Formatting basics: making a beautiful book which is comfortable to read
Before I get started with the basics of formatting
I need remind you about the goal: a beautiful book which is comfortable to read. You need a customized set of styles to enable you to keep your book consistent and give you global control over the entire book as you format. This is only possible if you first understand how to design paragraphs. I will help you through the basic set up of styles (to implement your paragraph designs). But before we can go there, I need talk about some underlying concepts.
Designing your paragraphs
You need to know some basics about setting up your paragraphs. Most of this knowledge is assumed by software manuals and publishing Websites. Somehow they seem to believe that your little psyche will be stifled if any opinion on normalcy is mentioned—or some such idiocy like that. It’s not magic or luck when you produce reading materials that are enjoyable to read. It is the result of setting up your copy (formatting it) in a manner that the reader instantly recognizes and comfortably understands.
You must lead the reader through your writing effortlessly—completely unaware of your guidance.
You need to make your book feel natural, comfortable, and obvious to help the reader receive the content.
My way is not the only way: As I go through this little presentation, I will be simply sharing what I use. My hope is that you can look at my usage for conceptual understanding. Then convert it for your use and your readers. I will attempt to give you the arguments that have convinced me to do things in this manner. But, there is no right or wrong (once you are inside the relatively wide parameters of normalcy).
The need for comfort
Our basic problem is that we have too much to read. Subconsciously we all look for ways to eliminate content (in order to keep our reading requirements within a tolerable range). We might miss a lot of good content this way—but that is the way it is.
In our modern culture, huge numbers of people have difficulty reading. People often know how to read (technically) but they hate to actually do it. I’ve heard stats as high as 60% of Americans are functionally illiterate. Most people agree it is a huge percentage (even if it is as low as a third of adults).
They may be able to read but: it is difficult for them, in a second language, or they just hate reading. The social media users go far beyond that, of course. I know young men and women (fifty years old or less) who avoid reading entirely [as much as possible]—even though they are considered fully literate by polls and testing.
The result is that we need to go out of our way to make our books accessible to poor readers. Reading is hard to avoid. But many do. We have a large and growing portion of our middle class who get all of their information from social media, TV, movies, and videos.
Modern interactive features
This is an area you need to thoroughly examine. My opinion is that adding video and such to a book changes it into something entirely different. The non-reader may be more attracted to the video content, BUT would they ever buy a “book” in the first place? If you feel the need for video, you should consider whether you actually need a “book” at all.
Is that video helpful?
My favorite blogger in my field has recently been putting out a lot of video content. As a result, I find myself looking for other sources. I have no time for video. I can read his posts (which are usually excellent) in a few minutes, maybe 5—often less. The darned videos are a half hour or more. Who has that kind of time? We can argue all we want about these media options and their limited amount of actual content.
But, this fact remains: even those who buy our books may well have trouble reading. Speed reading is rarely taught anymore. We must help our readers as much as we can with our formatting and layout. We must be kind to our readers—gentle and loving.
If our readers experience any discomfort or reading difficulty we have probably lost them. They will simply not finish reading our content. I am a very good and very fast reader. Yet I simply put books aside that are difficult to read—unless the content is required or very compelling. I am not talking about difficult content (though that can be a problem). I am talking about poor layouts, columns that are too wide, fonts that are too styled, overly busy layouts, and all the rest.
Recently I was struggling with a book on creationism (my wife gave up and asked me to brief her on it when I finished reading it). The content is exciting. Questions I’ve had about an old earth and places like the Grand Canyon, demanded a more scientific answer. Regardless, the layout of this coffee table book is so poor with photographic backgrounds, glossy paper, excessive line lengths and a host of other problems—I am having to force myself to read it. The only difference with me is that I am tuned into this problem so I often notice when I do this with a book. Most people are not conscious of why they put down a book. They simply do not read it.
The poetry filter
Here’s another example. I wonder how many of you are like me? I probably shouldn’t admit this, but anything in a book which is formatted as poetry I skip (except in scripture). I simply pass over that portion of the copy and continue on. I skim it to see if there is any content, but my experience over the years is that the content in poetry is very limited and far too open to interpretation. I am almost always looking for facts—easily accessible facts. In a novel, I am looking for plot and character development. Poetry has never provided this for me. So, I have developed reading habits that keep me from wasting time. I jump to the explanation of the poetry that inevitably follows.
I am sure this horrifies many of you. I am not saying that this poetry filter of mine is good or desirable. I am simply saying that it exists. Again, the only thing strange is that [as a typographer] I am more aware of my reading habits—so I noticed this behavior.
What reading filters do you have?
I suspect you need to examine yourself. It’s hard to say what you have been missing all these years. We all have things we just do not read—often for subconscious reasons. As typographers we try to limit those reactions.
- Sometimes I Need to Read the Print Version: When the eBook Doesn’t Evoke the Same Reading Experience (theunquietlibrarian.wordpress.com)