Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A marginal confession

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A page from a college essay

Recently, I made a surprising discovery about myself: I’m less likely to buy a book that has been typeset with a ragged right margin. Over the weekend, I went to the winter sale at the wonderful Open Books store here in Chicago, and while I picked up a few nice discoveries—The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, Field Notes in Science and Nature, The Genius of the System—I also passed on a couple of promising books because I didn’t like the way they were laid out. (For the curious, these were Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question, a collection of his lectures at Harvard, and David Reck’s Music of the Whole Earth.) The price wasn’t an issue; they would have been just a few dollars each. And while I’m consciously trying to cut down on my book purchases, simply because I’m running out of space, I suspect I would have bought them both if their margins had only been justified. This isn’t an instance of the larger principle, which I still think is true, that shoddiness in design and typesetting is a sign that other compromises have been made on the editorial side; margins and all, these were handsome volumes. It’s a sign of a deeper, more idiosyncratic need on my part to read books that present themselves to me in a symmetrical column of text, and it means that I routinely judge books, not by their covers, but by their margins.

And it’s been an factor in my life for some time, both in my own writing and in reading the works of others. Early in my freshman year at college, I found myself obsessively writing my essays so that the margins came out neat on both sides. At the time, I was using a version of Word that had relatively primitive justification and hyphenation settings, so my only option was to rewrite the text itself, altering words here and there so that the margins were even. (I also liked a slightly tapering shape at the top of each paragraph, as the examples posted here illustrate.) Early on, I wrote my essays in monospaced 12-point Courier, which meant that not only did the lines need to be aligned to the naked eye, but they had to contain exactly the same number of characters, the occasional dangling comma or period aside. In my senior year, I switched over to Times New Roman, a proportional font, which made things easier, and I’ve been using it ever since. But my marginal obsession still remains, if in a somewhat attenuated form. I still justify and hyphenate all my own manuscripts—although I remove the hyphenation before they go out to readers—and I continue to revise the text if the spacing on a line seems loose. And if you’ve ever noticed that most of the paragraphs on this blog are roughly the same size and shape, with the right margin only slightly ragged, well, that isn’t an accident.

A page from a college essay

This naturally raises the question of why I go through all this trouble, especially for works that are eventually going to be published in a form that I can’t control. And I don’t really have a good answer. Writers, by nature, are obsessive creatures who have been known, as Norman Mailer once was, to devote an entire working day to changing a period to a comma and back again, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they’d be equally finicky about how their work appears on the screen or the page. Anecdotally, there’s a lot of evidence that writers who format their own work for publication fiddle with the wording in similar ways. In Le Ton Beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter writes:

I can clearly see the spacing as I type on my screen, and I rewrite and rewrite in order to make sure that no line is too tightly or too loosely spaced. In the course of such rewritings—here extracting a word, there using a shorter or a longer one, elsewhere inserting a word where none was—words and phrases that I would otherwise not have thought of pop to mind, suggesting ideas I would not have thought of, and those ideas suggest unexpected paragraphs, and those paragraphs are in turn linked to other ones, and so on…

Hofstadter’s story, incidentally, raises the question of why he didn’t just use hyphenation to deal with loose lines, since there isn’t a single instance of it in the entire book—I’ve always wanted to ask him about this. More recently, the graphic designer Chip Kidd wrote his novel The Cheese Monkeys in Quark, allowing him to revise it for formatting purposes as he went along. (When he told Thomas Harris about this, Harris is alleged to have replied: “I wish I could do that!”)

As a matter of fact, there’s one category of authors for whom these issues are of huge practical importance: screenwriters, who are essentially formatting their own work for the skeptical eyes of producers or studio readers. Not surprisingly, they’re all obsessed by margins, line spacing, and avoiding widows and orphans, often a way to fudge the page count, but also as a reflection of something larger. As Terry Rossio observes:

In retrospect, my dedication—or my obsession—toward getting the script to look exactly the way it should, no matter how long it took—that’s an example of the sort of focus one needs to make it in this industry…If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.

And I sort of believe this. Deep down, I’d like to think that my obsession with margins has made me a better writer, not just because it reflects my meticulousness in other ways, but because of the discipline it enforces. As Hofstadter points out, keeping an eye on the physical appearance of your manuscript is a source of self-composed constraints, and reworking the text in this light isn’t all that different from making the lines of a poem fit a complicated form, like a sonnet or villanelle. (I almost wrote “like a sonnet or sestina,” but the line spacing ended up looking a little weird, so I changed it.)

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2013 at 8:38 am

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