. 281) – is a more useful method of comparison between print and Web publishing.Crowston and Williams (2000), in their article Reproduced and emergent genres ofcommunication on the World Wide Web, assert that ‘genres are useful because they makecommunications more easily recognizable and understandable by recipients’ (p. 203).Similarly, Crystal considers genre to be important when considering the appropriateness oflanguage: ‘I read innumerable Web sites where the content demands longer and moresophisticated exposition. It is unlikely that a single principle of economy could ever explainthe variety of uses, intentions, tastes, and effects which give the Internet its character’(Crystal 2001, p. 76).One of the most-quoted articles among texts about website writing is a 1997 study byMorkes and Nielsen, Concise, SCANNABLE and Objective: How to Write for the Web.Among their findings, the authors discover that ‘scanning is the norm, that text should beshort (or at least broken up), that users like summaries and the inverted pyramid style…’(Morkes and Nielsen 1997, Study 1: Findings). This key phrase ‘or at least broken up’seems to have been overlooked by most authors of Web writing guides. In the Morkes andNielsen study, the text they tested cut 50 per cent from the text written in ‘promotional’language, which they themselves considered to contain ‘exaggeration, subjective claims,and boasting, rather than simple facts’ (ibid., p. 11). Despite this context, the ‘cut by 50 percent rule’ for moving print text to screen is advocated without qualification by writersincluding Price and Price (2002, p. 96), McAlpine (2001, p. 36), Fichter (2001, p. 82) andKilian (in Ohi 2001, p. 10).This attitude of those who advocate cutting text in half is, according to Gregory, ‘generaland context free…at best, overly simplistic’ (Gregory 2004, p. 277). Spyridakis (2000)quotes the same study but interprets the findings as supporting multiple, short pages, ratherthan simply halving the text (p. 363). For her, ‘the goal of conciseness should be to improveclarity by deleting unnecessary words, phrases, and excess details, and by manipulatingsyntactic structures’ (p. 370). Others see the characteristics of good writing being similar inprint and online, such as Kellner, for whom the various forms of Internet writing – chat,email, forums – underline ‘the importance of clarity and precision’ (Kellner 2002, p. 158).
  28. 28. - 28 -Unlike her print predecessors, the website editor has a free hand when it comes to creatinga message for the intended audience, unconstrained by the boundaries of page size ordocument length.2.6 Dealing with an ever-changing languageLanguage changes constantly without reference to anyone, including editors:the editor can only manage change, never control it. (McDonell 2004, p. 24)Language over the centuries has been shaped by editors, along with writers of style guidesand usage manuals, dictionary makers, teachers and newspaper columnists (Burridge2004, p. 16). The role of the editor, what McDonell (2004) describes as the ‘public’ functionof the editor, is ‘gatekeeper of the language, guarding the portals against the ravages ofthose who don’t mind – or worse, know – their “p’s” and “q’s”’ (p. 22). Editor interventionhas always been a critical part of the print publishing process, imposing and thusmaintaining the prevailing standards of language, grammar and punctuation. It is importantto note, however, that just as language use varied between early printing houses, today’s‘house style’ can vary between organisations in its preferred punctuation and rigidity ofgrammar. Even sentence length, which has become ‘steadily shorter’ (Haussamen 1994, p.9) since the 1700s, is ’only a moment in the evolution of style’ (ibid., p. 24).Language is changing because it always has, as Spender describes: ‘What was good formin one generation becomes undesirable in the next, and vice versa: words, phrases, usagesthat were once unacceptable are now widely used’ (Spender 1995, p. 9). Spelling hasvaried significantly through the ages, showing ‘considerable variety’ in the 17thcentury(Baron 2001, p. 57) and punctuation was only introduced to make it easier to read aloud. In1996, the Macquarie dictionary (second edition) had ‘on-line’ as the accepted form of theword. By the third edition in 2002, the entry had changed to ‘online…also on-line’. Otherterms linked to the electronic medium are also becoming more conveniently compact, suchas ‘website’, ‘email’ and ‘homepage’, suggesting that change is continuing apace.Significant research has been conducted to ascertain whether electronic writing is closer tospoken language than to written language. While that is not the focus of this thesis, it isimpossible to discuss website writing without acknowledging briefly the other forms in whichwriting appears on the Internet, in particular role-playing ‘MUD’ games, chat rooms and
