Make Your Pages Eye Candy

Appearance definitely matters. This is no less true for pages than people, and I include both digital and paper pages. In a single afternoon I came across four  instances where choices of font, type size, color, or formatting made reading a challenge for me. It’s never a good idea to make reading difficult. It’s way too easy for readers to set your work aside, or click away from it.  Here’s what I found:

A memoir with double-spacing between paragraphs. The story seemed choppy. I finally realized that my eye was interpreting the extra vertical space as a “pause signal.” This format option is standard for business letters and web layout, where your eye needs the space as a marker to remain oriented on the page. But it is not standard on printed pages where it is typically used to indicate a break in thought or scene. 

A double-spaced manuscript printed in the old standard of 12 point Courier. Although they were the standard for college research papers, I never found this form easy to read, and was thrilled when Times New Roman edged out Courier for everything but complying with the demands of old-school editors.  I know the writing buddy who requested the help of my editorial eye will reformat before sharing more widely. By the way, if you are submitting work for publication, follow the submission guidelines on formatting to the letter!

An e-mail from a primitive list-serve that included a 1768 word story submitted for critiquing. It was a wreck with stray code, uneven line lengths, and a system font. I was tempted to pass this one up, but by pasting it into a Word document and cleaning it up, I discovered a delightful manuscript that needed little work. I won’t do that again. It took far too long, but I could not have fully appreciated the story if I hadn’t. In this case the problem was technical limitations of the system, not the preference of the author.

A website with text rendered in a micro-font the equivalent of ingredients lists on candy bars. It was even harder to read because the text was only a few shades darker than the background. I couldn’t even use the standard trick of enlarging the text size by holding down Ctrl while scrolling with my mouse wheel, because the page was displayed in Flash. Did I stay on that webpage? No!

Bottom line: to thine own words be true. Honor your efforts and your readers’ eyes by making them easy to read. Indulge your fancies with formatting, but pamper your readers by

  • selecting readable fonts (see The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing for a list of recommended easy-reading fonts)
  • using easily read type size
  • keeping line spacing between single and about 1.5
  • ensuring high contrast between text and background — black and white are hard to beat. 
Double-check your personal taste by showing samples of your layout to several friends. Ask them for an evaluation of readability. Check some best-selling books and pay attention to their layout techniques. Some features vary, like margin widths, header styles, and graphic enhancements may vary but general font and spacing standards stick to the tried and true. Simon and Schuster wouldn't risk their investment and readership by selecting fonts and layout that are difficult to read. Would you?

Write now: print out one of your finished stories and ask a couple of friends for their opinion of its appearance and ease of reading.


Kaisa Kyläkoski said...

I have used double spacing in all my books, uups. The fault I have tried to avoid (and have seen far too many times) is rows with way over 60 characters. In a printed book it a) looks funny and b) is not easy to read.

Karen Walker said...

Excellent advice, Sharon, as always. And by the way, thanks for helping me out with Blogger New Pages feature. I did it! Yippee.

Sharon Lippincott said...


Pulling your line spacing up to about 1.2 - 1.4 spacing will not only make your pages easier to read, it will save paper.

Kendra Bonnett said...

All good advice, Sharon. Thanks for the reminders. Back in the days when I was a magazine editor, I found it very useful to work closely with my designers. So many of my writers and junior editors felt the words always took precedence and wanted the designers to design around their words...not with them. Like you, I constantly reminded them that the best way to convey their ideas was to make the whole package pleasing to the eye. The words are important, but if the page is a turn-off, the reader will never stick around long enough to absorb what the writer has to share.

Thanks, Sharon.