Features July/August 2024

Succinctness and Relatability: The Technical Editor’s New Groove

By Jeremy Streich

Change is an endless, unavoidable, imperturbable beast. In all sectors, spheres, and climates, it takes more energy to resist change than to allow it. Media is much the same.

In recent years, we have seen myriad ways in which the consumption, production, and dissemination of news, stories, and information have taken on new shapes and forms. In such a world, editors and publishers were giants, gatekeepers of modern equivalency to companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Meta, and TikTok. The editors not only changed text; they chose what text mattered and what came to flow across the public eye. Consumers received what editors and publishers agreed upon, and in what order their consumption would occur. The story of an editor today, however, follows quite a different form—not that of the gatekeeper but rather, the interpreter.

To trace the rise and fall of journalism—and the written word more broadly—is beyond the current scope of argument. However, what’s not outside our bounds, is the way in which the role of the editor has changed in recent years, and how a focus on two crucial concepts—namely clarity and succinctness—can enable an editor to fully embody their newfound role as interpreter.

First, it’s important to diagnose how the landscape has changed. Today, due to the Internet and its subsequent devices, people can choose what kinds of information they want to receive, when they receive it, and how it is transmitted (Brooks and Pinson 2017). Thus, as Brooks and Pinson suggest in The Art of Editing in the Age of Convergence, the skillset needed for success as an editor of journalism has changed significantly—namely skills in audio editing, video editing, and web production—because users now have almost unlimited access to an effectively endless digital database of traditional and non-traditional types of media and information. “In this more egalitarian environment the one-to-many [gatekeeper] model disappears, and the user takes control” (Brooks and Pinson 2017). It is, nonetheless, important to note that, by way of clever user-experience and applied psychology, users are made to feel that they have total control, while the reality is that a complex suite of software tools, and by extension their parent companies, have a forceful fingerprint on what information a user receives. Put more succinctly, companies like Meta now man the gate, and editors have a new role within, where social media feeds are no less than essential.

Succinctness: The Modern Editor’s New Groove

In a 2014 study at Virginia Commonwealth University, a trio of researchers observed, using video cameras and eye trackers, a variety of college students during a three-hour study session. They found that, on average, each student spent more than an hour listening to music and allowed thirty-five interruptions of six seconds or longer, totaling twenty-six disrupted minutes. In other words, a student was distracted for almost 17% of the study session (Calderwood 2014). This study shows that, because of the ease of access the Internet provides, modern people struggle to stay on task; there is always something interesting at the other end of the hyperlink. But the problem does not end at seventeen percent.

Attention switching has residual effects. When you switch tasks, writes one Georgetown professor, author, and software engineer in his book Deep Work, “a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the previous task,” and the residue is especially “thick” if you were never focused in the first place (Newport 2016). Thus, the students of the aforementioned study were likely effective for only a few minutes across that entire three hour span—if at all.

Crucially, attention, context, and/or task switching release neurochemicals associated with pleasure, joy, and comfort (Becker 2019). In the groundbreaking book, The Distracted Mind, Adam Gazzaley, a renowned neuroscientist from the University of California San Francisco, writes “Humans seem to exhibit an innate drive to forage for information in much the same way that other animals are driven to forage for food, we need to consider how this ‘hunger’ is now fed to an extreme degree by modern technological advances that deliver highly accessible information” (Gazzaley 2016). So when a media service shows a user one article, then advertises another with a pop-up, and another in a commercial break, and another in a scroll-over video, and so on, the user is driven by mechanisms that are fundamental to the human experience. And media providers make their money by keeping a user on platform (and viewing ads) for as long as possible; thus, they are incentivized to make a user feel as “happy” as possible—and the surest way to that is a long line of distracting, consumable content.

Once Gatekeeper, Now Interpreter

Generalizing, the best interpreters do not simply transcode English phonemes to their Spanish equivalents, or Korean to French, or any other pair of languages. They translate ideas. They act as the conduit from the origin of an idea—a public speaker for example, or the title of a novel—to the idea’s recipient. There’s a reason that Star Wars translates more directly to War of the Stars and War of the Galaxies in French and English respectfully. A translator made executive decisions to better capture the idea of the title rather than exact words. Herein lies the domain of the modern technical editor (Open.edu 2020). Sometimes editors, like interpreters, can solve significant problems during the transmittal of information. Namely, in this distracted informational ecosystem, the modern editor can ensure content is compelling enough for a reader to stick around, rather than leave to forage from a new source of mental nourishment. And there are two ways a modern editor can do so.

Succinctness is best defined as clarity without loss of meaning, and in the modern world, it’s often the ultimate goal of effective editing. “Good writing doesn’t just happen,” and in the modern world of fast paced, abundant, ubiquitous information sharing, “less is often more: the economical phrase, the lean sentence, the stark image. Such writing grabs readers and stays with them” (Stoughton 1989, 141). One might argue that my claim—succinctness as key ingredient to a successful piece of content—is nothing new. Flowery language, jargon, and sloppy thinking have always been off-putting for readers. Writers have always written to be understood, “whether they are writing to inform, amuse, uplift, persuade, or cajole, their thoughts must be clear” (Kessler and McDonald 2012). All of these points are true; succinctness—clarity plus conciseness— have always been important. But have they ever been as important?

