Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Visual Space and Symmetry

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a great place to fuel up your writing skills with weekly blog reminders of basic tips and tools.  Today we're growing our audience by growing articles that have room to breathe and space for sunlight.

Entering a cafe the other day, I sat down with my friend Tim at a table next to a book rack.  Tim's eyes wandered to the books on display and lit up with recognition.  "I have to show you this!" he burst out, grabbing a title from the shelves.

Judging by his enthusiasm, at first of course I assumed he had found a fabulous read to recommend to me, but another look at his face told me I was wrong.  The glint in Tim's eye had a glimmer of gleeful mischief in it.  He opened up the book in the middle and shoved it under my nose.  "Who would read that?"

Tim, an artist and an animator, is a visual person, and he was showing me a visual nightmare.  The words on the page were cramped and condensed together in small font size.  The font type was a form of serif that was especially difficult to decipher.  The sentences were grouped into paragraphs so lengthy that each one formed a solid square on the page.  The whole effect was miserable -- and that was before my brain even registered any meaning from the text.

"Unbelievable!" Tim exulted, his voice a shade too loud for our urban chic surroundings.  "Who would print something like this?  It's offensive!"

I had to agree.  Flipping through the pages, the sheer density of the content assaulted our eyes like a brick wall.  Even the most sympathetic reader would find it rough going.

"The worst part is, it's is a pretty good book," Tim went on.  "This is a reprint.  I know they were trying to keep costs down by cramming as much text as they could on each page, but..."  He returned it to the rack and shook his head.

I finished his thought. "It doesn't do the book buyer any good if he pays less for the book but then can't get through it because it's so hard to read."

"Exactly." Tim and I sipped our coffee and talked about the perils of publishing.  Whether you write content, like me, or package and illustrate it, like Tim, you quickly learn that presentation dictates reception.

Scroll up to the picture of the tree at the start of this post.  Take a long look at  it. What makes it look so peaceful and bountiful?  Its natural order and symmetry.  Each branch is linked to the others at its root, but each branch has a place of its own in the whole.  Branches do not crowd and curl around each other in competition; there are spaces between each one to let in sunlight and air.

Content should be placed the same way on a page or a screen.  Sentences and paragraphs need to be separate and distinct.  As my high school calligraphy teacher put it, "The space around the letters is just as important as the letters themselves."  Otherwise, a subliminal tension takes over.

Don't waste your brilliant writing by forgetting to format your content so that it is reader-friendly.  Expecting your target audience to wade through dense blocks of text is not only rude, it does your own ideas a disservice.  No one wants to have to thread through a needless thicket of verbiage to stay on the trail of a story.  Avoid eye fatigue.  Keep your sentences short.  Keep your paragraphs pure. And embed your thought stream with spatial resting spots.

In next Monday's post, I will give a practical illustration of how visual formatting plays a pivotal role in employee compliance to behavioral standards.  Be sure to read it!

In the meantime, take a weed whacker to your own writing and see if you can prune away the density and let in more light and air.  You may just get your readers to stick with you.  After all, as you may have noticed, my sentences and paragraphs in this post have been uniformly lean, and the spaces between have been airy -- and you're still reading!

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