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  • Gwyneth Box

How to: Create Silence & Space

The very best speakers are not only aware of the words they use, but of how to use silence, and the way pauses can affect the audience. This is a skill that writers can learn from too, Gynweth Box offers her advice.

1. Looks matter

The visual impact of a text, whether on page or on screen, can have a huge effect on how the reader perceives the content

As readers, we tend not to be consciously aware of page design, although we occasionally recognise that there’s something about a particular book, independent of how interesting or compelling the content is, that makes it more – or less – appealing than others.

With more people self-publishing, more and more books are being produced by non-experts, by writers who may have enough knowledge to produce a clear and legible manuscript using their word-processing software, but who don’t have the training and skill of a professional layout artist or typesetter.

2. Make breaks

When writing be conscious of how you are constructing the text to guide understanding and create pauses in the minds of their readers. Then, once the text is passed on to the typesetter, the visual design of each page and of the whole book can also play a part in creating an enjoyable reading experience.

There are lots of different ways to break up a text: punctuation is used across all genres to signal pauses, paragraph breaks apply to prose in general, while chapter breaks are relevant only to longer texts; tree structuring and bullet point lists are reserved mostly for non-fiction, while line breaks and stanza breaks are tools specific to poetry.

The writer uses all of these elements as signals and clues for the reader about how he intends his text to be read. But once a text is complete, the writer passes it on to the typesetter, who has a different set of tools he can use that add space and silence and that can help or hinder the reader.

3. Make Space

Most people involved in writing or publishing are aware of the phrase “white space” and realise that the visual impact of a text, whether on page or on screen, can have a huge effect on how the reader perceives the content.

The problem is that white space isn’t a particularly simple concept and a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Here are just a few of the different ways in which white space occurs on a page.

i. Blank Pages

In addition to the endpapers that separate the book cover from the pages that contain the body of a text, you will often find additional blank pages at the beginning or end of a printed book. This may be a result of how the large sheets of paper are printed, folded and bound into books, and now that digital printing is the default, it is less common. Even so, framing the main bulk of the book content with appropriate front and end matter is still important as it gives the content room to breathe and helps to indicate that the book has been professionally produced.

A book whose last sentence appears directly opposite the inside back cover may save a few pennies in paper costs, but risks coming across as abrupt or amateur.

ii. Space around the text

Most novels start each new chapter on the page immediately following the previous chapter. (Occasionally, chapters even begin halfway down a page, although this isn’t the norm.) For fiction, where the action tends to follow directly on, chapter after chapter, this encourages the reader to continue without a break.

In non-fiction books each chapter – or each new story in an anthology – should be seen as equally important, and so each should begin on the right-hand page. This means that there will occasionally be blank left-hand pages, depending on where the previous chapter or story ended.

If you have section header pages, these, too, should be on the right-hand side, and then the back of that page will be blank and the actual content of the section will start on the next right-hand page. These blank pages are a kind of mapping for the reader and provide subconscious clues about the weight and relative importance of each element in the book.

iii. Kerning & tracking

Kerning refers to the space between specific pairs of characters, while tracking refers to the space between all the characters in a piece of text. Since typefaces are professionally designed to take into account the way the different letters work together, there are not many occasions when it is necessary to change either kerning or tracking.

Sometimes, though, particularly in very small or very large font sizes, a very slight adjustment can make the text easier to read.

Particularly with the larger fonts used for headings and titles, an adjustment to kerning may be necessary to make a word hold together better. Of course, the problem is knowing just how much tweaking can be done without spoiling the effect the original typeface designer intended.

iv. Inter-line spacing

The space between lines of a text – the leading – can also be adjusted to squeeze a text or to force it to occupy a larger space than it would do automatically. Again, this may be necessary when working with non-standard size texts, and, again, there is skill involved in knowing just how much liberty can be taken with the default settings. 

It can be tempting to use changes to leading and tracking to prevent single words or lines running on to the next page (widows) or paragraphs beginning with a single line at the bottom of a page (orphans), but adjustments are best left to professional typesetters.

v. Margins

The space around a text is vitally important. If the text begins or ends too close to the inner edge of the page, a cheaply produced book may quickly start to fall apart as the reader forces it wide open to be able to read the text close to the spine. 

On the other hand, margins that are too wide will leave the text floating in a sea of white. As well as setting margins in accordance with the page size and font, the typesetter uses a range of techniques to anchor the text, including paragraph rules (horizontal lines) and footer and header detailing.

The choice whether to justify the text or leave a ragged right-hand margin is also important. While most text in novels is usually justified (i.e. has a straight edge down both sides) this can lead to “rivers” of white space due to coincidental alignment of words. Here, the temptation is to tinker with tracking, leading and hyphenation, opening up a huge can of worms.

4. The knock-on effect

So far, we’ve been thinking mostly about designing text in printed books. But if you make choices to suit a specific size and proportion of printed page and then convert the text so it can be read on a screen, any tweaks you’ve hard-coded into the print layout will be copied over and may suddenly be revealed as unexpected and unwanted breaks or awkwardly displayed sections of the text. What’s more, on many handheld devices, the reader can choose the font and font size they want, so they have control over how the text appears.

It’s also important to remember that every adjustment has a knock-on effect; the fact that you can tweak typographical elements, doesn’t mean you should. If you change the margins in one place, you may cause problems elsewhere; if you manage to pull back a widow here, you may cause another later on. And if you keep on tweaking indiscriminately, making a slight alteration for every problem that arises, you risk destroying the coherence of the text as a whole.

Words: Gwyneth Box

Photos: Unsplash



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