Meta-Contrarian Typography, part 2

I hope that my last post convinced you to use two spaces after periods in your finished work product—which aids in clarity and makes your writing much more skimmable. But in case you aren’t convinced, I want to make a weaker point—and one that I feel more strongly about.

Even if you don’t think your finished product should use wide sentence spacing, you should still draft with two spaces between your sentences.

Why should you draft with a different number of spaces than you ultimately display? For two reasons: First, there’s a good chance that you should be writing in a plaintext editor. For one thing, separation of presentation and content is a basic principle of visual design, especially on the web. Even for print media, there are real advantages to using a plaintext editor that separates your content from presentation (like LaTex) instead of a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editor (like Word).

The full argument for plaintext editors could easily be its own post (or several different posts), but here’s the short version: First, it lets you write in a distraction-free writing environment, including one of the many minimalist text editors. All of these editors keep the presentation and styling elements entirely out of the way, letting you focus entirely on the content when you’re first writing. And then they make it easy to go back and apply powerful styling techniques later on.

That segues nicely into the second advantage of writing in a plaintext editor. When you do turn to formatting your text, you can apply more powerful formatting techniques, without the constraints imposed by Word or other word processors. Word tends to be “opinionated”—that is, it imposes lots of views about how your text should be presented. If you agree with those views, fine, but if you don’t … well, it can be hard or impossible to change them.

Finally, first drafting your writing in a plaintext editor makes your writing more flexible and modular. As anyone who’s ever written a document in Word, and then tried to convert that document into a Pages file, a PDF, an email, or an HTML file can tell you, formatting can easily be lost or garbled in the conversion process. (And let’s not even get started on the bad-old-days problem of Word versus WordPerfect.) But with plaintext, you can easily export the text to whatever format you want, and then apply format-appropriate styling once you’ve exported the text.

Let’s take writing a resume as an example.

Ask anyone who’s ever written their resume or CV in Word, and they’ll tell you that they spend only a small fraction of their time writing the actual content, and a much larger fraction futzing with the style/presentation (especially if they try to keep their resume to a single page, which is standard advice in many industries). Because Word isn’t really built for writing resumes, they end up fighting against the formatting tools Word provides as much as they are working with them. And when they finally get their resume looking just right, they’ll inevitably have to convert it to a different format. If they’re lucky, that format will be PDF, which (probably) won’t screw up their hard work too badly. If they’re less lucky, they’ll have to go through another round of restyling. And for many job applications where resumes need to be machine-readable, they’ll end up submitting a plaintext resume anyway—entirely negating all their styling.

In contrast, if you follow the advice to maintain your resume in plaintext, using Markdown, then you have a very flexible resume. You can submit it as plaintext, or send it in the body of an email. Or you can easily convert it to an HTML file or PDF if you have that option. And when you do, you can more easily apply your choice of fonts and use pixel-perfect styling to make sure the presentation is exactly as you want it. And all with much less frustration than is involved in battling with Word.

Similarly, this blog is written entirely in plaintext/Markdown, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m partial to writing prose in Atom, the same program I use for writing code. Atom even lets you have a live-updated preview window in separate pane, so when I do turn to applying formatting, I can do so painlessly.FN 1 And when I’m away from my computer, I use WordPress’ built-in text editor, which supports writing in plaintext/Markdown very well.

I don’t want to be too doctrinaire about all this—I know there are real proponents of What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editors, and there are times (like writing a quick email) where the convenience of WYSIWYG editing outweighs any advantage of a more powerful system. That said, I think there’s an extremely strong case to be made for writing in a content-neutral way, especially for longer writing and for anyone who is serious about their writing.

If you agree this argument, then you should be writing in non-WYSIWYG editor. If you are—and even if you aren’t, but are writing in something at least vaguely minimalist—then there’s a good chance you’re drafting in a monospaced font.

But the whole case against using two spaces was premised on the idea that two-spacing is appropriate when writing in a monospaced font (like the typewriter fonts people incorrectly think were responsible for the rise of wide spacing). They may be wrong about the history, but even the zealous one-spacers admit that there’s a good argument for two-spacing when writing in a monospaced font. If you are drafting in a monospaced font, then you should definitely be drafting with two spaces between your sentences—even if you never intend to display your text with anything more than the standard sentence spacing. You’ll have better-looking draft documents in monospaced font, and be able to display them exactly as you like when you present the text in a proportionally spaced font.

