A New Editor: The Importance of Readership

Karen Abu Adra

As students at David Yellin College’s editing program, we have learned about the importance of readership from the very beginning. Knowing who a text is intended for is crucial before beginning to edit a text because it will inform almost all editorial decisions such as the level of sophistication in vocabulary and how much background information an author may need to include.

I thought I had learned this lesson well and that understanding readership was pretty much second nature. Then we began a module called Texts that Sell. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I was absent on the first day of this module, so I sat down to do the homework based on my interpretation of the PowerPoint presentation and an article that was discussed in class. The assignment was to look at a real estate advertisement in English for a new building in Jerusalem, determine the “unique selling point” (USP) and to edit the text to emphasize this point.

It is important to know a little about the diverse backgrounds of the participants in this editing course. Most are Anglos, hailing from the US, England, Canada and Australia, but several are native-born Israelis. There are a few students of Christian background, but most are Jews and run the gamut from religious to secular. Students come from all over Israel to the college, though about half live in Jerusalem. All work done is viewed through this kaleidoscope of backgrounds.

In the ad that we were assigned for homework, the graphic design of the website was beautiful with rosy sunset photos of the skyline of Jerusalem. It reminded me of an ad for my favorite perfume from my years of living in Europe: romantic and drawing inspiration from the past. Photos of the interior highlighted luxury with indoor swimming facilities and a gym. To me the pictures said the building’s uniqueness lay in its modernity, which remained ever intertwined with the historic significance of Jerusalem, and you could have all this modern luxury yet still literally touch the past. In this context, my reading of the original text was that it was a bit bland compared to the photos and that my job as editor would be to punch up this emotional connection.

This is the original text:

“Take one of the best locations in Jerusalem, add meticulous planning, beautiful design and a closeness to everything that makes Jerusalem special and you have (name of project)  – a fusion of tradition and modernity. (Name) overlooks Mesila Park, a charmingly landscaped park which sits alongside the original route of the railroad track to Jerusalem. The four luxury buildings are in close proximity to schools, cafés, restaurants, synagogues and the thriving neighborhood of Baka.

My edit:

Enveloped by Jerusalem’s history, meticulously planned and beautifully designed with the most up to date styles and technology. Walk the path of Jerusalem’s Ottoman era railroad. Meet friends in the hippest cafes and restaurants near the thriving neighborhood of Baka. (Name’s) fusion of history and modernity, combined with proximity to distinguished schools and synagogues, provide you luxurious housing that is inspired by the pull of the past.”

I was happy with what I had done under the circumstances and handed in the assignment. In the next session of the course, we discussed what we had done with the text, and most of the other students had chosen the location near Mesila Park as their USP and included language that emphasized an appeal to Orthodox Jews, an entirely different read than I had.

We proceeded to look at another real estate ad for different buildings in Jerusalem, which also emphasized the history of Jerusalem, the religious facilities in the neighborhood, and used words like “tradition,” “coveted location for world Jewry,” “authentic,” “two fully equipped gyms,” “ancient Jerusalem stone.”

As I read this, I understood that there was an appeal to Jewishness. However, when my classmates began to talk about how exclusively this was targeted at ultra-Orthodox Jews, I felt like someone was telling me that the sun was green. I am not Jewish, not native Israeli, and I do not know Jerusalem other than the college. My classmates, being Jewish and most of them familiar with Jerusalem, understood these “code” words that had so much subtext attached to them but that I could not possibly have picked up on. I realized too that because I was not a member of the intended readership for the ad we had edited for homework, I had not edited the text in a way that would sell it to its intended readership. I wanted to ask for a redo on the assignment.

To my surprise, when I got my assignment back, the teacher had many positive things to say because in the context of my chosen USP, the edit would have been appropriate for an international jet set audience, which is exactly the group I had in mind as I edited. How could I have avoided the embarrassing situation of having completely missed the intended readership?  First, it would be helpful to peruse other successful real estate ads to get an idea of the common “code words.” I would then like to talk with the author a bit and peruse the website’s photos before beginning the work, to make sure I understood the readership correctly, especially if this wasn’t a subject in which I was an expert. Then I would have a better grasp of what was intended and a working knowledge of the jargon of the field.

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