Text layout and how not to do it

Something vile this way comes: double line spaces between paragraphs as the norm. What am I talking about? Here, this. This very blog message: no indents at the start of the paragraph, and a double line space at the end.

All you have to do is press the enter key and it happens automatically.

When I was learning to type, I was taught to indent. Everything was indented: the address, each paragraph, the signature at the end. Address and signature having multiple lines, each line went in another five spaces. I’d show you what I mean, but know what? – I can’t do it here.

If I press the tab button, nothing happens. Apparently I COULD go into the code of my cascading style sheet and rewrite it. If I wanted to, you understand.  Alas, I just can’t find the time these days to rewrite code. So I’m stuck with this layout as a norm.

A friend of mine, a little bit older, still indents her signature on emails. Following an indent of five spaces ‘Lots of Love’, new line and another five spaces, ‘Rosemary’, new line and another five spaces ‘xxx’. Boy, it looks weird.

In the seventies when I worked in the picture research department of a publishing house, I stopped indenting the address and got told off. Later, when the fuss had died down and everyone was doing it, I stopped punctuating the address. So you see, it’s all my fault and I’ve only myself to blame.

Now every time I write something by way of complaint about this trend, I write it in the new style, as I’m doing here, but I still write my books in the old style, with indented paragraphs (apart from the first in any new section or chapter, which is left flush) and no space between paragraphs. Why? Because it looks better. And perish the day when publishing houses and typesetters adopt the new style for their publications. It’s already happening in magazines.

Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like double or more columns of block text separated by space. It’s as if I’m being forced to think in small pieces. I like arguments that build gently over many paragraphs to a resounding conclusion, not a bullet-point list of more-or-less connected notions.

I had a student last year who was fundamentally incapable of producing a paper that developed one idea. All she could do was string together gobbets of information. For her I coined the term ‘google-brained’. I dread to think she may represent the norm, but she may.

Where the new style fails, and fails terribly, is in laying out any text with dialogue.

“Because,” says I, “it just looks awful.”

“I don’t agree,” says he, “I like it like that. What’s your problem?”

“I don’t have one, whereas your problem is visual insensitivity. You just can’t see it, can you?’

All that space, wasted!

OK, writers could have become visually insensitive by having to submit typescripts that are double-spaced throughout. That’s industry standard, because it gives editors somewhere to write. (Editing on hard copy – those were the days!) (Editors? – those really were the days).

Combine the two and you have madness. Believe me, I’ve seen it done.

[At this point I had a silly piece of dialogue, each line separated by three-line spaces, but, do you know, it was corrected for me and I don’t know how to uncorrect it. Pah!]

Forests of trees have been sacrificed to this stupidity. But most writers – not understanding what flimsy excuses rejection can be based on – assume the editors or typesetters (editors? typesetters?) will sort it all out. Nooooo. They won’t. They barely exist.

I’ve grumbled my way through the past couple of years, banging on about all this to whoever will listen. Given that most people now have little plugs in their ears running to a music box, I’m going to shout. Because this week my DB bought himself a Kobo (how kute) and the first book he purchased (after a day spent browsing and downloading free titles) was Jennifer Worth’s ‘Call the Midwife’. We both love the series on TV and he wants to read the book. I looked over his shoulder and there it was, the new style layout.

Well, the book began life as a self-publication I believe, and the new style layout is a sure sign of amateurism, but surely the big guys have picked up this title? We went to the imprint page (no easy task on ebooks) and found it was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. I stared at this noble name of publishing in horror. I can only imagine their IT geek who does the ebooks has never read a proper book, and no one in the firm knows enough about ebooks to check his work. Because there it is: double line spacing between all paragraphs including the copious amounts of dialogue. On a screen the size of your hand with a moderately enlarged font, that doesn’t give too many words on a page. He bought Kobo Touch and is tapping the screen to turn pages – tap-tap-tap like a ghost at the window.

Madness!

Wake up, world! For the new technology the old style layout is PERFECT and cannot be improved upon by any twenty-year-old who thinks she knows better.

