Grammar Booty Call: Internet Killed the Editing Star 2 Comments

Grammar Booty Call: Internet Killed the Editing Star

At this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, The Lifted Brow editor Sam Cooney commented that ‘an edited publication will be of a higher quality than 99 out of 100 self-edited blogs’.

Of course, I agree with Cooney’s sentiments and, of course, as a fellow editor, I have a vested interest in championing the role of editors. Admittedly, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued, people in positions of ‘power’ will inevitably try to sustain their authority by upholding the very ideologies that enable their positions of prestige. Self-editing and amateur blogging do seem to ‘democratise’ publishing—to dissolve the ‘hierarchy’ that puts the ‘industry’ above the ‘general person’. But, to me, there are deeper issues wrought by this new form of writing than just a decline in quality.

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The notion of ‘perpetual editability’ is indeed a bonus—any mistake can easily be repaired—but this can also lead to sloppy writing. Writing, like any other art form, has techniques associated with it, and they take effort to master. I’m not saying it’s necessary to have mastered every writing technique ever before filling a page with words. Rather, these techniques provide a worthwhile goal to aspire towards: they distil ideas and present the argument/story to the reader in the most coherent manner. The almost stream-of-consciousness ‘structure’ of some online writing is a bit of a bugbear for me because ‘structure’ presupposes forethought—a knowledge of the rules and, thus, a conscious breaking of them.

Compounding this is the dual tendency of new media to archive everything and nothing simultaneously. Perpetual editability embodies transience—a significant break from the more ‘locked-in’ texts of print. And this can lead to what hypertext theorist Steven Johnson describes as the ‘burden’ of having to filter through online information. Notably, it’s now easier than ever for authors to just link to a cited text rather than succinctly incorporating it into their argument. And if all texts are presented as a smorgasbord of hyperlinks to other texts, our sense of what is relevant can become cloudy. (For an astute—albeit fictionalised—depiction of what I mean, check out Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire.)

Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire

Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire


Media theorist Bernard Stiegler has suggested that new media is anamnesic: it prevents forgetting but in the processes causes us to remember everything. Part of what makes writing effective is the author’s author-ity over presentation: what is included and excluded, how the argument is shaped and what evidence is used to draw a conclusion, the voice, the pacing, the words. And by not being selective or giving due attention to fact-checking, the author effectively dispenses with his or her role as author, as text-creator, along with any notions of relevance or cogency or—that fraught and increasingly commodified term— artistry.

We writers—and, to clarify, I’m not just an editor but a writer as well—may feel that new media allows us to ‘empower’ ourselves: anybody can publish anything online. But hegemony is a tricky thing, and to be given visibility as a writer/artist/journalist/blogger, we still need to pander to those in the mainstream. Blogs are completely subject to the omnipotence of search engines like Google, for example. By the same token, universities and publications remain dubious as to the status of Wikipedia and self-edited blogs as credible sources.

In defending ‘the way things are’, we editors may seem self-interested. But we also facilitate the propagation of a particular type of text: one that has involved an investment of time and effort (in a previous Virgule post, I’ve written about the ‘value-adding’ role of the editor). I don’t deny that I quite enjoy the new forms of textual engagement afforded by Web 2.0—heck, I’m writing a blog post right now. My concern lies in how its champions, in touting this ostensibly democratising rhetoric, demonise and/or forgo with the benefits of ‘old’ media.

Literally changing

In an issue of a very popular and respectable Australian magazine that has enough money to pay for copyeditors—to be safe, let’s call it Magazine X—I once found a huge-ass error. It wasn’t just a slip from Australian to American spelling, nor was it an isolated instance. In their lengthy feature on ‘New Australians’, one of their interviewees was listed four times as having come from Columbia [sic]. Let’s get the facts straight: Columbia (note the ‘u’) is the mythical personification of the United States; the country in South America is Colombia (with an ‘o’). The interviewee could not have misspelled her own country of origin, so it must’ve been the writer who made the mistake. Yet it’s surprising that Magazine X’s editorial team failed to pick up on the error.

Many literary theorists and philosophers of language have studied the relationship between text and thought. Walter Ong, in particular, investigated the shift from the ‘orality’ of purely spoken human language, to the standardised writing (and, now, printed) system we enjoy today. In each of these stages, he contended, the human mind has become more and more reliant on external tools, which have not diminished but rather amplified its ability to deal with complex ideas.

Walter Ong

Walter Ong

Admittedly, the process of standardising language is redolent of a number of social issues. One of my friends, a linguistics graduate, told me how the language in use today is significantly similar to that which was used when the first dictionaries were produced (around the mid- to late eighteenth century). This is why we (theoretically) have less difficulty reading Victorian texts than we would The Canterbury Tales. The problem she identified lay in the fact that once language was archived, it began to ossify: though people and times change, the words stay the same (note, for instance, the splintering of Latin into the various Romance languages). But surely there is a balance to be struck here. The variety of words in our lexicon allows us to express what we wish to express in specific ways: big is not always enormous is not always huge is not always humongous. And in endeavouring to say what we mean and mean what we say, what we do is keep our words alive. Yes, sometimes it’s sufficient to express oneself in a way that is ‘understood by most people’—the increasingly widespread use of the word literally as an intensifier (rather than its, well, literal meaning) is a case in point. But isn’t nuance just as—if not, more—important in writing than plain comprehensibility?

Ong also foreboded what he termed a ‘secondary orality’, which would hark back to our original orality (and its more spontaneous and less rigidly structured form). If Ong is correct in asserting that the technology we have used to communicate have shaped our consciousness, what does it mean for us as we become ever embedded in the world of new media? Some of the very characteristics of self-publishing are antithetical to those of print, whose texts require months (sometimes even years) to prepare—to perfect. Are the more lax editorial standards of publications like Magazine X symptomatic of a seismic change in our language?

I’m all for social change. I won’t have been able to access many of the books and essays I’ve referred to in this post were it not for the internet. I’m also very glad to see more and more writers putting fingers to keyboard and getting their work out there. But I do agree with Cooney that we must be attentive to the quality of the work we make available online. Self-expression and empowerment don’t have to be at odds with editorial rigour.


By Adolfo Aranjuez

Adolfo Aranjuez is the deputy editor of Voiceworks. He is also the editor of film and media magazine Metro, subeditor of Screen Education magazine, and editor of the annual anthology Award Winning Australian Writing (whose 2013 edition will be launched in late September—come along!). If you’d like to send him a Grammar Booty Call, you can contact him via Twitter on @adolfo_ae.

  • L Phillip Lucas

    Was ‘hark bark’ a deliberate ploy to underscore the importance of edited publications as opposed to self-edited blog posts? I kid, I kid. Nice post!

  • Adolfo Aranjuez

    Haha, woops! I wish I could save face and say it was deliberate, but it was not.

    You know what, though? This definitely highlights the importance of editing and editors (sadly, Voiceworks doesn’t have the resources to have its Virgule posts edited—but the plight of not-for-profits is another lament for another time). :)

    Thanks for pointing it out! I’ll fix it ASAP!