There are lots of different ways to break up a text: punctuation is used across all genres to signal pauses, paragraph breaks apply to prose in general, while chapter breaks are relevant only to longer texts; tree structuring and bullet point lists are reserved mostly for non-fiction, while line breaks and stanza breaks are tools specific to poetry.
The writer uses all of these elements as signals and clues for the reader about how he intends his text to be read. But once a text is complete, the writer passes it on to the typesetter, who has a different set of tools he can use that add space and silence and that help or hinder the reader.
As readers, we tend not to be consciously aware of page design, although we occasionally recognise that there’s something about a particular book, independent of how interesting or compelling the content is, that makes it more – or less – appealing than others. With more people self-publishing, more and more books are being produced by non-experts, by writers who may have enough knowledge to produce a clear and legible manuscript using their word-processing software, but who don’t have the training and skill of a professional layout artist or typesetter.
Most people involved in writing or publishing are aware of the phrase “white space” and realise that the visual impact of a text, whether on page or screen, can have a huge effect on how the reader perceives the content. The problem is that “white space” isn’t a particularly simple concept and a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Here we take a brief look at just a few of the different ways in which white space occurs on a page.
In addition to the endpapers that separate the book cover from the pages that contain the body of a text, you will often find additional blank pages at the beginning or end of a printed book. Now that many books are printed digitally, this is less common, but framing the main bulk of the content with appropriate front and end matter is still important, giving the content room to breathe and helping to indicate that the book has been professionally produced.
Most novels start each new chapter on the page immediately following the previous chapter. (Occasionally, chapters even begin halfway down a page, though this isn’t the norm.) For novels, where chapters tend to follow directly on, one after the other, this encourages the reader to continue without a break.
But what happens with an anthology or a collection of short stories? If every story begins on the right-hand page, the reader comes to each of them under the same conditions, and each has the same weight and power at the start. This formatting choice means that there will be occasional blank pages, where the previous story ended on the odd-numbered (right-hand) page, but it adds a subliminal pause and gives the reader a moment to recoup and re-adjust before moving on.
Whether the chapters of a non-fiction book should run on or not, may well depend on how they are connected and whether the book is intended to be read sequentially, from beginning to end, or whether it is more a selection of independent essays.
The space around a text is vitally important. If the text begins or ends too close to the spine, a cheaply produced book may quickly start to fall apart as the reader forces it wide open. On the other hand, margins that are too wide will leave the text floating in a sea of white. As well as setting margins in accordance with the page size and font, the typesetter can choose from a range of techniques to “anchor” the text, including paragraph rules (horizontal lines) and footer and header detailing.
This refers to the space between letters. Since typefaces are professionally designed to take into account the way the different letters work together, there are not many occasions when it is necessary to adjust the kerning. Sometimes, though, the length of a paragraph means that the very last word drops onto a new line, forming a “widow”. A minor tweak to the space between letters can be enough to shift things and bring the straggler back up.
With the larger fonts used for headings and titles, an adjustment to kerning may be necessary to make the text hold together better. Of course, the problem is knowing just how much tweaking can be done without spoiling the effect the original typeface designer intended.
The space between lines of a text can also be adjusted – either increased or decreased – to squeeze a text onto a page or to force it to spread slightly to occupy a larger space than it would automatically. In a similar way to adjusting the kerning, tweaking the line spacing can prevent single words or lines running on to the next page (widows) or paragraphs beginning with a single line at the bottom of a page (orphans). Again, though, there is skill involved in knowing just how much liberty can be taken.
It’s important to remember that every adjustment to a text has a knock-on effect and the fact that you can tweak typographical elements, doesn’t mean you should. If you change the margins in one place, you may cause problems elsewhere; if you manage to pull back a widow here, you may cause another later on. And if you keep on tweaking indiscriminately, making a slight alteration for every problem that arises, you risk destroying the coherence of the text as a whole.
In addition to all the above, there’s the problem of designing a text for a specific printed page and then converting it so it can be read on a screen: any tweaks you’ve made to the layout have a potential effect on the screen version. On many hand-held devices, the reader can choose the font and font size they want. This means your tweaking may be irrelevant, or may suddenly be revealed by certain reader choices as an unexpected and unwanted break or an awkwardly displayed section of the text.
There’s more information about some of these issues in Write on Track the second Tantamount guide for writers. (All the guides can be downloaded free from the resources page of the AuthorBranding website.)
As a writer, if you don’t want to get bogged down in layout styles and typographical detail, it may simply be better to get an expert to do it for you while you get on with the writing.