Twitter and the Middle Ages

Sermones de laudibus sanctorum
Will your idea fit into a margin? If not, it might need a re-write. Image courtesy of Burns Library, Boston College/Flickr/Creative Commons

The medieval concept of writing and authorship was very different to our own. Today, when someone writes a book, composes a song or creates a piece of artwork, they are protected by copyright law and attributed for their work.

But in the Middle Ages, some authors were known as ‘compilers’ – people who assembled books according to personal interests – revealing a very different concept of authorship as something done in collaboration with others.

Medieval manuscripts were also the site of collaboration between writers and readers in the form of marginalia: annotations within the margins of a manuscript that usually contain the authors’ thoughts and interpretations of the text. The equivalent of what we see today in the tattered copies of Romeo and Juliet that line student lockers and high-school English shelves.

But last week, while examining a 15th century manuscript at university, it occurred to me that no matter how different our ideas of authorship might be, some things at least, haven’t changed since the Middle Ages.

Namely, the problem of space.

You don’t have much space to compose an essay in a margin, just in the same way that 140 characters on Twitter isn’t designed to produce a novel. But margins and Twitter both force you to get to the point.

So, when stuck on identifying what you’re trying to say, think about using Twitter as a writing resource. Ask yourself how you would frame your idea in 140 characters.

If that doesn’t work, draw yourself a margin and annotate your thoughts within just that tiny space. You may be surprised by how helpful a simple margin can be.


On pick-up lines and opening sentences

Open Book Series
Image courtesy of Kristen Bradley/Flickr/Creative Commons

Opening sentences are the pick-up lines of books.

Think about it.

If the opening sentence is no good, chances are you’re not going to be picking that book up again. On the internet, attention spans are even more precious, with the average amount of time spent on news sites estimated at only 15 seconds, and the average time for online video not much better, at only 30 seconds.

With many things, particularly writing, the hardest part can be simply making a start. (Tip: if you find yourself vacuuming, you are definitely avoiding something). And thinking about how best to convince readers to stay with you when you know you’ve only got fifteen seconds can add to the difficulty of beginning.

But opening lines, like pick-up lines, are worth spending a little time thinking over, for they can make or break a conversation.

So, here, I’ve collected three of my favourite opening lines by a master of the short story – Italian author Dino Buzzati – and examined what makes them an engaging call for readers to stay.

  1. Outside the gate, a score of metres beyond the old customs house, someone is waiting for me.

Pace, tone and mystery: Here, Buzzati is pacing his opening sentence in a way that propels the reader forward towards a mystery. ‘Who is waiting for you?’ asks the reader, moving forward to find out. The tone of this entry also contributes to the mystery.

  1. Ruined and happy.

Contradiction: contradictions are inherently intriguing, and will immediately raise questions and propel your reader forward. Here, you can almost hear the reader asking ‘Who is ruined? How have they been ruined? And why on earth are they happy?!’  

  1. I’m waiting for her.

Raise a question, or cut to the chase: Here, the reader is introduced immediately to what is sure to be the central concern of the story. No time is wasted setting a scene with long descriptions, but rather, the same is achieved with the tone.

Overall, all of these openings have one thing in common – each make a consistent use of mystery. Giving readers only a piece of the puzzle will spur them forward on a treasure hunt. But be aware of not stringing readers along for too long! Nothing is more frustrating than a puzzle with no answer, so be sure to satisfy readers’ desire for information evenly throughout your story.

On smartphones, pantries and where people read

Hellbrunn Palace
As nice as it might be to suppose that your audience is reading from the distraction-free comfort of a medieval garden, that is very rarely the case. Image courtesy of Tjflex2/Flickr/Creative commons

The other day, whilst researching reading habits in the 19th century, I came across something that made me pause:

‘The intense concentration required by autodidact could sometimes only be achieved by a certain posture, and in the right surroundings. Thomas Carter needed a great deal of sensual stimulation. He usually read sitting on the floor in the ‘Oriental’, or tailor’s posture, in a vegetable store-room full of the aroma of herbs and onions, which he needed to stimulate his concentration.’¹

While it is true that this is probably an exception, and that not everyone read in their pantry, it is certain that during the 19th century, popular reading practices were quite different from our own.