  29. 29. - 29 -email, all of which seem to suggest that electronic writing closes the gap between speechand print that was widened by the printing press (Haussamen 1994, p. 20). O’Neill,Fountaine and Sligo (2002) see the Internet and email as encouraging people to use ‘quick,less formal English’ (p. 95), and according to Turkle, in her book about the impact of theInternet on identity, ‘a relaxed attitude towards sentence fragments and typographic errorssuggest that the new writing is somewhere between traditional writing and oralcommunication’ (1997, p. 183). Naomi Baron (2002) posits that while punctuation in emailmay reflect the newly emerging relationship between spoken and written English (p. 189),‘e-mail style reinforces ongoing change rather than initiating it’ (p. 411).The Internet has not yet been around long enough for people to instinctively know what is,or is not, acceptable language to use (Crystal, p. 107), raising the significant question ofhow many of today’s editors, who were not educated using computers, can learn the skillsthey need to publish effectively on the Web.2.7 The human editor takes a back seatNo-one writing material for online dissemination should ever think they can dowithout the intervention of a human copy editor despite the editorial help that isnow available automatically. (Commonwealth Guidelines 2000, p. 60)In the same way as grammar and punctuation guides abounded as the need arose tocreate some form of standardisation for print (Baron 2001, p. 184), so too have websitewriting style guides and grammars flourished as a source of knowledge about how to writefor the new medium. Optimistically, McAlpine (2001) advocates that ‘Web writers mustsoak in the Web and absorb the conventions by constant exposure and osmosis’ (p. 11).This fails to acknowledge that what is accessible may not have been written with Webconventions in mind, and as Fichter (2001) points out, referring here to Intranet writing, ‘theproblem with learning by osmosis is that there are just as many bad examples as there aregood. Do new content providers have the wisdom to know the difference?’ (p. 82).A similar problem for those seeking to replace the editor function with a guide is knowingwhich one to use. While publications such as the Macquarie Dictionary and Strunk andWhite’s Elements of Style are widely accepted in Australia as the bases of appropriatelanguage and grammar usage, Crystal (2001) is correct in stating that for the Internet ‘no e-
  30. 30. - 30 -corpus of this kind yet exists, and so it is inevitable that guides…will contain a great dealthat is subjective, expressing personal or institutional taste’ (p. 73). So many options existthat Durham examined the proliferation of ‘how-to’ guides in her 2000 study Organisationalwebsites: How, and how well, do they communicate? The results showed that ‘in a largenumber of guidelines…the material found was often overwhelmingly unsubstantiated andoften highly idiosyncratic’ (p. 3), and that many style guides ‘rely on writing and design“folklore”, with little substantiated evidence’ (ibid., p. 4).Baron is critical of what she calls ‘self-proclaimed language authorities’ (2002, p. 404) whodecide on what constitutes correct spelling and usage with no thought for linguisticconventions. She is not alone in singling out Hale and Scanlon’s Wired Style for particularcriticism (ibid., p. 405): Crawford Kilian, in his online article ‘Against Wired’ (1996), stateshis feelings unequivocally: ‘If Wired Style’s style is contemptible, it is also both antique andimmature’. Yet this printed book (ironically not published online) is seen by many as thedefinitive writing style guide for the electronic medium, and writers such as McManus (2003,p. 85) and De Wolk (2001, p. 93) propose using it if you have no other guide. This sharpdivide between the camps can be understood by looking at some of the comments in WiredStyle, which include:‘Treat the institutions and players in your world with a dose of irreverence. Play withgrammar and syntax. Appreciate unruliness.’ (p. 15)‘When it comes to a choice of what’s on the Web and what’s in Webster’s[Dictionary], we tend to go with the Web.’ (p. 2)‘We like the way many tech upstarts defy conventions for capitalization such as iMacat the beginning of a sentence.’ (p. 187)They presume that digital writing demands the colloquial, and are critical of the ‘starchy’nature of traditional style manuals (Hale and Scanlon 1999, p. 2).Editing with easeOne way in which the first word processors were seen to have an advantage over printpublishing was their ability to take the ‘drudgery’ out of editing and revising (Feeney 1985,p. 6), allowing the writer to get on with the job of writing. The development of spelling- andgrammar-checking programs was also seen as a way of reducing the interference with theprocess of writing and editing, encouraging what Reinking (1997) called ‘new strategies forwriting, less inhibited by a concern for spelling’ (p. 640). By the mid 1980s, text-editing
  31. 31. - 31 -programs were able to check for spelling and punctuation errors, grammatical errors suchas split infinitives, and even ‘sexist phrases’ (Feeney 1985, p. 6), although Feeney is quickto point out that ‘human contribution is required to pick up errors of fact and controversialpoints, and to make qualifying comments and suggestions’ (ibid.). Bush takes this idea astep further, suggesting that what he calls ‘robotic editing’ may cause the result to be lessaccurate than the original by ‘encouraging [editors] to rigidly insert rule bound “corrections”that make the copy logically wrong’ (1992, p. 115).Modern word processing programs undoubtedly enable the author to check grammar andspelling with very little effort and have become particularly important as more and moreorganisations have websites, with staff from around the organisation contributing to content.This easy access to programs that apparently tell us what is acceptable writing, and moreimportantly what is not, may result in the human editor being seen as an unnecessary stepin the electronic publishing process – until you look closely at the accuracy of someprograms. Crystal describes the spelling checks and grammar checks available in softwarepackages as prescriptive ‘in an intrusive and arbitrary form’ (2001, pp. 66-67), and refers tothe ‘pedants’ in software companies (p. 212) who interfere with a writer’s style. Yet hesounds the alarm by stating that online dictionaries and grammar guides are likely toinfluence usage ‘much more than their Fowlerian counterparts ever did’ (ibid.).Even worse is the tendency of some programs, acting as the new gatekeepers of thelanguage, to make incorrect suggestions, such as a spell checker removing the hyphenfrom a word that should have one (Michele Grossman, pers. comm. June 2005). Bishop(2005) tested the standard Microsoft grammar checker and found it lacking, with failuresthat included ‘skipping misplaced apostrophes, singular-plural inconsistencies, missingarticles, sentence fragments, improper capitalization and other problems’, leading thisAssistant Professor of Linguistics and Computer Science at Stanford University – the titleitself indicative of how times are changing – to conclude that even if the grammar checkwas improved, ‘it still wouldn’t be as good as a good human editor’ (ibid.). This may soundlike good news for editors, who will still be needed to ensure that content is accurate, butthe danger is that Microsoft grammar will become definitive simply by being used more thanany other grammar guide. Baron (2001) talks of the disturbing trend in education ofchildren’s ‘increasing dependence upon such tools, rather than pressing themselves to testtheir memories, to sound out words, or to look them up in the dictionary’ (p. 213). Thisincreasing reliance on software seems to be the next phase in the reduction of our reliance
