You can claim to live by the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover.” However, everyone does, whether they wish to believe it or not. I learned this as I sat in a Writing for New Media class, learning about the mechanics behind blogging and writing on the web. Our professor said, “Don’t clunk up the page with words. People will skip over it and get bored quickly. Fill it up with images and shorter paragraphs instead.”
I raised my eyebrows, clearly skeptical about the idea that the way a page looks could be more important than its actual content. I couldn’t help but think, “Aren’t words the point of writing blogs? Aren’t they what matter?”
Apparently, I had a lot to learn.
I already knew that formatting a poem meant everything. Each line break, stanza, and word choice contributes to the professionalism, flow, and eventual success of a poem. The look of your poetry defines you as a poet; e.e cummings’ work is just an example. Even if you primarily write fiction, the look of your prose defines you as well. Do you tend to write large, chunky paragraphs? Or do the majority of your paragraphs consist of one or two sentences? Readers subconsciously take notice of these details; it can either entice them or drive them away.
Writing that looks shorter and easier to read has become more and more visually appealing over the years. I did not think that this could apply to types of writing other than poetry, but I’ve learned that the format of any category of writing can mean the life or death of your piece. It can allure hundreds of readers or only a handful. It can attract readers or repel them. It can breathe life into your piece or kill it. A consumer flipping through a literary magazine will skim through the pages and most likely read the pieces that visually attract them: short poems boasting a surplus of line breaks, short stories possessing two-page dialogue. This is the sad truth to the person who worked painstakingly on their seven-page narrative, but it is the truth nonetheless.
If you explore the contents of a handful of YA books, you might notice that a lot of them are formatted with shorter paragraphs and larger font sizes. These traits never particularly attracted me, but they have been getting increasingly popular in bookstores. Literature has evolved in such a way that a book’s insides, no longer just its cover, decide whether it is successful or not. Little things such as fonts, font sizes, paragraph breaks, and amount of dialogue no longer act as small aspects of your book. They now mean everything. Especially in the world of online writing, this is true. Someone scrolling through a digital newspaper will not wish to read the entire article. Instead, they will look at the images placed there, the videos, the graphics, the bullet points.
Today, writing seems to be following along the lines of “saying more in fewer words.” The idea of conciseness has entered new levels, and it can be seen in both positive and negative lights. On one hand, the concept could encourage writers to pump their sentences with concise, skillful imagery that does its job well, thereby eliminating unnecessary fluff. After all, a minimalistic approach is rarely a bad one. On the other hand, long, thought-out pieces of writing are discarded more often than not, and great pieces of work are looked over without a second thought. Is the evolution of formatting worth the consequence?
Leave a comment below with your thoughts on this subject. It is an interesting issue to ponder; the format of your writing is slowly becoming more and more significant, acting as the thin boundary between the failure and success of your piece. Keep this in mind as you move on to your next project.