In Britain during the industrial revolution, cramped housing conditions and a lack of indoor lighting forced many working-class readers to escape to the woods to read. During working hours, it was not uncommon for labourers like shoemakers and metal workers to read aloud to one another as they worked.

And while these observations may seem quaint and old-fashioned to the modern reader – the kind of anecdotes you would bring up at a dinner conversation for amusement – they do call attention to an important question for anyone writing in the digital age.

The question is not so much what do your readers want to read but where do your readers habitually read?

Today, it is becoming increasingly common for people to access their news and reading material through a screen, and while on the move. This means that online content writers hoping to communicate in the modern era must keep not only their target audience in mind, but also their target audience’s location in mind. Because in reality, the attention of mobile users will be limited, short-term, and not as focused as it would be were they secluded in the peaceful confines of a herb-scented pantry.

So, here are four tips to keep your content engaging for mobile users.

1. Keep it short

Write what you want to say and then halve it. Think about where mobile readers may be standing when they reach for their phone. How much time will they realistically have at a tram stop, a doctor’s office or in the few spare minutes on their morning work break?

2. Use clear language and write in the active voice.

Tired readers on the train home from a long day at work won’t be interested in long-winded prose, no matter how important your central idea may be.

3. Include visuals

Visuals that complement your prose will bring it to life in a way that words alone can’t.

4. Keep videos short

Mobile users won’t be willing to waste their data on a long video unless it’s promising something particularly epic or relevant.


¹Martyn Lyons, ‘New Readers in the Nineteenth Century’ in Cavallo and Chartier (eds) A History of Reading in the West (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 339


Self-publishing, bibliomaniacs and what editors can learn from both

Was bibliomania just an idiotic folly, or something we can learn from? Image courtesy of STML/Flickr/Creative commons

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the rise of Bibliomania – or ‘book madness’ – during the 18th and 19th centuries.

‘Book collecting,’ wrote Henry Howard Harper, ‘is undeniably one of the most engaging pursuits in which refined and artistic taste may be indulged.’ Although many descriptions of the bibliomaniac are satirical in tone, many also contain clear indications that the ‘gentle madness’ attached itself to only certain classes in society. As late as 1843 Thomas Frognal Dibdin – the man who popularised the term bibliomania – wrote that:

‘the bibliomania has almost uniformly confined its attacks to the male sex, and, among these, to people in the higher and middling classes of society, while the artificer, labourer, and peasant have escaped wholly uninjured. It has raged chiefly in palaces, castles, halls, and gay mansions; and those things which in general are supposed not to be inimical to health, such as cleanliness, spaciousness, and splendour, are only so many inducements towards the introduction and propagation of the Bibliomania!’

Here we see lines being drawn not only between men and women, but also between the upper and working classes. And while it’s easy to suppose that these attempts to draw lines between different groups of readers was simply a response to the rapid social changes brought about by the industrial revolution, it’s difficult to deny that the debate echoes similar struggles over cultural authority in the digital world today.

‘Self-published authors are destroying literature,’ writes Michael Kozlowski and countless other commentators, decrying that ‘you can’t browse Kobo, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon without running into a maelstrom of poorly written and poorly edited books.’

It’s an interesting debate, and one that doesn’t promise to settle any time soon. But what can editors learn from it? On the one hand, there is weight to the argument that self-publishing produces an unimaginable amount of new writing every day, it does also pose an interesting question about cultural gatekeeping and cultural authority, and force publishers to reflect on the criteria we use for excluding specific kinds of writing.

So, in the interest of learning from what’s often a loud and heated debate, here are three things that upcoming editors can take away from it:

  1. Set yourself apart by maintaining a professional portfolio.

Much of the criticism directed toward self-publishing (just like much of the criticism that was directed towards the growing number of mass-produced ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 19th century) is that they were not written in the same spirit of professionalism that drives the creation of literary texts.