  32. 32. - 32 -on memory, which began with the development of the alphabet and was compounded bythe printing press (cf Ong). The Internet allows us to forget everything other than where tofind the facts; we don’t need to remember the facts themselves (Reich, in Warschauer1999, p. 15).Along with new standards in grammar and spelling, the general consensus is thatpunctuation will decrease. From its original function as an ‘aide-mémoire for the publicperformance of a written text’ (Lanham 1993, p. 127), many would now view it as anirritation, one more thing to learn and remember. For Haussamen, a decrease inpunctuation use simply reflects a natural progression, and ‘some of our correct punctuationrules will look as excessive in the year 2200 as some eighteenth-century punctuation rulesdo to us now’ (Haussamen 1994, p. 21-22). Price and Price (2002) see a more practicalreason for using language rather than punctuation to convey meaning in content that isdisplayed on screen: ‘[understanding can] rely too heavily on little punctuation marks thereader can miss’ (p. 108).Opinion is divided over whether this ‘informal and grammatically very “relaxed” kind oflanguage’ (Deuze 1999, p. 379) produced by the Internet is a positive change or signals adecline in standards. Spender (1995) insists that the standardised features of print arebecoming less important: ‘there is no longer the same need for standardisation, fordefinitions of spelling, pronunciation and meaning. It is no coincidence that wordprocessors have spellcheckers…as well as a thesaurus…but generally no dictionary withdefinitions and set, standardised forms’ (p. 23). This, she believes, is not a drop instandards; it is a ‘change in medium…it may even be an improvement’ (p. 11). Otherwriters, such as Kernan, ‘wince’ at the tendency in the media of ‘the old rules of grammarbeing broken, anarchy overtaking spelling, comma fault and dangling modifiers becomingbrazen, and the jargons of a pompous dullness being amplified and broadcast with high-wattage sound equipment’ (Kernan 1990, p. 169). Similarly for Spyridakis, a Professor inTechnical Communication, ‘readers expect information on Web pages to be accurate andfree from typos and other errors that reveal carelessness or ignorance’ (2000, p. 373) andlater: ‘errors and inconsistencies across pages…raise doubts about the author’s credibility’(ibid., p. 373). Ten years ago, Spender (1995) asked whether opening up publishing toeveryone would result in authorship losing its ‘status and credibility’ (p. 81). Thedemocratisation of publishing may have decreased the authority of the author as aprofession, and resulted in there being ‘almost certainly…more garbage than work of
  33. 33. - 33 -quality’ (Burbules 1998, p106), but credibility remains an important issue. Credibility isjudged via the grammatical and typographical as well as factual correctness. As thefindings of my study will show, factual correctness remains vital, but opinion in the literatureremains divided over whether grammatical correctness needs to be maintained at the samelevel on the Web as in print.In their study into perceptions of error, O’Neill, Fountaine and Sligo (2002) discovered that‘as more people cease to view particular errors as errors, the errors become graduallyacceptable’ (p. 94). Without an editor as gatekeeper, much of the written content appearingon the Web is not being properly checked, the implications being cause for concern forBaron, according to whom ‘unmonitored self-publication may come to redefine publicstandards of acceptability for the written word’ (Baron 2001, p. 215). In this looser linguisticenvironment, the editor, with a ‘keen eye for the ill-chosen word, the grammatical error, theinfelicities of style and punctuation’ (Burridge 2004, p. 210-211), may well become redundant.2.8 The changing role of the editorYou have to be your own editor. That’s called being an adult in the informationage. (Baron 2001, p. 267)The new environment offers a challenge for editors that surpasses the need to simply learna new literacy with its new rules and regulations. In this medium, ‘computer language rules(grammar) are first stated and thereafter used’ (Ong 1982, p. 7), and the grammar ofhypertext, which enables us to understand what is being communicated within thediscursive framework of electronic writing, includes not only language but also space andcolour, images and sound. The spaces, paragraphs, font style and footnotes of the printedbook that ‘go largely unnoticed as visual elements’ by the contemporary writer (Landow1992, p. 46), suddenly become a highly visible part of electronic writing, as Lanham (1993)comments: ‘We have come to regard print as so inevitable that we have ceased to notice itsextraordinary stylization’ (pp. 73-74). Web publishers have access to ‘a range oftypographic and colour variations that far exceeds the pen, the typewriter and the earlyword processor’ (Crystal 2001, p. 46), suggesting that website editors need to learn newskills in order to offer value that is one step ahead of the general publishing public.
