Category Archives: Writing

Useful Typography

These 26 key rules from Butterick’s Practical Typography might be the most useful listicle I’ve seen in years. A sample:

  1. The four most im­por­tant ty­po­graphic choices you make in any doc­u­ment are point size, line spac­ing, line length, and font (pas­sim), be­cause those choices de­ter­mine how thebody text looks.
  2. point size should be 10–12 points in printed doc­u­ments, 15-25 pix­els on the web.
  3. line spac­ing should be 120–145% of the point size.
  4. The av­er­age line length should be 45–90 char­ac­ters (in­clud­ing spaces).
  5. The eas­i­est and most vis­i­ble im­prove­ment you can make to your ty­pog­ra­phy is to use a pro­fes­sional font, like those found in font rec­om­men­da­tions.
  6. Avoid goofy fonts, mono­spaced fonts, and sys­tem fonts, es­pe­cially times new ro­man and Arial.

My number one rule for this blog is “Pick a template and don’t deviate” since I figure someone much better at this than me spent a lot of time thinking about how it should look.

Slow Reading

The September 16, 2014 issue of the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about the “slow reading” movement:

Slow readers list numerous benefits to a regular reading habit, saying it improves their ability to concentrate, reduces stress levels and deepens their ability to think, listen and empathize. The movement echoes a resurgence in other old-fashioned, time-consuming pursuits that offset the ever-faster pace of life, such as cooking the “slow-food” way or knitting by hand.

What’s interesting is that slow reading isn’t just about relaxing, it’s also about better comprehension and learning because it seems that our digital-intense lives are turning us into a bunch of scatterbrained wrecks.

One 2006 study of the eye movements of 232 people looking at Web pages found they read in an “F” pattern, scanning all the way across the top line of text but only halfway across the next few lines, eventually sliding their eyes down the left side of the page in a vertical movement toward the bottom.

None of this is good for our ability to comprehend deeply, scientists say. Reading text punctuated with links leads to weaker comprehension than reading plain text, several studies have shown. A 2007 study involving 100 people found that a multimedia presentation mixing words, sounds and moving pictures resulted in lower comprehension than reading plain text did.

Slow reading means a return to a continuous, linear pattern, in a quiet environment free of distractions. 

In something of a side note there was this little tidbit about folks who read fiction:

A study published last year in Science showed that reading literary fiction helps people understand others’ mental states and beliefs, a crucial skill in building relationships.

Come to think of it this helps explain some of the people I know who only read “serious” stuff like biographies of obscure roman generals or 1,200 page studies of minor Civil War skirmishes.

Now That’s an Order Confirmation

I just ordered an energy drink for my wife that will be delivered to our home with a personalized message. Big deal right? What made it cool was the order confirmation served up by the folks at Drink the Sunshine after I finished paying which you can see below. Very creative, but that shouldn’t be surprising considering the folks behind the product.



FYI, I’m both “The Ball and Chain” and the “doofus husband.”

The Impact of Editing

I get the print version of three daily newspapers, mostly because I’ve been doing it for so long that my morning coffee would feel weird without them, but also because I like the way I read the print version versus online. Something about the ability to skim headlines, the way the layout of the paper causes my eyes to move from item to item, I find to be a better experience than the digital version. That’s why I was reading the print version of the Wall Street Journal this morning and came across an interview with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Chancellor Dr. Carol Folt. In it she came across to me as a little too PR-y, skillfully responding to questions with what I call “mush-mouth” replies. I thought I’d send the article to some journalist/ex-journalist friends to get their reaction, but when I pulled up the online version of the article I noticed some small differences between it and the print version that altered my opinion.

Here’s an example of one Q&A that was edited down for the print version. First the print version:

WSJ: Does the tension between athletics and academics need to be addressed at all schools?

Dr. Folt: People want to know if you can have big-time athletics and education, and if students that participate in athletics can still be considered credible students. That is the broader question.

If you look at the revenue sports [like football and basketball], I think something like 95% of students do not go on to become professional athletes. Even if you go on and play in the NFL, you’re going to spend most of your life not as an active football player. We are preparing students for a lifetime career. 

That’s why the reforms [in academic advising] could help everybody. We could do a better job in our advising, do a better job in helping them be successful in developing throughout their career.

Now the digital version:

WSJ: Does the tension between athletics and academics need to be addressed at all schools?

Dr. Folt: People want to know if you can have big-time athletics and education, and if students that participate in athletics can still be considered credible students. That is the broader question.

If you look at the revenue sports [like football and basketball], I think something like 95% of students do not go on to become professional athletes. Even if you go on and play in the NFL, you’re going to spend most of your life not as an active football player. We are preparing students for a lifetime career. To the student who comes in fencing and wants to go to the Olympics, we can say ‘Great, but what do you want to be [after]?’ That’s the tension.

That’s why the reforms [in academic advising] could help everybody. We could do a better job in our advising, do a better job in helping them be successful in developing throughout their career.

