Should we care about how a page looks?

In the Preface section to his book I Am a Strange Loop Douglas Hofstadter (an established American academic whose career got a rocket launch with the success of his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid; I haven’t read that one but I’d only recommend the first half of his Strange Loop) discusses how he was very pleased that his publisher allowed him to entirely format the entire thing. On page xviii of that preface he makes the following two interesting (and revelatory of his approach) remarks in regards to that privilege: “I think that attention to form [in reference to typesetting] improves anyone’s writing”, and “my quest for visual elegance on each page has had countless repercussions on how I phrase my ideas.”

We self and hybrid-pubbers are no strangers to this advantage ourselves; when we self-pub especially we have complete and total freedom to control absolutely every aspect of how our books will turn out (and may we never forget what a blessing that is). The question that Hofstadter considers therefore very naturally arises for us: Should we care about how a page looks? By his own telling of the process he chose to engage in Hofstadter formed his writing to fit how he wanted his pages to appear, coming down strongly on one side of the issue and insisting that yes, we should care very deeply about how a page looks. So deeply, in fact, that we shift our writing accordingly. The opposite end of the spectrum would leave every dangling preposition that ends a paragraph alone on its own line and not care one bit – what is foremost to such writers are the words and the words only. How much room is there in the middle of these two positions?

When formatting my own books (and don’t forget that I will have a new one out this year – wink!) I made a point of starting each new chapter on the right side of the book when held open. That felt cleaner to me somehow, and although it meant that there was sometimes a blank page between chapters and sometimes not – depending on how many pages the previous chapter had – the variation involved didn’t bother me. My current thinking though is that such a move doesn’t really matter and probably doesn’t make much difference to the reader; it doesn’t make any difference to me as a reader anyway and I am probably not all that atypical. I haven’t decided yet what I’ll do for my new book but I will almost certainly keep the same physical size that my other two have (excepting the comic (ahem, graphic novel, sorry) I did with artist Eric Uhlich), purely for reasons of being somewhat anal-retentive and enjoying standardization. As far as the nitty-gritty within each page goes I am not overly concerned, although I will admit not to like seeing paragraphs that end with a single sad word standing forlornly on the left side of the page.

If we don’t take Hofstadter’s concern for intra-, cross-page, and pagination visualization seriously (or at least not to the degree that he evidently does) then what should we care about given that we have all of the formatting choices that we do? I think primary amongst the possibilities would be the use of visuals and line settings to achieve the desired pace. Our stories and story-arcs, plots, devices, subterfuges, etc. will already all point the reader in certain mental directions and will help form the speed at which readers make their way through our works; why not add formatting to our quiver? Certain visuals such as three asterisks centered on a single line with carriage breaks on either side provide strong internal brakes to a text and force the reader’s mind into a new frame; a more powerful announcement of scene change is hard to imagine (though certainly creatable). Other methods that come readily to mind are page and section breaks, inserted illustrations, those fancy barcodes that smartphones can scan and load a webpage, symbols to create an image or just to boggle the reader’s mind – the sky is of course the limit and there are no limits to having your paperback version appear one way and your ebook version another. Complete and total freedom to control absolutely every aspect indeed. Although we may or may not side with Hofstadter’s decision to promote visual form over written content we do certainly share his editing authority. Regardless of what we decide to do with that authority let’s be sure to take account of it.

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