  34. 34. - 34 -Hypertext may have resulted in a loss of writer authority over the written word, but Landow,for one, believes that the opportunity the medium presents for writers to affect the visualappearance of their text is important, even ‘empowering’ (Landow 1992, p. 49). In his view,plenty of books are examples of bad design, with narrow margins and too-small type; andthe assumption that the visual elements are less important than the words is a socialconstruction (ibid., p. 50). Snyder, too, talks of the tendency among writers to ‘internalise’the idea that non-verbal information is less important than the writing, and is the business of‘publishers, designers and printers, not of writers’ (Snyder 1996, p. 18). Advice from theCouncil of Australian Societies of Editors (CASE – now the Institute of Professional Editors)makes it clear that all editors need to be aware of the use of design elements ‘to conveymeaning and enhance readability’ (Australian Standards for Editing Practice 2001, p. 3).Writing from the viewpoint of the graphic designer, Kalantzis (2001) illustrates the changingroles of those involved in the publishing process since the arrival of word processors. Shedescribes as ‘parallel’ the electronic workflow process, rather than ‘consecutive’ as it is inprint publishing (p. 63). Where once editors were involved at every stage – dealing withauthors and typesetters, and handling the text structure, checking proofs and makingcorrections (p. 60) – now their role has shrunk in the sense that text and images are markedup by ‘creators’ who are a mixture of editor and graphic designer (p. 63). Her reaction tothis change is that writers and editors are thus entering a space ‘traditionally considered tobe the exclusive domain of graphic design’ (p. 66), although an alternative interpretationcould be that the graphic designer is infiltrating the domain of the writer.In addition to an understanding of graphic design, website editors are also expected to havea certain level of technical skill and an understanding of the intricacies of Web publishingtechnology. It is telling that McManus, in his article, ‘How to write for the Web’, providesHTML coding tips to help writers format their work (McManus 2003, p. 82), while McAlpine(2001) includes ‘an understanding of Web culture…detailed knowledge of how searchengines work’ in her list of skills required in writing for the Web (p. 219). Indeed theAustralian Standards for Editing Practice (2001) has an impressive catalogue of skillsrequired of the modern editor: ‘Publication planning, editing, designing, formatting,proofreading, navigation, indexing, print production (e.g. production checking, binding,distribution), screen-based procedures (e.g. programming, testing, uploading or replication,site maintenance) and marketing...’ (p. 1).
  35. 35. - 35 -In the context of a company website, content is often provided by a range or team ofpeople, each with their own writing style and appreciation of the medium. According toCrowston and Williams (2000), many organisations see the Web ‘primarily as a cheapmeans of publishing information’ (p. 201), the danger being that they are not taking thetrouble to adapt the information to the medium. This idea is borne out by Price and Price(2002), who criticise the ‘impersonal style’ of printed communication from corporations,universities, and governments, and the fact that ‘in the rush to fill up Web sites, a lot of thisfaceless prose got posted’ (p. 31). Having a multi-skilled editor who can take responsibilityfor content, layout and distribution offers significant efficiencies of time and hence lower costs.The medium has led to such an increase in writing that some, such as McAlpine, see thedemand for good website writers and editors as having grown (2001, p. 7). At the sametime, the abundance of software programs and ‘how-to’ tools may lead content providers tobelieve that anyone can be an editor, devaluing editing as a recognised skill. Turkle (1997)says: ‘Once I would have thought of it as editing. Now with computer software, movingsentences and paragraphs about is just part of writing’ (p. 29), a perception that does notbode well for the future of the editor. Some see the editors’ skills as becoming diluted asthey are forced to become programmers and designers in order to maintain their place inthe online world, and Jane Dorner, for example, wishes that ‘…the new era of e-this and e-that would value people trained to edit words as highly as it values graphic designers…orprogrammers’ (2001, p. 89).2.9 Contextualising perceptions about the mediumWhen word processors first appeared, much was written about the possible impact onstandards of literacy, of teaching, and on language in general as the electronic environmentcauses us to think differently about how we read and write. What some, such as Tuman,saw as presaging a decline in literacy, others such as Kaplan, Snyder and Landow saw aspresenting new opportunities for teaching and learning. Twenty years on, the issue ofcomputer literacy is becoming less prominent in Western societies as new generations growup with computers and technology a part of their daily lives. At the same time, it should beacknowledged that the debate over the teaching of English reading and writing is returningto the surface, with a move away from the ‘whole language’ approach to reading.
