Punctuation was invented to help the Reader. And the very first invention was space breaking up text — so you could tell one word from the next. Seriously.
A couple of months ago I was putting the final touches to an online course on punctuation. Not a subject to rock them in the aisles, I thought. Mind you, I love the stuff. But I have learned that, as a subject of conversation, it doesn’t generally draw children from play and old men from the chimney corner.
So when I was preparing the course, I thought I’d throw in a bit of history for context.
Only then, of course, I had to check online whether what I remembered was a) accurate and b) still received wisdom. And found something new to me: Aristophanes, Head Librarian of Alexandria aged sixty. He was sitting there, receiving rolls in Greek, the language of the prevailing empire.
Most people then, of course, would be illiterate. So the purpose of these scrolls was to provide a text for someone else to deliver in the market place or to perform as an entertainment.
BUT they arrived with all the letters in a continuous line. Presumably to save papyrus and possibly time, as they were being hand-copied by scribes.
So Aristophanes thought of a way of marking up copies of the text to help the Poor Bloody Orator who had to read them out loud.
Point 1: make words stand alone. Say hello to space breaking up text. Oh, and add marks to tell them where to pause too. Point 2: the full stop.
Next Stop Paragraphs
A paragraph is a series of sentences, usually connected by a theme or topic. Paragraphs break up a long passage into manageable chunks, which makes it easier for the eye.
I am quoting from Getting the Point, which I co-wrote with Elizabeth Hawksley here. We laboured long over that definition so I’m jolly well going to use it. With thanks to Elizabeth, as always.
To my great regret, there was never going to be time on my recent course to cover paragraphing, which is pretty much of an art. In the book we say that the important thing is that each paragraph is about a single topic. The end of the paragraph will show the reader that the topic has changed, or at least shifted in some way.
Of course, in the case of dialogue, every time someone starts to speak, there is a new paragraph to show the reader that he is listening to someone new.
Paragraphs and White Space
In design terms, a paragraph delivers white space to the page. In a novel, where the text is mostly continuous, this consists of irregular blank patches at the end of a last line of the paragraph. You will see the effect of that over the reader’s shoulder, left.
Imagine what the page would be like without those spaces. Daunting, right?
A paragraph allows the reader a minuscule rest, a breather, as it were. And the white space helps.
Barbara Cartland’s Paragaphing
I was taught that a paragraph should never be shorter than three sentences. I was galloping through Barbara Cartland’s later oeuvre at the time and I knew that was nonsense.
By the late sixties, when she was writing 25+ books a year, she had become the mistress of the one sentence paragraph. As a result she was inordinately successful. Her son Ian has said, “She wrote in short paragraphs and used a lot of conversation as she believed that readers skipped long paragraphs to get on to the next quotes.”
To be honest, in her earlier books paragraphs were generally longer. But she had long credited Lord Beaverbrook with giving her invaluable advice on developing a punchy style. And when she became so extraordinarily prolific, she got a whole lot punchier.
The proprietor of the Daily Express had employed her to write gossip snippets in the 1920s and seems to have made something of a pet of her. They both felt that sentences should be simple, so that the reader would understand them instantly. and as short as possible.
So should paragraphs, as her biographer Tim Heald recalled in article in the Mail Online in 13 September 2008:
“‘What are we going to do about your paragraphs?’ she asked, crossly.
‘They’re far too long. Dear Lord Beaverbrook always told me to make my paragraphs as short as possible. We must shorten them.'”
Please note that I have followed the Mail Online’s (and Miss Cartland’s) paragraphing style in this quotation. Maximum white space, I would say.
White Space in the 21st Century
In the matter of space breaking up text Ms Cartland seems to have been ahead of her time. There is a fascinating description of white space in design by Mark Boulton from January 2007. Specifically he cites elements of the redesign of The Economist by Erik Spiekermann, typographer guru. The magazine management had realised that their design was too heavy and made the content difficult to read.
And not just difficult for the casual reader. Like punctuation, The Economist is not a magazine with which to while away the odd ten minutes waiting for a friend.
The Economist specialises in reasoned argument on world events, supported by evidence. So the one sentence paragraph was never going to be an option.
The solution involved both macro white space (borders and line spacing) and micro changes to the type face. The difference this achieves is striking.
On websites, Boulton’s specific area of interest, white space is “often used to create a balanced, harmonious layout.” he said. Again, he demonstrates beautifully.
