A Manuscript's Visual Appeal

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write about this, but I thought I’d post about part of my manuscript clean-up process, where I go over the manuscript for visual appeal.


I mentioned this a while back in a post on my Manuscript Clean-Up Process. Here’s the relevant entry:

Skim for pacing. Page through the story by scrolling it with your mouse wheel. If one scene requires notably more srolls than the others, take a closer look. Same goes for short scenes. You might even want to zoom way out on your MS so you can just take in the scene lengths without getting distracted by the words. (Set your zoom to 10% and you’ll see what I mean.)

For this post, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail. Because not only do I skim for pacing as I write, I am actually trying to make the document physically attractive. Why? Because attractive documents are easier to read.

I had to explain this to a co-worker this week in my job as a business analyst. The best documents are easy to read not only because of good grammar and style, but because of an attractive layout. This is extremely important in nonfiction, and is often overlooked–and even scorned.

But it is important in fiction as well. Let me show you what I mean. Here is an example of an attractive document, zoomed far out so you won’t be distracted by the words.

MSPages.shfThis is the look I go for. Nice and wavy, not blocky. Paragraphs that aren’t very long, so you fly through the pages. Punchy dialog. Slim paragraphs.

But what about passages of description and introspection? Here’s one such page:

MSPages2I could have written this out as one long paragraph, but I didn’t. I am trying to prevent my reader from becoming daunted by long paragraph after long paragraph. Check out some of the newer books on your bookshelf and you’ll probably find a mix of paragraph lengths, like the above. But look for something that was published a while ago–in the 80s or so. You’ll see they look very different.

I noticed this when I was trying to get my daughter into reading The Princess Bride. If you’ve only seen the movie, you should read the book because it is also a treat, with lots of stuff (lots and lots) that didn’t make it into the movie.

But damn.

The author tended to go off on wild tangents for line after line after line. Thank God my daughter already read Anne of Green Gables, and was therefore used to dialog where one character essentially rambles a speech at another. Because there is an awful lot of rambling in The Princess Bride. I honestly question whether in today’s world, it would have found a publisher, or if the author would have been forced to either revise, or self-publish.

In fact, I was doing what the grandfather did in the movie. I was showing her where to find the good parts. Basically, she needs to look for the wavy parts, and skip the blocks.

Go even further back in history, and you’ll find some of the classics had immensely long paragraphs. Dickens seemed to love long paragraphs, but not Jane Austen. I don’t remember the paragraph lengths in The Three Musketeers, so they must not have been excessive, but I recall one chapter in The Hunchback of Notre Dame that went on for pages and pages. It was the chapter that described the city of Paris, and I think it took 35 pages altogether, without very many paragraph breaks.

Ugh. That was a slog.

Some of that may have been printing decisions to save space. We don’t have that need nowadays, and anyway, we usually can’t get away with it.

Check out some of your favorite books and look at them from a distance. Are they wavy or blocky? If you’re a writer, how about your own manuscript? Or do you think we should even care?

2 Thoughts to “A Manuscript's Visual Appeal”

  1. Been busy so today was the first I was able to check out your latest posts. First: Another fan of book `Princess Bride’! You’re right, the author does go off on tangents, and the new edition takes even longer to get to the story, since it has an introduction to the introduction! The first time I read the book I was rather disturbed by the length of time it took just to reach chapter one.

    One of my favorite books is `The Gammage Cup’ by Carol Kendall. It was written in1959 and won a Newberry, but it was written before fantasy was such a big thing and the author explained her world right up front. There is no dialogue until eleven pages in! So you’re definitely right about styles changing.

    1. Maybe I’ll try that one for my daughter. We didn’t get past the chapter that introduced Prince Humperdinck. Maybe when she’s a little older. (She’s only 12.)

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