Keep Your Page Sticky with White Space

A while back, I suggested a dress rehearsal for your book. It’s the last step in the editing process, in which you’d print out your whole book and then sit down and read it aloud. I’ve come to believe that most people skip this last step because it’s expensive, and it does demand a significant expenditure of time and paper.

I still think you should do it. More importantly, I can tell almost at once when you haven’t done it.

Among the problems that will reveal themselves during the dress rehearsal is a subtle threat to readability: the long, unbroken block of text. This problem isn’t going to show up in the same way on the computer screen, and it doesn’t take much to create a block of text that occupies the entire page. I know you as a writer are making sure your paragraphs aren’t too long as you’re writing them, but I promise you that if you have a long enough book, you have at least one paragraph that spreads out just a bit too much.

You know how to break up that paragraph. You’ll locate the perfect place to move from one topic to another, or you’ll add a sentence or two so that the break is easier to find. I’m not going to talk about that just now.

Instead, I want to explain why that break in text is necessary, mostly because I didn’t understand that myself when I was first warned about this.

When I was young (and newspapers were chiseled into fine slabs of stone), my first editor told me just how short a paragraph had to be in order to prevent a reader from “sliding off the page.” I thought he was being silly, and I was pretty sure I already knew everything, so I made him change more of my long paragraphs than I should have. I was just a kid. I never slid off the page; I read every single word. Sliding off the page was just something that happened to people with short attention spans.

And so, as I deserved, I eventually learned about sliding off the page the hard way. Law school taught me to skim. I started reading through fatigue. My attention span did actually get shorter. Before I knew it, my gaze would start at the top of the page and slide down an unbroken block of text, with no white space to stop it, until I got to the end of the page with no idea what I’d been reading.

If you’re lucky, and your work strikes a chord with readers, they’re going to curl up with your book and relax. They’ll lower their guard. They’ll get sucked into the story. Their gazes will float across the page and down, and if you give your readers a chance, they’ll be so immersed in the story that they won’t be paying active attention to white space. That will make it easier for them to slide down an unbroken block of text without actually having read it.

That’s not good. A final reading will identify and prevent those problems. Isn’t that worth the investment?

Be your own last line of defense. Make time for a dress rehearsal.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

3 thoughts on “Keep Your Page Sticky with White Space

  • I’d never heard of sliding off the page before, Lexi, but it’s so true! So many of us spend time skimming in our daily business worlds, we get into the habit, even with fiction. (It’s a hard one to break.)

    And you’re right that you cannot always see the big sections of dense text on a screen.

    Thanks for the great tip!

  • Thanks, Lexi, for another great tip. I admit to be guilty from both sides of the equation – as a writer, I’ve been known to have a heavy hand with exposition and as a reader, I’ve given same a quick scan to keep moving. Sigh! Odd how one knows it when one sees it, EXCEPT when it’s in their own writing!

  • I’ve never heard this topic put so succinctly.
    I’m ‘lucky’ as both my kids are learning disabled and never loved reading, because it’s a chore for them to accomplish. My daughter can scan a page in the middle of a book and decide if it’s for her or not, based completely on the amount of white spaces on a page.
    Yet I’m still guilty of forgetting! Thanks for an excellent post

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