  36. 36. - 36 -Opinion differs over whether the medium itself has caused a change in our languagestandards or whether, as Spender and Haussamen point out, language has always beenchanging, and we are simply in the next phase of its progression. The characteristics of theInternet encourage what Baron and Crystal identify as a movement towards oral languagein our written communication but it is, as yet, too early to see what the future holds.Clearly, the World Wide Web has democratised publishing, although writers such asSpender are quick to point out that this only applies to first-world societies. In addition,there seems to be little doubt that the medium requires a different approach from writers, asis visible in the plethora of guides on how to write for the Web, and the existence ofprograms that enable any writer to instantly become their own editor. Yet the role of editorshas come under much less scrutiny than the website content they are editing. The literaturereveals a lack of investigation into what people think about the medium, and what impacttheir perceptions about editors and editing have on the standard of language they use – andcome to expect – on websites. Coupled with this is the challenge facing the editor, whoseskills – which were so visible in the print publishing process – have been variouslyundermined (Dorner 2001) or broadened (McManus 2003, Price and Price 2002). Against abackdrop of changing literacy and language in an online world, I now turn to thoseperceptions and consider what the implications might be for the editor as we know her.
  37. 37. - 37 -Figure 1: Thinking about websites, how important are the following elements to you?Group 1: RANKED the items from one to six:Website structure makes it easy to find information 4.2Information is factually accurate 3.9Writing style makes it easy to read 3.6Spelling and grammar are good 3.4Design is attractive 3.1Information is up-to-date 2.8Group 2: gave each item a SCORE out of six:Information is factually accurate 6.0Information is up-to-date 5.9Website structure makes it easy to find information 5.8Writing style makes it easy to read 5.5Spelling and grammar are good 5.4Design is attractive 4.8Part 3: Research findings and discussionAs explained in Part One, I conducted an online research survey of communicationsprofessionals in non-profit and public-sector organisations. The survey gathered mainlyqualitative responses from 20 people – the majority female and in the age bracket 25 to 34– on their perceptions about different aspects of websites as a form of communication andtheir views of the editor’s role in Web publishing. The findings below include extracts fromrespondents’ comments; a copy of the participants’ full responses can be found inAppendix C.Websites as a medium for communication3.1 Elements of a websiteDifferent groups of people are likely to place different levels of importance on the elementsof a website such as written content, design, navigation and functionality. To find out howthe participants view websites as a medium for communication, I asked them about thesedifferent elements. Although the survey had been pre-tested to check that the terms usedwere understandable, nine participants understood the first question to mean that the itemsshould be ranked from one to six (which was the intention), and 11 gave each item a scoreout of six. The nature of Web surveys means that it is not feasible for participants to ask forclarification on questions during the survey (Reips 2000, p. 111) so it is not clear whether anyparticipant found this question confusing. I have therefore grouped the responses into ‘group1’ – those who ranked the items – and ‘group 2’ – those who scored them (Figure 1 below).
  38. 38. - 38 -The results show significant differences between the two groups, particularly in relation tothe importance of information being up-to-date, ranked sixth overall by group 1, but secondby group 2. For the second group, all elements are important but the factual accuracy ofinformation scored full marks from every respondent.The nature of hypertext means that even the best-written content can only be found easily ifthe website structure is effective, as the links – or lack of – may inhibit a browser in theirsearch for information so it is understandable that a good Web structure was important toboth groups. This demonstrates the ‘newness’ of websites as a means of communication,and the different approach required from readers: making sense of the structure of acorporate brochure or report is innate, and all information contained within it can easily beaccessed; in the electronic medium, the structure is raised up to become visible andintrusive and while poorly written content will not necessarily inhibit our understanding of themessage, a poor structure will do so.The two items that relate most closely to the written element of a website – ‘Spelling andgrammar are good’ and ‘Writing style makes it easy to read’ – are not top priorities for eithergroup. This is reflected in comments from participants: many of them are tolerant of minorerrors, but at the same time these have a negative impact on the perceived credibility of anorganisation. This ranking seems low, coming as it does from communicationsprofessionals, as it suggests that they are judgemental about others’ work but do notconsider the impact of their own work’s accuracy.3.2 Reliance on the mediumThe participants are known to have easy access and exposure to organisational websites,so it is understandable that when it comes to relying on information, their reliance on print islow (see Figure 2 overleaf).Two of those who thought that a printed brochure would be more reliable had financialreasons for doing so: for one, the cost of producing printed materials makes the informationmore reliable as the organisation has ‘a vested interest in the information being correct’.For the other, a strain on resources makes it rare for an organisation to have a dedicatedwebsite editor, making it less reliable than print.