  1. Don’t overlook the importance of fact checking.

One of the most problematic, even dangerous, things about self-publishing is the absence of an editor to fact check. Of course, when established houses fail to fact check and publish books that could compromise not only their reputation but also people’s health it’s not surprising that fact-checking may be overlooked. But prioritise it, at least for your own professional interests.

  1. Look for work in other places.

It’s not uncommon for students trying to make their way in the publishing industry to express doubt at the prospect of finding a job. Although freelancing may take a bit of organisation, many self-published authors are eager to make their book as good as it can be and look for a professional editor to help them do this, so it’s always worth looking in non-traditional places for work.

Why collect books in the digital age, and three reasons why print hasn’t died

For a long time now, the demise of print culture has been predicted; just as DVDs were said to kill cinema, and video was supposed to be murdering radio, many have supposed that books are both literally and metaphorically being eaten away by silverfish, not often touched by human hands.

But in this video, Susan Thomas, a curator at The University of Melbourne, takes us inside one of the rare books rooms at the university and reminds us why it’s still worth collecting books, both rare and commonplace. The rooms are closed to the public, but every now and then a glimpse into a place like this reminds students like myself – students studying arts and publishing – that there’s a vivid world of print that lives on through the ages and through circumstances that could easily have destroyed them (according to Susan, some of the books in the university’s collection have been on sea voyages and still bear the physical marks of their trip!).

As many editing students will know, there’s a common misconception that there are no jobs in editing and that publishing is a terribly chancy business to consider. So, in the interests of keeping things in perspective, here are three things to keep in mind when you encounter predictions about the demise of print culture:

  • Not everything suits a screen: long-form journalism, for example, doesn’t always suit the internet, and is often published successfully in magazines and literary journals. This is not only because of how many people access the internet through mobile devices, on-the-go and in a hurry, but also because of how difficult it is to read a screen for long periods of time.
  • Overabundance: the internet is extremely vast and sometimes it’s reassuring to hold a finite object in your hands, with no pop-ups or hyperlinks to distract you. Many people read precisely to escape the noise of the internet, so print books will always have a future in their hands.
  • Practicality: you don’t have to charge a book, update its software, or be too worried when you drop it. While the Kindle might have the upper hand in terms of book selection – you don’t have to special-order out-of-print titles from a specialist book retailer – the printed book has the advantage here.



Many thanks to Susan Thomas at the Rare Books Collection, The University of Melbourne.

Music: ‘Naive’ by Sergey Cheremisinov accessible here under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial licence.

A history of the book in photos

In this series of photos, I take a quick look at the history of books through the ages and pose some questions for publishing students to consider. While the history of the book might seem like something you would study for amusement rather than professional development, there are many insights that it can offer even modern students.

Although written communication has been around for at least 3500 years, literacy has for centuries remained a very restricted technology closely associated with the exercise of power. Today, debates about the how the internet is changing communication may seem louder and more frustrating than ever before, but the technologies that encase ideas – the book, telegraph, radio, television – have always been subject to often harsh mediation.

In the Middle Ages, books were restricted to those who could afford them, usually nobles and churches, and as we saw not long ago, the concept of bibliomania was used in the 19th century  to draw boundaries between readers with higher and lower status.

So, when thinking about the future of communications technologies, it’s helpful to trace the ways in which the technologies that have encased ideas have developed to the present day, when debates still rage about whether traditional publishing is preferable to self-publishing, whether Kindles are better than paperbacks and whether journalists are being overtaken by citizen journalists and bloggers.

1. Scrolls

Hebrew Sefer Torah Scroll
Hebrew Sefer Torah Scroll, approximately 400 years old. Image courtesy of Firewal JC/Flickr/Creative commons

When Pliny wrote about scrolls in the first century AD they had already been used for millennia. Although they obviously did the job for the time, scrolls did have some limitations that led to their eventual abandonment: storage was cumbersome, a single text would often have to be divided into multiple scrolls, and continual rolling and unrolling tended to damage them. Having said that, it’s interesting to think that today, the word ‘scroll’ has survived to describe how we interact with digital texts. This movement, while it might seem insignificant, is a key concern for digital content writers, and something that reminds online writers to always keep the way their audiences read in mind.

