More specifically, justification. I haven’t mentioned the comic XKCD in a while. If you’re a geek you probably are familiar with it. Most of the humor involves programming or some other intellectual subject. Randall Munroe has written some fascinating science-related stuff.

T9day’s comic is about approaches people use to keep the right end of lines of text from being too ragged. Justification is when the ends of the lines line up nicely. Nowadays, seeing the left margin justified is pretty much automatic. In fact, the name for letting the right ends of the lines fall where they may is called “rag right,” short for “ragged right.” (This post is rag right.) When both ends of the lines are nice and straight it’s called “full justification,” or merely “justified.” Look at any physical book and it’ll probably be justified.

Why do it one way or the other? Full justification is more formal. It looks nice. Rag right, many say, is easier to read.

The problem with justification happens when you have a narrow column of text. Long words make it harder to average out the spaces between words, and you get noticeable problems. That’s what this comic is about.

Full-Width Justification

He left out one approach that I find useful, especially now that we have adjustable text boxes—you can move the margin right or left to make the lines a little longer or shorter. Sometimes that solves the whole problem.

That last suggestion, about snakes, used to be used, and still is sometimes in hand-drawn calligraphy. Only it wasn’t normally a snake, but a fancy design called an ornament. I have some text, nicely framed, on my wall that contains this technique.

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Another way to improve your writing

rogersgeorge on January 11th, 2012

Or at least make it more persuasive. I don’t think I have ever mentioned this technique, but I’ve known about it, and reading an article on the subject today reminded me that perhaps I should mention it. It doesn’t require knowledge of punctuation, how to spell, or use good grammar, either. Though you should certainly use all these skills. The technique is this:

Make your page look good.

The article I saw is a seven-page pdf titled The Debunking Handbook, by John Cook and Stephen Lewandowski, two Aussies who did some research on how to convince people that they were misinformed about something. This point, about the readability of the page, came out. It makes sense. People are less likely to read something if the page looks unreadable.

For example, a few years back I had a writing contract with a multinational bank. My first act was to reformat the documentation in their IT department. Immediately people decided the documentation was excellent, and I had changed hardly an actual word. Of course, I cleaned up the text too, eventually, but the change in appearance got my foot in the door so to speak.

For a counter-example, look at an old King James Bible. Two narrow columns fill each page from top to bottom. Narrow margins. Each verse starts a new line. No spacing between paragraphs; all dense text. Almost no white space. If it weren’t for the influence of Christianity itself, no one would read the book at all.

Columns made even narrower by small-print annotations along the sides

For technical documentation, I recommend the Midwestern style for page layout. San-serif headings, body text indented half an inch or so, in a font wider than Times New Roman, for goodness’ sake. There’s more to it than that, but you get a document with a relaxed, airy feel to it, room for notes, and you can skim for what’s there (both content and structure) because the headings are easy to see. I can’t show you an example from the bank because it’s all under a confidentially agreement, but if you’re really into it, email me and I can send you a couple-page sample of something else. If I get enough response, I’ll put up a series of posts about page layout. Then we can get back to grammar and punctuation.