8.09.2010

The Aesthetics of Non-Visual Art

I overuse line breaks.

It's true.

Not line breaks in the sense of a physical line that divides two sections of text, but in the sense that I like to set single sentences in their own paragraphs. There's a lot of reasons for this. It allows me to bring a greater attention to those particular sentences. By singling these sentences out, I lend them a gravitas that they wouldn't have, tucked into the adjacent paragraph.

But, perhaps more importantly, it creates a physical space. This is obvious. You can see the white space between the breaks of the paragraphs. But, too often, we overlook the importance of this white space.

Check out more after the break.



What does this white space do? Surprisingly, quite a bit. The best way to illustrate one of these points is not by trying to explain it to you, but simply by offering a demonstration:


When you don't use paragraph breaks in your typing, everything tends to look like one big block of text and that's very hard to read for people. Even if it's well written, any points you attempt to make, any nuances in your text, any clever references you make, any brilliant analogies that come into your mind will be lost. If you're writing a story, then, and you put all of the description in one paragraph and you happen to get a little verbose, talking about the infinite blackness and inky, spotted darkness of the night sky, or the unquantifiable distance and feelings of smallness associated with space, then people tend to lose focus and you lose the setting of your scene. People end up not reading about important things you may want to bring back later, like the extended metaphor of the gold watch your character was fiddling with in that infinite blackness, or how he can't ever go barefoot because of, oh I don't know, some random skin condition on his feet that require them to be either in shoes or wrapped up at all times. People end up skipping over this information because it's not been divided into more manageable chunks. It's just sentence upon sentence upon sentence upon sentence and no matter how beautiful or subtle or intelligent the prose, by not breaking it up in any way, well, people will probably just ignore it. You're probably ignored this. And if you haven't, well you either are a completionist or you like my writing way way too much. Seriously I am just typing to fill space now. I'd put a joke in but I think a question mark would give people skimming this paragraph too much of a reference point as to where things might get interesting again and I've been steadfastly avoiding that. Have I made my point? I think I've made my point. Good.
That white space serves as a sign post. It tells us when a new idea has been introduced, or when a sentence or phrase is of a particular import. In absence of that white space, as I've just demonstrated, you lose the reader. The implication of a piece of writing that lacks any white space is that any information contained within that block is equally important and, in the case of such a large paragraph, it then comes off as if that information is, well, not important.

To be fair, a similar thing can take place if you OVERUSE white space. If you're setting off every sentence on a different line, you are again homogenizing your information. By trying to make everything important, you are paradoxically making everything-- again-- not important.

It's important to vary the length of your paragraphs, to put things in separate lines, to every once in a while point something out on its own. Not only because it implies a greater importance, but also because it helps the author dictate the reading of their work. If I put a new paragraph

Right.

Here.

You've more than likely read those two words more slowly and with more emphasis than you would have if I had just typed the words in succession along the same line right here. This can work within a paragraph, too. As much as someone I know dislikes em dashes-- these guys-- they can create a hiccup in the progress of a sentence, giving it a discombobulated quality that, if used correctly, can increase investment in your work.

The truth is, there's an art to how and when to create a new paragraph, or to insert some em dashes. Which, again, seems like stating the obvious, but this artistry is more aesthetic than literary. Here's the important point I'm trying to make and, to make it more important, I'm going to give it a separate line:

There's a visual artistry to writing, just as important as the writing itself.

When I'm reading something someone has written, my first glance at the page (or screen, as is increasingly the case) probably doesn't include me reading a single word. Instead, I look at the aesthetics of the piece.

If you take a visual art class, they tell you that uniformity is boring (Unless you're using the uniformity to throw an outside chaos into contrast, but that's another point entirely). Even if your idea is to paint the entire canvas green, then you need an interesting difference in the textures. You need some sort of variety that will lead a person's eye around the piece of visual art, so you want-- need-- too look at all of it more closely.

It's the same way that I take a first look at a piece of writing. I look for a variety of paragraph and sentence length. I look to make sure not every sentence is starting with the same word. I make sure there are changes and differences, but also just enough familiar points of reference that I can make sense out of what's happening in the story. It's only after a story passes this aesthetic test that I begin reading.

Writing is more than just putting your thoughts down on a page, even if that's not readily apparent. It's as much a visual art as painting, or sculpture, or dance. There's a beauty that can be found merely in the natural shape of a narrative on the page, and without that we rob the reader of weighting importance in our story, we don't give them the chance to appreciate the subtleties of our prose, and we dont' give yourselves the opportunity to dictate the reading of our own work.

If we ignore the aesthetics of non-visual art, we inevitably create something less powerful than a work that doesn't.

4 comments:

  1. I feel exactly the same way. The presentation and nuances have a great deal to do with how I perceive what I'm reading. You conveyed this very clearly, although you might have been a touch heavy-handed in the import of line breaks. Or maybe, it's just that I suffered through reading the ginormous paragraph. ;)

    When I write, it's not just a pile of words. It has to "sound" right, the cadence has to match the points of the message I'm trying to deliver. And line breaks are one very effective tool in generating additional emphasis where it's needed.

    So are em dashes, but unfortunately they're incredibly addictive - once you've used one it seems like they belong everywhere (see?). I'm on the twelve-step program, though, and so far everything is going well. Just don't tell me I have to stop using emoticons too. ;)

    Nice article.

    P.S. Are you and mxpw going to both be doing pieces on writing? I think that's cool, but you might want to accentuate the branding a bit.

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  2. Aardie, this was something that I cross posted here and over at my primary blog Racecar Brown, since it was on my mind. I plan on going back to Why We Write as my thing here next week, though if I'm going to be talking about writing on Racecar Brown, I'll probably co-opt WWW for whatever is going on there.

    Thanks for the kind words! I'm glad you liked it.

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  3. I was doing a beta for someone, and sure enough I tried this, and the effect was amazing. I will continue to try and use it.

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  4. Ayefah10.8.10

    Agreed, agreed, and agreed. Paragraph breaks, at some point, can become an instinctive art form. Sometimes when I'm done writing a post or a message I go back just to see if any of the paragraphs are too long or too short.

    But more importantly, it drives me absolutely nuts when people write in nothing but two-sentence paragraphs. I've seen columnists in...less-than-great newspapers pull that trick, and I keep thinking that they're just like kids who mess with font sizes to meet a page length requirement. Those two-sentence paragraphs fill up column inches awfully quick, and they also make you sound like a moron.

    /rant

    :P

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