2. Codexes

Digitisation of the Codex Gigas
The Devil’s Codex. Image courtesy of National Library of Sweden/Flickr/Creative commons

Being a collection of pages stitched together at one side, the codex is the original precursor to the book. Codexes gave early readers many advantages over papyrus scrolls and wax tablets: readers could open them at any point in the text and scribes could write on both sides of parchment more easily.

While today we take for granted how easy it is to open a book to any point we like, the codex allowed the kind of discontinuous reading that the internet hyperlink is famous for. Readers could locate and catalogue relevant information in a quicker and more efficient manner than ever before. Here, medieval and modern technology meet in these photos of the digitisation of the Gigas Codex (latin for the ‘giant book’), the largest-known medieval manuscript in existence today.

The Gigas Codex is sometimes known as ‘the Devil’s Codex’ for the large image of the devil that appears within. According to legend, it was made with the devil’s assistance by a monk who was locked in his monastic cell and instructed to produce the manuscript in one night. Unable to, the monk enlisted the help of the devil and included an image of him as acknowledgement of his help.

Interestingly, scholars have debated whether or not the Gigas Codex was ever actually used. It may be that its impressive size was simply a way of communicating the importance of its biblical contents. And while it may seem irrelevant, the issues of a book’s size has not disappeared for modern publishing students.

Publishers today, aware of the often fragmented reading habits of their often time-poor audiences – on the tram after work, in the park while walking the dog – use abridged versions of their backlist to target sales to readers who might be too busy to consider lifting up a heftier tomb, and pocket editions of classic bestsellers are often successful because of their approachable size.

3. Printed books

A single leaf from an incomplete copy of the Gutenberg Bible /   Feuillet d’un exemplaire incomplet de la Bible de Gutenberg
A single leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. Image courtesy of BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives/Flickr/Creative commons

The advent of Johan Gutenberg’s printing press in the middle of the 15th century has been compared to the internet for its effect on reading habits. Printed books were not only more affordable than handwritten books, but they could be produced at a much faster rate. In this sense, the invention of the press has been closely associated with the rise of mass media.

However, it’s equally significant that today, as many commentators have pointed out, the mass-media model for book production is fast becoming outdated, with the internet catering to niche interests in a way that mass blockbusters and predictable plot lines cannot.

Niche-interest oriented magazines in particular are finding success more easily than mass-oriented magazines. This raises an interesting question for publishers: do we aim for the bestselling blockbuster, or target our books towards enthusiastic niche audiences?

4. Blogs and eBooks

Blogs: graveyard fodder or democratising innovation? Image courtesy of Diminita/Flickr/Creative commons

A friend of mine once said that the internet is a graveyard of abandoned blogs. While there is much truth to this – with more than two million blogs being written each day, blogging represents an important change in  communications practices for publishers and editing students to pay attention to.

Blogs highlight the way in which communications practices have transitioned from top-down models where information is disseminated and left largely static once it’s published, to a more dynamic, conversation-based approach where readers can interact immediately with writers and creators.

Multiform storytelling thrives on blogs, with mixed content like video, images and text all interacting to create a more effective and memorable way to convey a message, something that, when it’s done well, can be a significant advantage over traditional text-only communication.

5. Zines and self-published paperback books

untitled 1 cover + poster
Handmade zines, not dissimilar to self-published novels. Image courtesy of masha krasnova-shabaeva/Flickr/Creative commons

Self-published paperback books are one of the most contentious forms of self-publishing. They are related to zines (pictured) – self-produced, handmade magazines – but unlike zines, it is often impossible to tell the difference between a self-published book and a traditionally published book, such is the quality of online publishing and printing services.

Self-publishing services are hailed by many as a democratic alternative for people struggling to have their book published by traditional publishers, but one of the major concerns about self-publishing for editors is the lack of fact checking.

The way that self-publishers are trying to correct this is an interesting area for editors and publishers to watch: enthusiastic communities of editors, designers and clever marketers have been built to support self-published writers, creating an almost subversive collaborative alternative to the fairly closed-off world of traditional publishing. It’s an area that publishers looking for a way to appeal to modern audiences should spare some thought for.