Flexibility = power

I keep returning to this last point because it’s absolutely essential: using two spaces after a sentence gives you flexibility. And that flexibility provides a good reason to use two spaces after a period even if you’re drafting in Word.

Why should you use two spaces, even in Word? Because you can display two spaces however you like. Any presentation format worth its salt can easily render [period-space-space] as a wider or narrower space. For that matter, even if you’re working in a format that isn’t worth its salt, you can easily use find and replace to change [period-space-space] into any combination of the dozen or more unicode space characters, letting you follow your sentences with absolutely any size space you want. This means that, if like many people, you feel that a space-and-a-half is better than either a single or double space—well, you can have your sentences spaced just how you like them.

If you are working in Word, all you need to do is replace [period-space-space] with [period+U+2004 (the unicode for one third of an em space, instead of the normal one quarter)]. Conversely, if you draft with a single space, no amount of find-and-replace wizardry will ever be able to change your sentence spacing without also playing havoc with your abbreviations.

Even better, if you’re publishing digitally, you can have the sentence spacing be user-selectable to ensure that each user has the most personally comfortable sentence spacing—though doing so requires a bit of code.

Following either of those last two links reveals the answer to one of the questions I posed in the last post: Why is it that, if I favor using two spaces between sentences, my blog posts so far all display with a single sentence? Because HTML displays all whitespace as a single space. So, [space][space][space][space] and [space] are both displayed as “ ”. This means that, even though I type my posts with two spaces, they post with only one space displayed. One of these days, I’ll probably get around to writing something to have more control over my whitespace, but until then, I’ll stick with the HTML default.

But rejiggering the actual length of sentence spacing is truly the least powerful way that adding two spaces gives you flexibility. When you end a sentence with punctuation followed by two spaces, you have a totally unambiguous signal that the sentence has ended. More importantly, you have a signal that is 100% machine readable. Sure, this means that you can have a program change the sentence spacing. It also means you can have a program automatically delete a sentence. Or detect the end of a sentence to help with machine translation, or to perform better with text-to-speech. Or it could let your software identify individual sentences to help teach good writing. Or—running the logic the other way—it could let your software unambiguously know when a sentence isn’t ending, which would allow it to flag undefined abbreviations. All this is lost if you use a single space after each sentence.

In any individual project, it may be that none of this matters. On the other hand, it might—and might in unexpected ways. More importantly, writing is about communicating, and adding that humble extra space allows your writing to communicate extra information at essentially no additional cost. Communication—both to computers and people—is the name of the game, and there’s no reason to pass up that opportunity.

Summing Up

Here’s the bottom line:

  • Displaying content with more than a single space between sentences reduces ambiguity and aids with skimming—both of which are especially important for coding and for legal writing.
  • Even if you don’t want to display more than a single space, you should still draft with two spaces. Content and presentation should be separate, and you can always have your two spaces display as a single space.
  • Writing with two spaces probably looks better if you’re drafting (as you should be) in a monospaced font using a plaintext editor. These sort of editors give you more power, both to customize sentence spacing and to employ advanced content-management strategies that depend on machine-readable text.
  • Even if you—against my advice—are drafting only in Word and don’t want to display your text with two spaces, you should still draft with two spaces because you can easily use find-and-replace to convert two spaces to one (or any other spacing you want) but you’ll be stuck with one space if you start your draft that way.

Given all that, I am absolutely convinced that you should be ending your sentences with two spaces. And I should be, too. Now I just need to finish the project of breaking myself of decades of the habit of being a single-spacer …

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3 thoughts on “Meta-Contrarian Typography, part 2”

  1. As you said before, this is exactly what we discussed in the comments on the last post. So the only thing I have to say is that it’s absolutely ridiculous for someone to pay $30 for a “minimal word processor.” That’s $30 to avoid even 10 minutes of effort learning how to operate a text editor.

    1. I tend to agree (as I said, I write in Atom, which is free). But I wouldn’t judge someone for buying one of the minimalist text editors. Many people seem to love Hemingway, and it’s only $10 (with a free web version). If someone finds a way to spend $10 that makes their writing experience a bit more comfortable and that makes them write a bit more … well, that seems like $10 well spent.

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