Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Subtle Style of Sentences

Something that bugs me, (just a little bit), is when people compare books to movies. It's the same as comparing lemons and bananas. Sure, they're both fruit, but one of them will turn your milkshake into a sour porridge. So sure, books and movies are both good for storytelling, but they do so in very different ways so it's silly to compare them.
What's been bugging me (a little bit) lately is the idea that stories are not a visual medium. Now, I'm sure some of you might be thinking "The Word Nerd's lost it", as unless we're talking about picture books, then written stories don't have much to look at; but hear me out.
Of course, compared to movies, writing doesn't look like a visual medium because it doesn't wiggle pictures in your face or (for the most part) use colour at all. It's just words on a page. However, I'm going to talk about the ways in which writing is a visual medium, and how knowing this can improve your writing. The Word of the Day is: 'ITALIC'

Italic /uytalik/ adj. 1. Relating to a style of printing types in which the letters usually slope to the right (thus, italic), used for emphasis, to separate different kinds of information, etc. ♦n. 2. (often pl.) Italic type. 3. (cap.) Of or pertaining to Italy, especially ancient Italy or its tribes. 4. (cap.) A branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

In an earlier post, I've talked about ergodic literature, which is a style of writing that requires more effort from the reader because the writing is written all over the place. If
the words shift about the place or change colour for some reason,
then of course it could be considered a form of visual expression. But, I'm not talking about ergodic literature, rather how those principles apply to all forms of writing.

No matter what we write, the way it is written affects the way we read it. Changing the colour or orientation is a very blunt way of doing that, but what about italics?
We've been trained, through time, that when something is written in italics it has some kind of emphasis. Words that are italicized means something different to the same words when they're not. Because of that, when I read italics, I read them emphatically.
The same can be said of emboldened words. I see those words as either more serious, more important or more dramatic.

But I figure, at this point, I'm just preaching to the choir. Writers know about italics and bold. I use them so often on this blog, to make these words read as though I were speaking them, that it's a given at this point. But those are NOT the only way in which words are a visual medium. In fact, they're one of the minor examples of visual expression. The most important visual tool in the writer's shed is:


Paragraphs, white-space, page breaks. People actually read white-space, not in the same way that you read words, but they do interpret whitespace.
  "It's the reason why new dialogue is written on a new line with a gap beside the margin."
It's the reason why most chapters of a book start on a new page. It's the reason why the title of a book (so often) has its own page.

When there's a lot of space, people read words differently, and this is actually one of the things that really bugs me about online writing.

When writing fiction, either fanfiction or stuff in blogs, a lot of people put a space after nearly every sentence (thus illustrated).

It annoys me for two reasons. One, LOOK at all this wasted space! If I ever wanted to print this out, I would be wasting half of every page!

Second, it makes me feel like the writer has a stutter. Like they need to stop and take a breath every time they say something.

It depicts a lack of clarity of thought, in my opinion. When you write in full paragraphs each time, it shows the reader that you have a flowing train of thought (even when you didn't). A new paragraph means something new. In fiction, it can mean there's a new scene that's being played out; it can mean there's a new concept to be explored; a new thought process. So when writers do this online, it looks amateur (seriously, check out some, most of them do this space-per-sentence thing). This style looks like the writer had to stop and think before every line. Don't get me wrong, you're allowed to stop and think about every time, it's not like I sit down and splurt out entire blog posts in one fell-swoop; but just as puppetry is better when the audience doesn't see the strings, writing is better when the audience doesn't see your stop-and-start thought-patterns.
Also, symmetry is often related to beauty, and in this case I find it very true. When a page continually hugs the left margin, it looks ugly to me. So it's a good idea to write in full paragraphs all the time - even if you're not worried about wasting paper - so that the words are spaced across the entire page. That way the words look clean and more cohesive.

Just recently, something else was brought to my attention that needs addressing.   I only heard about it in a recent xkcd comic.   It seems as though there is a portion of the Internet, and society at large, that thinks you need to put two spaces after each sentence while writing online.   I imagine that these people are aping the style of handwriting whereby sentences have a "finger" of space between them, something I have never understood.   But no matter what you believe about writing, let me explain something to you.   I don't care what the rules say, because that's not the issue.   The fact remains, when I read writing with more than one "space" after each full stop, it looks to me like your writing is full of holes.   Literally.

Another thing that bugs me, when it comes to writing, is something I call the sentence-hook.
These are caused when sentences are written just long enough for the final words to sit one line down.
I'm trying to illustrate it within the blog, but it's difficult as the pages are wider than I expected.

See, within the writing, I consider these sentence-hooks like little hiccups. The eye reads words from left to write (in English), trailing along. So when a word sits on the left side, it forces your eye to stop a second on the left margin. It stops the way the words flow. So often, these are easy to fix. I've found myself adding extra words, removing page breaks or rewriting sentences altogether to avoid it, because I find it annoying when I come across it while reading so I try to avoid it for my readers when I write (although not always).

Now, I could spend this entire post whining about poor writing practices, and visually unpleasant writing, but I won't. Instead, I want to direct this towards something more positive.
To all you NaNoWriters, and my fellow writers in general, I'm not pointing out these little issues just to whinge. I'm pointing these out so that you can identify them and utilize them. Paragraphing, spacing, sentences, italics, bold & underlines all affect the way that your writing looks and reads.
Once you recognize that, you can use these to make your writing look better.

  Or use it for effect.

Once you start to master these, you can move onto some of the more advanced typography like kerningtracking; recto/verso; leading; raising; lowering & all kinds of tricks that you can try with your word processors at home.
Because writing is a visual medium, and it can even be a great one; if only more writers would put the effort in to make their words beautiful.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time, I'll be writing some more beautiful words.

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I would love to read your words.