A pen on an annotated page of text.

Editing from a Different Perspective

It’s been a few weeks since my last post. The reason is that I was hard at work auditing the Webby Books code to make all Webby Books fully accessible, including to users with limited fine motor skills and blind people using screen readers. 

Starting from Scratch

I wanted to do this properly, so I went right back to the foundations, and started with the basic Webby Books templates. I went through every structural element I could think of, including the table of contents, FAQs, quizzes, comments facility, glossary, and discussion forum right the way through to the layout of the main content. 

When I began, I expected that this would be an essentially technical enterprise, with new code being added in various places in order to achieve a particular goal. But it didn’t turn out like that at all. In fact, as I audited the code from this new perspective, I often found better, more robust, and more efficient ways of performing certain tasks. 

In some cases, I had looked at that code many times before, but no thought of how it might be improved had ever occurred to me. Yet seeing how it functioned from the perspective of someone with different physical characteristics made me take a fresh look at the code — for the benefit of every reader. 

So, although most sighted users accustomed to using a mouse will probably not be able to point on screen to more than three or four changes, they will enjoy perceptible improvements in speed and ease of navigation. Sighted, able-bodied readers are, therefore, benefiting from the revised, enhanced code “under the hood” just like those readers more reliant (for whatever reason) on using a keyboard. 

Editing

The whole process reminded me very much of when I edit my own drafts of regular text. This can be a tedious and largely unreliable process. I find that it is all too easy to read into the text words and ideas that I haven’t actually expressed — or to gloss over typos, ambiguities, or unnecessary complexity — because I have become, in a sense, too familiar with the material. 

This means that, in principle at least, most worthwhile editing is performed by someone other than the original author. Indeed, a good editor is often a source of invaluable comments and insight. Yet such insight often involves making comments that the author does not wish to hear, and it is often difficult to find someone with the necessary time and expertise who is also ready to do that. 

In the absence of such an editor, I have found that I edit my own work much more successfully if I change significantly the lens through which I read it. For example, I typically begin all my projects by taking notes in a wonderful program called NoteCase Pro. As ideas crystallize, these ideas then turn into drafts. But, when I reach the editing stage, I typically export my NoteCase Pro draft into another format (usually the astonishingly good document processor, LyX). 

New Perspectives

While the words are identical irrespective of which program I am using, their visual presentation differs so significantly from one program to the other that I am much less likely to miss issues that need to be addressed. Since the text immediately appears less familiar, I am forced to think about it much more thoroughly. This means that I am much more likely both to spot errors and to think of new approaches that may be worth exploring. 

When a document requires several edits, of course, the problem of over-familiarity with the text may recur. In such cases, my solution is usually to print the whole thing out, get a good pen, and move to a different chair. This seems to work just as well as changing file format (though it is somewhat less efficient as I have to write everything out twice: once by hand, and then again on computer). 

It is striking how a change of environment or of format makes it easier to view an otherwise-familiar text from a different perspective. It’s also interesting how much we can learn by seeing things from a different perspective. 

That’s a lesson that goes beyond editing.