Because the majority of twenty first century information consumption happens on devices connected to the Internet, technical editors must be sharper, more economical, and more clever than ever. Often, users of social and mobile media, and in particular younger ones, act more like an online community than individual consumers of a product (Brooks and Pinson 2017, 345). What this means is twofold: the importance of placement and organization in a text, and the use of relatable and intimate language. Interest, among online readers, generally persists if they feel like they belong to the group for whom the content was written. Herein lies the second tool in a modern technical editor’s toolbox

An editor must be clever with placement, and perhaps more importantly, relatability. Though perhaps more important now because of dwindling attention spans, a modern editor can often achieve this with techniques such as placing “the best material near the top of the page, break up the type with block quotes, subheads and bulleted lists, limit the amount of scrolling a reader has to do by using internal links,” and more (Brooks and Pinson 2017, 345). What’s different today is, perhaps, a result of the immediacy of information exchange, namely email and messaging. Previously, slang and abbreviations were “used sparingly; they are a shorthand form of writing and therefore informal” (Judd 1982, 154). Even well-known and understood Latin abbreviations like e.g., i.e., etc., viz., AM/PM, BCE, and AD (which stand for, respectively, for example, that is, and so forth, namely, ante meridiem/post meridiem, Before Common Era, Anno Domini) were not often seen in traditional journals and newspapers (154). Today, however, their use is quite different.

From an article in “Wait But Why” by Tim Urban, one of the most popular blogs on the internet (Urban 2020).

Because young readers seek succinctness and relatability, they want to see emojis, acronyms, memes, and other familiar terminology—e.g.: LOL, IRL, POV. These ‘phrases’ are shorter, clearer, and more relatable, which is the fundamental task of today’s technical editors. As Stoughton, the author of Substance and Style, presciently explains, each consumer “has its favorite words, its particular vocabulary, and its sacred cows.” You can edit the slang, acronyms, and neologisms, the author continues, “but if there is the slightest ambiguity or doubt, leave the words alone.” (Stoughton 1989, 173). To the modern reader, an acronym like POV is not only ten letters shorter, but also a flicker of familiarity, resulting in a positive release in a brain’s neuroendocrine system.

Finding the Intentional High Ground

Change by way of technology is an inescapable and unrelenting force, and in every industry, sphere, and environment, resisting the march of progress generally requires more energy than it’s worth. This is particularly relevant in the media landscape where the dissemination of news, stories, and information has dramatically changed. Where editors and publishers once stood as colossal gatekeepers, editors are now more like clever interpreters, tasked with not just improving grammar, but maintaining attention, helping readers make sense of the vast flow of information. As I think on these recent changes, it’s apparent that media has, and will continue to, evolve in parallel to the unyielding pace of change. Currently, the attentional high ground in this evolutionary step is none other than succinctness and relatability.


Becker, Susanne, Anne-Kathrin Bräscher, Scott Bannister, Moustafa Bensafi, Destany Calma-Birling, Raymond C. K. Chan, Tuomas Eerola, et al. 2019. “The Role of Hedonics in the Human Affectome.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 102 (July): 221–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.05.003.

Brooks, Brian S, and James L Pinson. 2017. The Art of Editing in the Age of Convergence. Routledge.

Calderwood, Charles, Phillip L. Ackerman, and Erin Marie Conklin. 2014. “What Else Do College Students ‘Do’ While Studying? An Investigation of Multitasking.” Computers & Education 75 (75): 19–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.02.004.

Gazzaley, Adam. 2017. DISTRACTED MIND : Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. MIT press.

Judd, Karen. 1982. Copyediting, a Practical Guide. Crisp Learning.

Kessler, Lauren, and Duncan Mcdonald. 2012. When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style. Boston, Ma: Thomson/Wadsworth.

“May the Forza Be with You.” 2020. OpenLearn. December 8, 2020. https://www.open.edu/openlearn/languages/english-language/may-the-forza-be-you-star-wars-other-languages.

Newport, Cal. 2016. Deep Work. Grand Central Publishing.

Stoughton, Mary. 1989. Substance & Style. Editorial Experts, Incorporated (EEI Press).

Urban, Tim. 2017. “Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future.” Wait but Why. April 20, 2017. http://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html.

Jeremy Streich is a novelist, MFA Candidate, technical writer and co-host of The Good Scribes Only Podcast. An alumni of Georgetown University, he is the recipient of the 2024 Leonard & Elizabeth Wright Future Teachers Award. Jeremy resides in Austin, Texas with his partner, son, and their remuda of derpish dogs.