Writing for E-Readers

Posted: September 21, 2010 in Publishing Business, Reading Technologies, Writing and Craftmanship

I’ll be posting periodically about a favorite topic of mine – electronic reading devices, electronic books, and how they are fundamentally altering publishing and writing. Many major aspects of this topic, including e-reading devices and technologies and the business implications, already are thoroughly covered in many publications. I’ll focus on how e-reading might change the act and character of writing, especially on what we can term “immersive” writing (narrative prose, either fiction or non-fiction). I’ll speculate more than a bit, since the technology and products are so new, but think I can make some initial conclusions and project a little bit into the future.

We are in a transitional stage. Today, e-reading technologies and e-readers (the people, not the devices) will benefit from, or even require, format-specific writing composition. However, as readers continue to migrate to electronic platforms and technology evolves, I foresee the evolution of an, “E-Reader Manual of Style.” Every other writing format, print or electronic, develops its own style and usage standards. Why shouldn’t prose written for e-readers?

I will explore writing for the e-reader by examining three major factors – immediate reading environment e-reading devices create; the “external” reading environment in which people are using e-reading devices; and e-reader expectations – what people want from different types of content and how they interact with writing on an e-reading device.

This last factor helps define the scope of my posts. Evan Schnittman, a Managing Director at Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc, usefully distinguishes three general types of reading: Extractive; Immersive; and Pedagogic. Extractive means reading for reference, to gain a basic and brief understanding of a topic or acquire data about it. This was the first type of reading to successfully be adapted to online formats, and forms the bulk of information on the Web.

Pedagogic is obviously educational, and although online training has been around for quite some time, the bulk of pedagogic reading is still done offline. Think textbooks and manuals. And think about how in the next ten years (or less), a substantial percentage of textbooks and pedagogic reading will migrate to e-reading platforms. Watching my children struggle with fifty-pound backpacks loaded with astronomically expensive and instantly outdated textbooks, I believe electronic textbooks will be a great thing. In terms of its creation, however, pedagogic content is, and will be, driven as much by instructional and interactive design as by writing composition.

Immersive refers to prose (primarily) content that engages a reader through narrative. This obviously includes fiction of all lengths and forms, but also encompasses much informative non-fiction, especially journalism of all but the shortest form. Immersive content is what I have written and edited for the bulk of my career. It may, from a creative perspective, be impacted less fundamentally by a shift to e-reading platforms than the other types, but I believe it will be altered, nonetheless. It will be affected at the level of the language more than the other types of reading because it is comparatively more text-based.

Changes to immersive content must be far more subtle and restricted than those to pedagogic or extractive content. After all, the goal of immersive writing is to create a reading environment that fosters concentration and deep engagement, whether the intent is entertainment or edification. The more a reader’s concentration is broken, by anything from typos or poor rhetorical construction to embedded links or interactive content, the less successful immersive content is. Readers are drawn to immersive content specifically because they want this instilled period of absorption. In a world of increasingly shorter attention spans, writing that successfully commands a reader’s focus is ever-more valuable.

Readers of immersive content are the most “conservative” of potential e-reader audiences. They will be intolerant of radical changes to the familiar text-based reading experience, but also will gradually find the lack of change distracting, as they become more and more comfortable reading the full range of content through e-reading devices.

As I noted at the beginning of my post, we readers and writers are in a transitional stage, but to what?

E-reading technology currently tries to emulate the print reading experience in order to reassuringly transition the large market of traditional print readers to a new media platform. However, print and e-reading environments obviously are not the same, beginning with the very nature of the displays and their comparative sizes (most e-reading displays are smaller than mass market paperback books). Designers of devices and interfaces are developing guidelines and techniques specifically for e-readers. Shouldn’t writers, too?

Further, within a few years, after a critical mass of e-readers has been achieved (if not a majority of “immersive” readers), e-reading technologies and environments will evolve ever more “away” from print. So writing for e-readers will gradually become more and more distinct from writing for print readers.

This really shouldn’t be scary – successful writers understand what their readers want, whatever the media platform, and deliver it. Writing for e-readers will ultimately be just one more media platform that writers will need to address. And what’s wrong with that?

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