Monthly Archives: October 2007

Design: Improving Readability Without Lifting A Pencil (Part 2)

eyeThis post is part 2 of a two part series on improving blook readability.

In Part 1 we’ve taken a look at some designs that focus reader attention on the writing of a site, as opposed to designs distracting from it. Today we’re going to go through the common points these designs have: something that anyone with a little bit of time (free from writing, that is) can figure out on their own.

When we look at good, content-focused sites we notice that a lot is done to make it easier for the reader to read. It thus goes without saying that the fonts in which content is written in play a big role in determining site readability. Our hope, of course, is that when a site is easy to read more readers will give the writing a fighting chance – to prevent them from clicking the back button or – worse – flying off to some distant corner of the web, never to return.

Typography – the messy business of fonts

typeography page in a MacIf you don’t already know, typography on the web is an embarrassment. There are only about 6 fonts in use, and at least one of them should be buried at the bottom of the ocean. These fonts are Georgia, Verdana, Arial Times New Roman, Trebuchet and Comic Sans.

Let’s go over them quickly:

  • Novelr uses Georgia. I like Georgia. It is the font of choice for many design blogs, and it still holds a certain visual appeal for some people (eg: me). It reads wonderfully in larger sizes, though legibility takes a beating when it is scaled down to smaller ones.
  • Verdana was created for on-screen reading, and it does that job very well. It is a big font by nature but remains clear even when brought down to very small sizes. It is the font most used by blogs.
  • Arial is like that old Ford your grandfather used to drive around in. It isn’t glamorous but it gets the job done. Arial is designed for on-screen reading, and is used almost everywhere on the web – Wikipedia, for instance, and any Google search results page. It is a very reliable, readable font, but it slightly uninspired.
  • Times New Roman was overused on the Internet way back 1990s. It can still be used, but only after some major CSS tweaking, and even then as post headers. Otherwise stay far, far away from it.
  • Trebuchet is described by Microsoft as ‘good for web design’, and I’m inclined to agree. It may not be as widely used, and it might not turn up in some non-Windows computers, but it is a curvier alternative to Verdana or Arial. In Windows it is the default font for title bars.
  • Comics Sans should be burned in hell. Do not touch.

Design: Improving Readability Without Lifting A Pencil (Part 1)

eyesThis post is part 1 of a two part series on improving blook readability.

Have you ever tried reading a Project Gutenberg novel? Yes? No? They deliver classics (well written and of superior quality, I must add) to you in a variety of formats. Amongst those is the ubiquitous HTML file: the webpage. Let me describe it to you: the story is one page long. It is unstyled, unpaged, and the font is Times New Roman.

I can never get past the fourth paragraph.

Most of us stop in the middle of our writing to see how our words read (You don’t?! Then what are you doing here? This blog is for writers!). But have you ever stopped to consider how your words look? Typography, whitespace and colour are terms alien to our worn fingers, and rightly so: designers are supposed to be the ones grappling with these elements, aren’t they? Why the hell should us writers think about the way our words look?

There is a simple answer to this: because we have to. As bloggers/blookers we operate little publications of our own, and we’re in charge of every facet of them: how our words read as well as how they look. I’ve talked about how 1st impressions matter on the web, and how this is of particular relevance to blog fiction writers: we have content that is not as accessible to the average online reader, because we are telling a story.

With that out of the way let’s take a look at designs that focus attention on the writing, as well as a few others that wow you but fail to make you read, and one that is just plain impossible.

The New York Times Online

New_York_Times_homepage
Always a good example to start off with, The NYT website (powered by WordPress, no less) has done a great job with its redesign. Stories are divided into bite sized pieces on multiple pages, pictures – when used – boost the impact of the text, and the fonts used are a beautiful, big Georgia. Keep this in mind: typography (fonts) play a big role in determining the accessibility of online writing.

useit.com

useit.com
You must be wondering why I’ve included this ugly monstrosity website to our list of examples. Jakob Nielson is a renowned authority on design and web usability, and his minimalist website reflects his design principles. Think of it like this: if NYT is a pleasing cocktail, useit.com is concentrated fruit syrup. The lack of links and the simple layout actually forces you to read what Nielson wants: his content. No distracting blog roll, and the only non-article links are the navigation at the top and the bottom of the page. It works. Another thing you’d notice about useit is its big Verdana font. Big means easy to read. Verdana looks good. Again, it works.

100 Posts Roundup: Best Of Novelr

ECG heart rateNovelr started 100 posts ago with a simple Introduction. It seemed like a good idea ( at the time) to cover what writing fiction on the web would mean, and how to go about it. I apologize for slowing down the pace of posts and ideas these two months – real life has literally swept me off my feet and carried me far away from the blogosphere.

Here are some posts that I’m particularly proud of:

  • ‘i’ is a Cardinal Sin. This was early on in Novelr’s history, when I realized that typing uncapped ‘i’s in sentences made my writing seem juvenile. This was my first taste of Internet impressions, where the written word is everything.
  • Blogs are Fantastically Boring. Are all blogs made to be published? Absolutely not.
  • Shut Up and Write. I did this for Problogger’s group writing project, and it promptly gathered 81 comments. I was particularly proud of the post – it was whimsical, light, and I attempted to belittle that horror called Writer’s Block we all get from time to time. I think I succeeded.
  • Crossfire: All Blooker Prize Winners Are Amateurs. This is perhaps the one of the hardest posts I’ve ever done. Took me two days of thinking and discarding replies. Ed-infinitum‘s got a great mind screwed on his shoulders – I do hope he directs that formidable intellect of his towards blooking again.
  • Blooking Need A Community. Because it does.