  39. 39. - 39 -Figure 2: Would you rely on website content from a public sector or non-profit organisationMORE or LESS than a printed brochure on the same topic?15%45%40%Rely on the website moreRely on both to the same extentRely on the printed brochure moreOf those who would rely on both equally, one suggested that ‘It is perhaps especiallyimportant for websites to be trustworthy and professional because commonly they are aconsumer’s first contact with an organisation’. One person qualified her response by sayingthat she would rely on the Web because of its speed, yet would ‘trust the printed word moreand assume the printed information is more reliable’.Ease of access and speed of updating were among the reasons of the 45 per cent who saidthat they would rely more on the website. The website also has the ability to ‘provide moredetailed information’ as it does not have the same space constraints as a printed brochure,where length can be dictated by budget. Of this group, interestingly, two ‘hoped’ and three‘assumed’ that the Web was more reliable, indicating that they perhaps have some doubtsabout the medium they said they would rely on more. What these results show is that theubiquitous nature of the Internet, and easy access to it in the work environment, makeswebsites the preferred port of call for information but while respondents rely on it forreasons mainly of convenience, they do not believe that it is necessarily to be trusted.3.3 Impact of errors: print compared to WebAs someone who has worked with communications professionals in several organisations, Ihad expected that this group would be fairly judgemental about punctuation, spelling andgrammar errors on a public-sector or non-profit website; after all, many of them are involvedin producing the content that represents their organisation to the public and have a clearrole in shaping and maintaining the reputation of that organisation. The overwhelmingopinion among participants is that punctuation, spelling or grammar errors on a website givethem a negative impression of the organisation. Although some qualified their responses,
  40. 40. - 40 -all suggested that anything more than minor mistakes affected their view. Seven said that itwould undermine the ‘professionalism’ of the organisation, with two singling out for criticismthe specific staff or department responsible for the quality of the content. Others were moreforgiving of small mistakes, four commenting that a small error or easy-to-make typo wasunderstandable and one stating that it would have no impact ‘if it does not impede readingand is minor’. Reflecting on the current trend of website content, one respondentcommented that ‘bad grammar or punctuation is something that perhaps we have come toexpect’. Another, who also considered mistakes to be inevitable, saw the lack of resourcingfor editing services, and the pressure to publish quickly, as the causes for error.The impact on ‘credibility’ was specifically mentioned by one quarter of respondents, whichis in line with Spyridakis (2000, p. 373). As one participant said: ‘Sometimes it seems thatyou see so many [mistakes] that it would be impossible to treat anything you read onlinewith any credibility’. In contrast, one respondent, who felt that small errors were acceptable,asked, ‘What is perfect?? “Perfect” varies from person to person depending on theirstandards and expectations’. This response underlines that people bring with them to onewebsite different expectations that have been shaped by other websites and, although theywere not asked directly, it is probable that all or most of them also access websites in theirnon-work lives, which may have influenced the way they responded. The way we approacha book or brochure is shaped by our past experiences and we may only be made aware ofthe convention when it is broken (see as an example House of Leaves by Mark Z.Danielewski, a book that sets out to deliberately break layout conventions). Onerespondent explained, ‘A book/brochure etc tells you almost everything about itself simplyby holding it’, whereas Web conventions are still emerging, even for the genre ofcorporate websites.When asked how they would feel if a similar error appeared in a printed version of theinformation, 12 respondents indicated that they would feel the same as it if appeared on awebsite, one repeating that a mistake would have a negative impact on the credibility of theinformation and others commenting again that they would have a ‘poor impression’ of theorganisation or would see it as ‘unprofessional’.Just one respondent suggested that a mistake on a website is worse, commenting thatthere is ‘even less excuse I think for errors on the Web, as website information can becontinually updated, and if someone misses something in the proofing processes it can
