Watch and Learn

July 15, 2009

I have just bought my wife a watch. The box it came in was 120 times the size of the watch and it came with a set of instructions that ran to 198 pages, of which 22 are in English (though it so happens that only two of them apply to the watch I actually bought). As an editor, I am more appalled by the waste involved in publishing unnecessary words than by the box, which presumably wasted more resources (if the watch is sooo fragile that it needs that much protection, it’s scarcely fit for purpose).

But the experience chimed with a suggestion made about the SCL site. Are we publishing too much, just because we can?

In the olden days, I knew I had a magazine to fill which had 36 pages. By the time, I knocked off the pages devoted to SCL issues and contents etc, I had 30 or so left. The need therefore was to publish the best articles I could in the space available. That meant that some excellent material never made it into the magazine – either because it was too long or of interest to only a limited portion of the membership.

Now of course, the limitations on publishing have changed. I can publish articles on the SCL site of any length and I can overlook the fact that a piece is of only limited interest and publish it anyway. Does that lead to a drop in quality or to a loss of focus?

I am reasonably comfortable on the quality issue. I apply a gold standard to any submission. I certainly don’t think that the fact that an article focuses on a topic of minority interest makes it any worse than one on a topic of general interest. Obviously issue of topicality and novelty arise, but they arise whatever the nature of the subject matter. Moreover, I can even publish shorter versions in the magazine with the full unexpurgated version online so there are real advantages to the link.

I am on less sure ground on the question of focus. If one publishes everything that one can, one does risk being a jack of all trades, albeit only all the trades that have a law and IT element. On balance, I feel that the SCL membership and other users of the site can be trusted to guide their way through the material. They are, practically by definition, more experienced users of online sources than most and surely don’t need mollycoddling with a quasi-magazine for every topic. I am an avid user of Internet recipe sites, used for example when all I have is a butternut squash, a tin of baked beans and some fresh coriander – you always find a recipe for whatever ingredients you seek to combine. I’d like to think that the SCL site is of use not just to those seeking to make another coq au vin but also to those seeking guidance on how to combine more outlandish ingredients.

But I have not entirely forgotten about the watch experience, where the manufacturer’s convenience (and I fear its legal advice) has led to the creation of a monstrosity. It is not just a waste of words in such an instance but a defeat of the objective since the instructions become too large to be stored readily and kept close to hand. There are many Internet sites that fall into the same trap of publishing everything and making it impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff. I hope the SCL site is not one of them, and I can certainly promise renewed vigilance so as to avoid reprinting any of articles 9 times in different languages.

Any comments on the SCL site are always gratefully recived.