The Case for Standardization

by Janis Patterson

As a raging individualist I stand up for self-expression. That said, I also stand up for ‘normal’ punctuation and formatting. I do not see that as a behavioral oxymoron.

As writers we want our stories to be read, and in these days of literary bounty that’s getting harder and harder. It should be obvious that one way of achieving this end is to make the reading experience pleasant and easy, right? Well, there are those who apparently didn’t get the memo. Several times in the last few months I have read stories with ghastly formatting – I’m talking about deliberate formatting choices, not the weird kinks all electronic platforms toss at us occasionally. And I’m not going to mention the misspellings, the homophonic mayhem and just general wrong-ness, either. My blood pressure won’t take it.

Why on earth do people make deliberate formatting choices that make their books difficult to read? My guess is that it’s the same reason teens (as well as some older people) dye their hair kelly green and burgundy and other unnatural colors. They want to stand out, to shout ‘I’m different.’ Unfortunately, all too often in books the message comes through loud and clear – and what could be a good story is lost in an impenetrable sea of ‘individuality.’

When I worked in a literary agent’s office several decades ago (back in the bad old days of trad/paper pubbing only) we got an over-the-transom submission of what – from the blurb – sounded like a decent story. Except – the manuscript was a mess. He used standard quote marks, but every first line of each paragraph was flush with the left margin, while the rest of the paragraph was indented half an inch. Reading that was work, but even though I stopped after about ten or twelve pages I could see that it could be a good story with a little work – and proper formatting.

Being of a helpful nature, I sent the manuscript back with a note, explaining what I thought the ms needed, including standard formatting. I got back an excoriating letter, calling me a frustrated writer (I had sold half a dozen books by then, though none through the agency where I worked), accusing me of being hidebound and unwilling to accept new things, even of trying to stifle his creative genius and hide it under a blanket of conformity.

He, he said, knew better than I because he was a teacher of language and literature. (At one of our local junior – excuse me, community – colleges, I learned.) He also said he would take his book to those with the intelligence to appreciate it.

I never heard of him again.

I still believe that non-standard punctuation, misspellings, and incorrect word choices can kill a story, no matter how good it is, especially in today’s book-glutted world. Reading should not be work.

5 thoughts on “The Case for Standardization

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing in the writing should take a reader out of the story. If I notice oddities in formatting or spelling or vocabulary, then I know the writer isn’t thinking about the reader or the story but something else. I want to sink into a story and stay there until the end.

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