  41. 41. - 41 -always be corrected later’. This sentiment that information can be easily corrected isechoed in the literature of McAlpine (2001 p. 2) and Gerstner (1998 p. 17).Comments from six respondents showed a clear difference between the media, with amistake in print worse in their opinion than a mistake on a website. Their reasons weresplit: three commented that the print process, which includes a ‘formal edit, sub-edit, proof-reading process’, should involve more rigorous checking, so a mistake in a print publicationthat has been seen by ‘more sets of editorial of eyes’ is less acceptable; for the other three,a mistake in print was seen as worse because it is harder to fix. Again, money was a factor,with two respondents reasoning that the cost involved in creating a printed document, orcorrecting an error in one, makes a mistake worse in print than on a website. Thisperception of the Web as the quick and cheaper option seems fairly widespread, anddemonstrates that the participants are generally unaware of the costs associated withbuilding and maintaining websites.3.4 The Web publishing processThe editorial process for print content is more rigorous than for the website in theparticipants’ organisations. This is not surprising, given the still relative newness of themedium: organisations that had a place in their structure for a print editor were, with theadvent of their corporate website, forced to cope with an increase in the volume of contentbeing produced, regardless of whether or not the print editor had the required skills to editfor the new medium. I wanted to find out what level of involvement the editor has in Webpublishing, so I asked participants to explain the process in their organisation for producingcontent. Many of their responses could be broken down into clear stages, and in 13 casescontent is written (or usually written) by the various departments throughout theorganisation. In 12 out of those 13, the communications team has the opportunity foreditorial input before the content is uploaded. In the remaining organisation, the respondentindicated that there are no resources to deal with editing the content, and it is uploadedeither by the part-time, off-site webmaster or by the Communications Officer. In theremainder of cases, it was hard to identify a clear publishing process, or the respondentwas not sure of the process.Encouragingly, two thirds of those who write content do so specifically for their website,which suggests that they are likely to have the medium in mind when they write and edit,resulting in more appropriate content for the Web.
  42. 42. - 42 -Figure 3: If content is given to an editor before being uploaded, what do you see as the roleof the editor?Element No. responsesGrammar 9Spelling 8Clear, plain English 7An appropriate style for the audience 7Punctuation 53.5 The editor: role, reactions and scope of involvementRoleThe perceived role of the editor in the Web publishing process ranges widely among theparticipants but the primary function appears to be the management of all aspects of thelanguage in the same way as would be the case for print. The elements most commonlyseen as part of the editor’s role can be seen in Figure 3:Where the electronic environment differs from print is partly in its need to be structuredmore appropriately for being read online. Five participants made comments to that effect,including suggestions that the editor should ‘advise on the best ways to present thematerial’. A surprisingly low number of respondents – just three – believe that the roleincludes deciding where to upload content on the website, to ensure that the location is, asone person put it, ‘the most usable for the user, and not what suits the internal person in theorganisation best’. And only one suggested that the editor needs to look at how contentmight link with other Web content.The responses raise an interesting point: in all instances where participants explained theirorganisation’s publishing process, the content was uploaded by a member of thecommunications team. It seems, then, that the first factors that come to mind as part of theeditor’s duties are the same as they would be for print, demonstrating a lack ofunderstanding of how the role of the editor is changing, or needs to change, to be effectivein Web publishing. To a certain extent, this is a reflection on the nature of editing whenprint was the dominant medium: editors today working on printed documents perform thetasks that they have always performed, albeit with the benefit of computers and wordprocessing programs. A new environment has been created but it is possible that someeditors, perhaps those who have a history of working with print that pre-dates the Internet,continue to approach content for the new medium in the same way as the ‘old’. The result