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One of my roles at Sydney University Press is editing books, and while I was at Touchpress I had an opportunity to learn more about editing apps. Many insights came from speaking with Fiona Barclay and Mari Volkosh, knowledgeable editors who have worked on apps across various subject areas from science to archaeology to literature. I even helped with copyediting the content for one of their upcoming apps, which showed me how working on apps differs from editing of books.

The most important thing, I have realised, is that an app design is driven by visual and interactive elements, rather than text. Basically, apps don’t aim to replicate books and instead they focus on interactivity and providing an experience that uses different modes of communication. Having said that, there is still a place for editorial control over the overall structure of the content, the style of writing and its suitability, but written content plays a secondary role in an app.

Not surprisingly, and in contrast to the traditional book publishing workflow, the progress and the extent of editorial work for an app is driven by what happens with the app design and software development. Editors need to take somewhat of a backseat. One of the main challenges is for an editor is to know when to start copyediting – not too early and not too late. If done too early, the work may need to be redone – no fun for anyone! For example the design parameters may change and the captions may need to be much shorter or longer than originally planned, or not necessary at all. When done too late, it may adversely slow the production and launch of the app – and time is of the essence.

When an app includes an extensive amount of text, like the War Horse app for example, the long content is edited and proofread in a traditional way before it becomes part of an app. But having a large amount of reflowable text is an exception rather than the rule in an app design, which requires a lot of short-form text, known as text ‘assets’. In fact, apps are all about captions and labels, which accompany images and videos, show up on navigation buttons, and provide context to animations, rotations and other interactive elements.

The length, style and wording of text is governed not only by the app design and interactivity, but also by the screen size of the device that the app is designed for. The text should be as succinct and brief as possible and ideally fit on the screen of the target device, unless there is a good reason to have a long text. The literary apps, for example, contain full version of poems or stories and explanatory commentaries. In other apps, more lengthy and wordy chunks of text are available once the reader has ‘asked’ for them by tapping on a button that shows a deeper interest in the subject. It is still important to make every sentence and every word count so as not lose the user’s attention.

Before the text assets are incorporated into the app, they are typically housed within a content management system, a database or a spreadsheet. In contrast to book manuscripts that tend to arrive as a single Word document, the text assets for apps are not only fragmented but also come in dribs and drabs. As they arrive, they need to be copyedited in a spreadsheet or a database, often without the ability to understand the full context. Clearly this can be challenging and will result in revisions of text as the editor’s understanding develops and changes. Hence, it is important for visual and audio assets to be named in a consistent way so that it is clear what they contain and what they do. Similarly to book manuscripts, the text assets for apps require fact-checking, copyediting for grammar and style, making sure the tense and the point of view are consistent, the writing is engaging and appropriate for the target audience and so on. Apart from editing skills, the ability to shorten and sharpen text into coherent and engaging ‘bites’ comes in handy throughout the editing process.

The text assets are gradually integrated into the app during the production, and once the app is complete, it needs to be fully tested to make sure it functions properly. The final proofreading is a piece of detective work – as part of the quality assurance process an editor needs to work out what needs to be proofread and where text may be hidden. This is the opportunity to see the text in context and make sure it is relevant, engaging and appropriate. While the checking happens on the device, it is very useful for editors to know HTML and have a basic understanding of Xcode (a suite of software development tools for Apple devices) so that they can fix any typos directly in the code. It is much quicker and more efficient than trying to document and check that the changes have indeed been made correctly. Obviously, software engineers and designers need to be involved when bigger issues are at play.

Being technologically savvy is very helpful when editing apps, which is also the case when editing websites or working on ebooks. One cannot be a good app editor without understanding and using the apps and the devices. To make things more complicated, the editors at Touchpress are also involved in writing metadata and helping with localisations, which involve translating the resource files into various languages. So apart from learning how to code, being multilingual is very handy.

App editing is an exciting new area for editors to get into, and while there are some differences, some things don’t change. It is still about making sure that the content is the best it can be: accurate, appropriate and appealing.

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