There has also been a number of guest posts on Novelr, by writers whom I am particularly grateful for. Their ideas have helped shaped the discussions in and around this blog, as well as on blooking overall:

  • Beginning, Middle and End. Scott Mackenzie outlines why we should all finish a story before blogging it. And if it is a work in progress, tell your readers!
  • I’ll Look At Your If You’ll Look At Mine. Here Gloria Hindelbrandt talks about the selfish tendencies us writers have: we tend to read our own work, and overlook the efforts of others. It is provoking, and all the more better for it.
  • On Editing. Blooking because you won’t get edited. Lee tells us why that’s a good thing.

And there’s of course the Ultimate Blooking Guide, which was an absolute chore to do. It did prove helpful – I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve thanked me for compiling the resource, especially when they’ve just started out blooking.

Little things like that makes the work on Novelr all the more worthwhile. Thank you all, and here’s to more stuff to think about in the next hundred posts!

On Editing

A few months back I asked Lee, author of Mortal Ghost, about her stance on breaking free from editorial constraints, and turning to blooking for that freedom. Her opinion interested me and I wanted to see what comments her stance would gather. Over to Lee:

The usual rationale for professional editing is to make your work into ‘the best book possible’. This reminds me of taste tests to find the best chocolate ice cream: some like it sweet, some creamy, some filled with rough chunks of chocolate, some with a hint of bitter mocha. And what about the chef who decides to add a dash of hot pepper? Every editor will find something to ‘fix’ in your work, but I prefer to do the fixing myself. And no work is ever finished, just set aside. If I weren’t involved in a new novel, I’d be very tempted to tear Mortal Ghost apart and rewrite it from the foundations up.

I suppose you could say I’m not interested in producing a book, but in writing one: learning all that I can learn of technique – how the very best writers use the fundamentals – in order simultaneously to exploit and break free of their mastery. The questions which interest me are all about exploration. In effect, the only authentic editing is self-editing. I don’t care to be bound by the expectations of the marketplace, nor the conventions of a particular readership. How can I doubt that my work is flawed? It will always be flawed, for the job of the artist is to set themself ever newer, harder, more complex challenges.

Does this mean that I pay no attention to criticism? Not at all. I listen very carefully, even obsess about suggestions, and welcome incisive analysis. In the end, though, there is only learning by doing: in fact, learning by failing. And publishing online affords me that wonderful and absolutely essential freedom to fail.

L. Lee Lowe’s YA Fantasy Novel Mortal Ghost can be found here. She also blogs about writing at lowebrow.

What Authors Can Learn From Radiohead

In Rainbows by Radiohead

If you haven’t already heard, Radiohead recently did what some considered absolutely crazy: they released a new album with absolutely no fixed price. Let’s clarify that for a moment: you go to their website, click through a few well designed screens, and they give you two options: one is a box set which costs a whopping £40.00, and the other is a download. Add that to your basket, checkout, and they throw you with a screen that allows you to enter the amount you’re willing to pay.
Radiohead box set
What’s remarkable about this isn’t just the pricing scheme: Radiohead has bypassed the music industry in order to get to the end consumer – they’re not releasing this through a major record company (thought they might in 2008). And if that isn’t mindblowing to you consider this: publicity for Radiohead spiked after one post in Pitchfork. Blogs started linking and talking about this is the hundreds, far surpassing anything a record company can do, throgh record stores – digital or otherwise. Radiohead’s website crashed after the first few hours.radiohead buzz graph

There are a few things us Internet fiction writers can draw from this – the parellels between the music and the book industry are obvious, though they do face different challenges. But what Radiohead has done was only possible with the advent of the net and the blogosphere – the first for distribution, and the second for getting the word out.

Parellels?

Between this situation and the book industry? You’ve got to be kidding me, right?

Not so. While it’s true that we don’t have as many people complaining about the monopoly publishers have on the consumption of prose (the way audiophiles complain about how radio killed music and how record labels are going the way of the dinosaur), there are issues with which we can all identify with. How hard it is to get published today, for instance; and then there’s the Jane Austen rejection fiasco; and recently I stumbled upon an article about how fiction just isn’t what it used to be.

Have we woken up to the fact that publishers aren’t the only way to reach a target audience? Yes, we blookers have. But while the music industry is seeing huge changes to the way people receive and buy and listen to music, much of the publishing industry has stayed the same. Plus, they have a target audience that knows getting access to good music isn’t through just the record labels.

We sit in the sidelines and watch a revolution happen in a neighbouring house. What a party, what a life! Was that a piano crashing out of the 2nd storey window?

Lesson from Radiohead: we can now bypass the big distributors. But – and this is the important question – will anybody listen?

PS: I particularly like the layout at the Radiohead site: it focuses attention to the text, and tells a story in multiple pages. Plus there are little distractions: you want to see what the next screen will say, partly due to the lack of links (or sidebars). That’s a format worth experimenting with.