But what intrigued me most in this article are his remarks about brand positioning. Crowded is down market. White space is classy. And his two examples – of an advertisement for a beauty product – prove the point unassailably.
White Space and Paragraphs in the Novel
I normally gallop through a story and (with the exception of later Cartland and later Henry James, though for opposite reasons) never really notice the length of the paragraphs. But reading on a Kindle has sometimes made me feel the lack of space breaking up text.
Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and many others regularly wallop their reader with a big block of text.
Even Jane Austen can throw off a massive paragraph. To be fair, though, her varying sentence length and the liveliness of her diction tends to mitigate the effect.
And Jane never wrote for someone squeezing in half an hour’s reading on their smartphone during the morning commute.
Effect of Continuous Text
I first noticed white space starvation when reading a Victorian novel on a Kindle. It was during early lockdown and I knew my concentration was not the best. So I blamed myself and struggled on.
But the same thing has happened three or four times since when I have a Kindle screen completely full of text. I don’t think its because I’m distracted or too lazy to read properly. It seems genuinely to be a problem of keeping my eye on the right line. Even reading aloud, I sometimes jumped or repeated a line. And reading aloud is slow.
It’s a navigation thing, I think. Maybe like finding your way through a forest where all the trees are the same size.
Anyway, a big block of text on an e-reader slows this reader down. And I read a lot. And have the time to do so.
What does it do for people who are used to reading much less and only in time snatched away from their work, childcare and survival activities?
People wring their hands over falling standards, short attention spans and even alleged poor literacy skills in some sectors. I think that’s knee-jerk, frankly.
Designers talk about reader discomfort, feeling overwhelmed, as if they are already drowning before they start, even suffocated.
The latter particularly interested me because I remembered feeling quite anxious before I stopped and started to read aloud.
Space Breaking Up Text and Today’s Novelist
Don’t get me wrong. I am not hostile to a long paragraph. And I certainly don’t advocate writing a whole book in one sentence paragraphs. That would be tiring and tedious to read. Variety is always stimulating. A reader can lose the thread simply because the surrounding landscape is unvarying
With an iPad, Kindle or other e-reader a screen full of unbroken text looks like an abstract drawing in a frame. The eye looks first to the middle – or more likely the golden section.
So then the brain has to make the adjustment from ‘just looking” to “reading “. That interrupts the natural flow of reading. And then you mistake a line and are interrupted again by having to go back to find the sense.
More and more people are reading on these devices. So my conclusion is that today’s novelist needs to experiment.
How big does a reader have to make the text size for one of your paragraphs to fill the screen?
Can you reduce the length of that paragraph, either by breaking it into two, or reducing the length of some of the sentences?
Paragraphs were invented to help the reader. So does white space.
And we need to be aware of it.
Oh yes, I am a white space advocate. Break it up, keep it readable. I think you are totally right that Kindle makes it even more important to break up text. It’s my contention that dense text puts readers off. White space invites them and keeps them reading. I agree completely that sentence and paragraph length alike should be varied. Anything repetitive is liable to make a reader go goggle-eyed and drift off. But any author with a sense of rhythm will do that anyway. Words are like music, varying in pitch and so on. Most readers say the words in their heads so they will be aware of the musicality, the rhythms, at least at a subliminal level.
Now this is seriously helpful, Sophie. I am, as you know, putting up my back back list of 10 historical novels into e-books, one every two months. I’m just about to do the proofs for ‘The Hartfield Inheritance’ and I shall bear your point about the importance of white space in mind.
I hope that’s what I did in the original book, of course, but, if not, I’ll definitely do my best to make it easy on the eye. Thank you.
Thank you. That was both interesting and informative — and the amount of white spacing and artfully arranged images no doubt helped keep my attention!
Interesting and helpful. I am aware that over the years my own paragraphs have become shorter. Still struggling with sentence length…
I very much agree with this, Sophie. I do, quite often, write extremely short paragraphs, sometimes only a single word (though I haven’t yet done the Lindsey Davies one-word chapter). When I make my Kindle text bigger (because my eyesight is getting worse) I often find whole screens of unbroken text and it is really off-putting, as you suggest. On a phone, it would be even worse, I imagine. So I shall try adding even more white space to my own stories.
Excellent article, Sophie. And it’s not just devices like the kindle you need to think about. So many people these days — especially the younger generations — read entire novels on their phones, which has a much smaller screen.