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Robert's Rules of Writing #72: Graph It

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

It turns out that I'm very glad I waited this long to discuss Robert's Rule #72, simply because I now have a better understanding of grids and the geometry of a page.

With this rule, Masello discusses the look of prose on a page. He points out that if you are trying to read a long block of prose, such a paragraph that doesn't seem to come to an end, you're more likely to have trouble absorbing everything in the paragraph. (All right, he doesn't say that exactly, but it's what I infer from what he does say.) Masello suggests looking at your longer paragraphs and breaking them up into more digestible chunks.

I have to say, nowhere do I find this piece of advice more relevant or useful than for those of us who write prose intended for the Internet. Even though a long chunk of unbroken prose in a book might make me pause, I still find myself eventually able to get through it all. But that's usually because by the time I encounter that chunk of prose, I've already made a commitment to read the book and I'm already through quite a bit of it.

On the Internet, I find that I'm inundated with articles and blog posts, and that far too many of them include longish paragraphs that force me to evaluate how much I'm actually inclined (or able) to read the whole thing. I'm far more likely to read something if it's either short or broken up into smaller pieces. Not only is it less intimidating at first glance, but it usually implies that the writer has thought through the piece before composing it, and has done their best to make it easier to read.

Which brings me to the geometry of a page. Even though I've been reading my whole life (or at least since I was two), and I've been working in publishing for a while, I still had difficulty grasping how vital the look of a page is for the reading experience. Now that I've taken the course Publication Design and Print Production Strategies, I have a much better understanding of how to design a grid to make a page look welcoming. And, of course, the more welcoming the page, the more likely someone will choose to read the text contained therein.

I only wish I had had more time to do that here.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein


It's not just breaking up long paragraphs. Too many short paragraphs in a row can cause the same effect, blocking the reader's easy access to the words. The geometry of the page needs variation, a rhythm that draws the eye and mind onward.




At least when you're laying out a page, you know what shape the page is; designing for the internet, you have to remember that screens come in different shapes and sizes (I find the sheer length of the line across a wide screen wearying to read, and, judging from the number of page designs with very wide margins, I'm not alone here).
Thank you. Please, people, set your margins to wrap based on my window/browser size, not yours. Most of what people write tends towards free text, so the margins become less important. There are exceptions, but those should be reserved for specific visual formatting, art or style issues where line length or page layout makes a difference.
Seconded. Designers, do not assume that I'm using the same fonts, sizes, window sizes, or colors as you are. Too many web sites hard-wire too much of this stuff, and it's a real hassle. (Actually, what it mostly is is a deterrent.)
One thing I dislike is breaking an article into linked pages. I want to read the article, but if I have to click 3 or 4 times to get though it I am not going to do it. It is an annoying ploy to get more ads into my vision.

December 2016

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