Why I Don't Use a Word Processor (1)

It's been far too long since I wrote an entry here on the intended principal subject of this blog: writing.

The trouble is that when one is in the process of writing, there really doesn't seem to be much to talk about: the work goes on, either quickly or slowly, but, above all, in private. It would seem odd (to me, anyway) to share any details of the work in progress, if only because it all might change before the work sees the light of day (if, indeed, it ever does). Characters change all the time, and even the basic story has a habit of ending up being quite different from what I thought I was writing.

So, I wondered, what could I post about if not the work in progress?  After pondering for a while I realised that it might be worthwhile to talk about the subject I have given as a title to this post, particularly as the subject should be big enough to occupy several posts. (Is there a word for a blog entry? "Post" seems too staid for the twenty-first century; "blentry" seems like it would be the obvious candidate, but I don't recall ever seeing it used.)

These days it seems that one can't throw the proverbial rock without hitting someone who has taken advantage of one of the many self-publishing companies that convert a computer file into a printed book (I'll leave e-books for another time... they might easily turn out to be the subject of several harangues). Regardless of the quality of the writing, the people I know who have taken advantage of these services (the cynic in me wonders which side is taking advantage of which) have all used a word processor to generate and format the content of their work. Whenever the subject of formatting has come up in conversation, they seem uniformly puzzled when I confess that I use no word processor either when actively writing or when formatting the finished product. The usual response, to put words in their mouths, is more or less along the lines of, "How is it possible not to use a word processor when you write a book?  You don't write it out in longhand, do you?" The possibility that a word processor might not be the best kind of program -- indeed, might not even be an appropriate program at all -- seems never to be questioned by most people.

There is little doubt that word processors are perfectly acceptable instruments if one intends to write a business letter or the annual Christmas missive. But for anything more complicated, it is often worth spending a not-inconsiderable amount of effort on the decision of which tool to use.

Writers are far from the only people who simply fire up the word processor because it is a convenient tool for transferring words from the brain to the screen (and, ultimately, the page). Lawyers, for example, do the same thing: legal briefs are often insanely complicated documents that include figures, tables, appendices, cross references, citations ad nauseum and other esoterica -- and, to make matters worse, are often co-authored by an entire team, members of which often spend an inordinate amount of time trying manage a document they have received from a colleague but which doesn't want to display correctly on their computer, or which causes their word processor to crash when performing some function like accepting a change from another person on the team.

One would think (if one is as naïf as I) that the sheer pain of such a process would cause someone to call a time-out and instigate an investigation as to whether there isn't a better way. But that never seems to happen.

Authors have a different problem than those experienced by a legal team: the author's goal is to produce a hardcopy book, rather than a document with complex internal structure. It sounds simple: how hard can it be to lay out words on a page? But rare is the author who thinks at the outset about whether a word processor is really the right tool for producing beautiful text.

Like many things in life, the process of producing attractive text seems like it should be easy -- and turns out to be anything but, demanding attention to details that aren't even in a word processor's vocabulary.

Commercial publishers used to employ specialist typographers (I imagine that some still do, but they seem to have disappeared from the large, mainstream publishing houses who now routinely produce books of whose typography they would once surely have been ashamed). The principal obvious job of a typographer is to make the text look attractive; but a less-obvious task is to make the text easy to read, minimizing the fatigue that is caused in a reader who has to work harder than necessary to convert the shapes on the paper to words in his head. Reading a badly-typeset book is at best more fatiguing than necessary, and at worst so aggravating that the reader might well give up altogether. (The most annoying of all is when the content of the book grasps the reader's attention, but the typography wears him down.)

In later posts (should I say "blentries"? is that any more of an abomination than "blog", which is now common currency?) I shall describe in some detail the various miniscule changes that a good typographer (or good typography software) can make to text in order to make it more readable. Unless the reader knows what to look for, he will probably never consciously notice any of these changes: but they make all the difference between a shoddy "cheap"-looking book produced from a word processor, and a book formatted to professional standards; also, the difference between smoothly-flowing text that the brain can interpret easily as it scans the page, and shapes that cause the reader to have to stop scanning because the transition from shapes on a page to a word in the head isn't as seamless as it should be.

And, egotistical though it may sound, when I've put in all the work needed to write a book, I don't want the reader to be distracted from the story by some awkwardness in the layout of letters and words on the page.

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