The two sentences that are in bold type were edited out for the print version. To me they didn’t really change the substance of her answer, but they did serve to add some context and that second sentence, “That’s the tension” to me was particularly important because without it she almost seems to be dancing around the question. It’s a minor thing, but boy did it highlight to me the impact that what is, or is not, included in a story can truly change the reader’s perception.

So I Was Wrong About the Double-Space

Because I learned to type on a manual typewriter back in the dark ages I’ve been doing the period-space thing all wrong for 30 years and didn’t know it:

Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men’s shirt buttons on the right and women’s on the left. Every major style guide—including theModern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.) Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren’t for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

I hereby officially apologize to every design professional upon whom I’ve inflicted my double-spaced prose.

On the Importance of Blogging

John Robinson blogs about teaching his students the important of blogging which I, of course, found blog-worthy:

It was only natural that I would require the 36 students in my “Current Issues in Mass Media” class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill blog for the class. Most of the students were in the journalism and mass communication school. Many majored in journalism or advertising or public relations. And most of them drew back with alarm when I told them I expected them to blog about mass comm issues three times a week. That was a minimum, which would get them a C.

I wanted them to learn to think and write in public. They need that skill. They could learn from each other’s  blogs because I curated their posts on this RebelMouse site. The idea was that they would read each other’s reflections on mass communication and engage with someone other than me. Best of all, by forcing them to search out topics worth writing about, they were keeping up with trends in mass communication.

I wanted them to find their voice.

My advice was simple: I told them the same thing Ed Cone told me when I started blogging 10 years ago – “Have a take and don’t suck.”

FYI, Ed’s advice is good beyond the blogging world too. John goes on to share some of his students’ thoughts on what they learned in the process and it’s definitely worth a read.

End of an Era

I’ve been writing this blog for almost ten years and that entire time it’s been hosted on Typepad. I’d been bugged by at least one friend (Dan) to switch over to WordPress for years, but I’d resisted because it seemed like too much of a hassle. About a year ago I tried to convert but the process didn’t work and I didn’t have time to figure out why.

Last week Typepad experienced a hack-attack and their service went down for days. Considering I had over 3,000 posts that I suddenly couldn’t access – I had some backups but they weren’t real current – I was anxious to get back on their system and generate a current backup. A couple of days ago they came back online and I did get a backup downloaded in minutes. At that point I tried one more time to import all of my posts into WordPress and this time it worked, so I quickly went to my registrar and changed my domain name and pointed it to my little navel-gazing project’s new home.

Other motivators for getting off of Typepad and on to WordPress included:

  • I write regularly for a work blog hosted on WordPress and having just one tool for my writing seemed to make more sense.
  • Saving some bucks since I was paying a monthly fee for Typepad and I could get better functionality on WordPress without the monthly fee.
  • There are more developers on WordPress which means a lot more “stuff” to play with in terms of tools, templates, etc.
  • Typepad was really slow to adapt to the changing social media environment and WordPress tools seem superior for posting from a mobile platform. I’m still not sure about that because I haven’t used it much, but that’s my impression.

This isn’t intended to slam Typepad; it’s a great tool that has served me well but it was time to move on and begin a new era of over sharing.

Why Teach

After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature Albert Camus wrote the following letter to his teacher, a letter that I think any teacher would find as validation for their day-to-day struggles.

19 November 1957

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don't make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus 

Yet another reason to love Letters of Note. You should definitely visit the site to get the backstory on the letter.

The Art of Becoming

Letters of Note has a great letter from Kurt Vonnegut to some NY high school students:

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.


How to Write a Book

Lately I've seen a rash of "Easy Ways to Write a Business Book and Make a Killing" type posts on the various social media channels I frequent. You'd be right to be suspicious of anyone shilling those programs because the truth of the matter is that any book worth reading likely had a great deal of blood, sweat and tears poured into it. Scott Adams, he of Dilbert fame, offers a glimpse into his writing process and reveals how hard writing a book really is:

Part of the problem is that writing a book is the loneliest job in the world, and an immense amount of work. It's hard to get started on a project so daunting. My new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, took two years to write. For most of that time, no one but me saw any part of it. My publisher and I have a long history, so he lets me run free after the general concept for the book is nailed down. I probably worked for 18 months without anyone else seeing a word of it…

For nearly two years I plugged away on a collection of ideas around my theme and I have to say that none of it worked until the next-to-last round of edits. With my layered writing process, success tends to be binary. The book is a lifeless bunch of ideas until the moment it isn't. As a writer, you hope that moment comes, but you can never know for sure. This is yet another case in which my natural inclination for optimism comes in handy. I tell myself I can smell a book before I can see it. I know it's in me; I just need to write until I find it. I'm not entirely sure if I am intuitive or irrational, or even if those things are different.

If you're planning to write a book, ask yourself if you are the type of person that can spend that much time completely alone, doing unpleasant work, while receiving nothing in the way of encouragement or positive feedback along the way. You won't even know if anyone will read your book when you're done. If you answered "Yes, I can do that," I recommend these steps:

He then goes on to detail the six major steps in his writing process and they are indeed daunting. As he points out, every writer has his own method but what the good ones have in common is that their methods all include a great deal of hard work.