Of course, I blame Microsoft. It’s the default layout style now for emails, blogs and, worst of all, word docs. And who can be bothered to go into the innards to change the settings?

But here is what to do to change your layout in Word. Go to Page Layout on the ribbon, and then Spacing. The bottom box will have a figure in it. Change it to O. Voila! No space between your paragraphs. You’ll find that the tab button (just left of Q for the seriously young) is preset for indents.

5 thoughts on “Text layout and how not to do it

  1. Just looked at my hard (paperback) copy of Call the Midwife, published by Phoenix (imprint of Orion) (2008) all correctly laid out, no double spacing, paragraphs correctly indented….. so it looks to me like its the e-book format which is wrong.
    Maybe we should complain more if an e-book is incorrectly set? Complain to the PUBLISHER that is – not the poor old author who often has no say in how a book is produced (I speak from bitter experience here!)
    So many self published books are incorrectly laid out – as you say with double spacing, no indent of the first line of a paragraph (except at the opening of a chapter) What amazes me is that so many self published authors don’t even realise this is not how professional books are laid out.
    The majority of printers for Indie books charge per page – I’m not good with my math but even I can work out that double spacing = extra pages = you pay more money.
    The only “modern” trend I do go along with is that it isn’t necessary to start a new chapter on a right hand page – except for the first one. Again this is for the practicality of saving paper & to avoid unnecessary blank pages (which I think look awful because its a waste of paper. Indeed, in my Arthurian Trilogy (UK version published by http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk) we run the chapters on from each other, with a double space between chapters. Purely to save paper & cost. When a book already runs to over 500 pages, this is essential.
    I am amazed at how many people self publish with the text left aligned (i.e. straight margin on the left, ragged margin on the right) Just how many mainstream traditional novels do you see looking like that?

    But then – this is how Word, Blogger, etc sets the test in default – left aligned, double spaced. I am told (reliably) that paragraphs should be double spaced n the ‘Net because most readers have a short attention span and text that is not split up into easy chunks is off-putting. I suppose to a point that is true if you have a whole, long, long piece of text. Books, of course are split up into “handy chunks” because they have good, old fashioned, easy to read, easy to manage PAGES.

    (and thanks for the tip about spacing in Word. I’m pleased to say mine is already set like that because, like you, I do things the old fashioned, and in my opinion, the correct way.

    love
    Helen
    xxx

  2. There are all kinds of ways in MS Word that you can lay out your document – and also you set up macros to insert special characters, like m-dashes, set up the forematter and different segments of the MS with running heads and page numbers. I had to break down and get the latest edition of MS Word, and it took a bit to learn where everything was, but there are certain things that I do like – inserting foot and end-notes are now a breeze. Oh, and a TOC? Easy-peasy.
    This stuff is not hard – but I think having to work as a secretary for a while made me very comfortable with all these options.

    • Thanks for your comments, everyone. I’ve bought the new Word so I’m hoping to find it as easy as you suggest, Celia. Can I come back to you if I don’t? I’m happy to put some advice on the blog for regular stuff we all need. I’m currently transferring a novel from Mac to PC and am horrified how difficult page numbering has become. What is a TOC by the way?

      • Sure – TOC means Table of Contents. The new Word does it quite easily – as long as you use a ‘header’ style for each of your chapter headings!

  3. I recently updated from my trusty desktop computer to a top-of-the-range laptop. The whizz kid who transferred my data to the new machine [it’s called an e-machine] kindly offered to set defaults and formats.
    Aha! I opened Word and lo and behold: my novel of 642 pages, 1.5 line spacing, is now a whopping 1,000+ pages, no indents, my story strange and clipped.
    I heard “plonk” as my submission sank to the bottom of the slush pile only to be swept out with the debris when the pool was drained and cleaned.
    Now I must find my way into the innards of this machine to restore my words. Thanks, Linda, for the useful information about page layout. It will save hours of searching and frustration.

    Joyce Kotze.

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