Less Than a Thousand Words

A Guest Post by Richard Costa

Description has a bad reputation. I imagine most of us have skipped ahead while reading a book because the dialogue and the action were more interesting than lengthy accounts of natural or man-made landscapes. But without some form of description, stories and histories exist in a kind of vacuum, like a simulation against a blank background in that famous scene in The Matrix. Sure, our imagination could potentially fill in the blank spaces, but what about those born without sight? How does one convey to them the physical elements of stories without description? And how to distill a wealth of visual details and nuances into a few descriptive sentences?

This year, I wrote alt-text descriptions for visual content in a number of UAlberta Press books as part of the Book Publishers Association of Alberta’s project, Accessible Digital Publishing Resources. It was often an exercise in trying to see things as if for the first time. It was also constantly questioning whether what I see is the same as what someone else sees. I became more aware of different ways of seeing, different perceptions and perspectives—all of which I tried to compress into a concise and clear description with some hint of objectivity. And still I thought my writing was inaccurate and not thorough enough. Writing alt-text sometimes felt like an iterative process, where developing each description takes several layers of revising and refining.

It was also a collaborative process, working closely with my colleagues at the Press. We read and revised each other’s alt-text descriptions, not just editing and fact-checking, but also ensuring that we all saw the same image in the words. It’s a delicate process, understanding each other’s imagination through words. There is an ambiguity in text that we hardly observe in images or photographs. Visual ambiguity is more often than not a consequence of poor image quality and details that are not discernible enough. In a sense, words have to be much more precise because of the awareness of their possible ambiguity.

In the end, writing alt-text was also a fun experience that got my creative juices flowing. At one point, I had to describe the advertising columns or pillars that are found mostly in Germany and France. In the visual context of the images I was describing, there was something unique and almost magical about these objects, especially against a dark background. How to convey that hint of wonder in contemplating these outlandish, retro-futuristic columns? It’s not quite possible. Words can do things that images cannot, and vice versa, and they complement each other in many ways, but alt-text should only convey the most basic and concrete mental picture of its corresponding image. We can only hope that the alt-text we wrote will help readers see their own wonders.