What Am I Doing?
"Thinking makes American boys' heads hurt"
the villain in Richard Condon's
All I wanted was to put some of my poems up on the web to make an electronic chapbook and to give it away, as I have given away five paper ones before. It sounded easy enough. I'd been web browsing for a while, I had a little spare time, I had PageMill and Acrobat and wanted to learn how to use them, I had a megabyte of space available at my local ISP. I figured a week, two tops, and it'd be up and running.
That was nearly two months ago. So far. And it feels like more. Naturally, this hasn't been a full-time gig, but it has taken much more effort than I expected. Not learning the basic software just enough to use it but figuring out what to do with it. And then how to do that. And then why that was a bad idea. And so on, in what seems at times to be an infinite spiral.
I feel sometimes like I grabbed my coat to go next door, turned right instead of left and ended up hacking my way through leech-infested jungles, over snow-covered passes and through pathless forests before finally stumbling into the neighbor's yard almost by accident. In other words, I am not saying these pages are great, since I am certainly still learning. I'm not even sure they're finished.
But I did think about them, and being a writer I wrote down some of my thoughts. That's how I find out what I think. And I hope that my ideas are of some interest, not just to designers but to everyone who reads on the web. Which means everyone who uses it They interested me enough to revive some ideas I had before about writing fiction to be read on a computer. Which led me to implement the simplest of them which took more time, more effort, more thinking. Oh well.
I am a generalist who has worked with type and words and computers for many years; I have a perspective on these intertwingled issues that I think you may find valuable. And I hope you enjoy the poems and stories.
The Vicious Circle
It's hard to read on screen, so people don't; since people don't, it's not worth fixing.
Fortunately, this is not quite true; unfortunately, it's close.
The Web, indeed the whole Internet, was designed for the exchange of information; the original thinking was clearly that large documents could be transferred to the reader's computer, where they could be printed and read off-line, with the added benefit that the reader had the source file and could edit or use it. E-mail, which almost immediately became an on-screen function, was kept short and to the point, essentially a question-and-answer format.
All this is fine, indeed great, and it rapidly led to a next step, in which readers searched the net or web for specific information, as in a reference book. Not surprisingly, legibility was still of minor importance; this follows the print model, where large dictionaries and encyclopedias can be set up in 8- or 9-point type, precisely because they are not expected to be read at length.
Web documents, however, do not have the space, weight and price constraints that afflict Britannica. (A similar liberation has led rapidly to the use of pictures, still and moving, and sounds.) But they have been afflicted so far with the 'good-enough' syndrome that has led to some people actually resisting efforts to introduce designer control of pages on the weird grounds that it's not webbish. And in the meantime, most web texts look awful.
What this has done is to discourage reading on-line. I love books, and I certainly agree that reading a book is always going to have advantages over reading a screen; but it also has disadvantages. I rarely use my printed dictionaries anymore, because the American Heritage Electronic Dictionary (deluxe edition, aka AHED) is simply better, with its rapid access, hypertext and search capabilities. The Oxford University Press, alas, screwed up the interface of its electronic Concise and overpriced its Greater; software is not automatically better than books.
Software is, however, better at some things and need not and should not be handicapped by looking unnecessarily bad. Its advantages are not limited to hypertext (though that's huge; see also Writing Fiction to be Read on a Computer). If I want to give away my poems, and have them look good, should I have to print and mail them? Aside from the consideration of increasing the potential audience, it's just cheaper to post them on the web than into the mailbox.
Controlling appearance can also be demonstrably functional. AHED, for example, includes a custom font of pronunciation symbols, a weird affair with no less than nine variants of the lower-case 'a' that works perfectly and is by itself probably a sufficient argument for the utility of including custom fonts in web specifications. This is a screen shot from Norton Utilities' KeyFinder:
I think it is so important to acknowledge this issue, which I am convinced is not getting the attention it deserves outside of a small group of specialists, that the essay section of this site is drenched with it (see especially Signal-to-Noise Ratio, but also Tune Your Browser, Designing for the Web as It Will Be, and The Great Unconscious). I make no apology for that; there is probably some repetition but in general the references to the subject approach it from different angles.
As soon as screen legibility is fixed, people will forget that they ever thought it was unimportant. With luck, they won't even notice it, they will just assume that type should be clear and obvious, as it is in books, where most of us only notice the flaws. That's the way it should be.
Fear and Shame
Here I go again, putting myself out there, and wondering how (and if) people are going to react. You can't write anything without running into this, unless you only stick it in the bottom drawer, and even then it comes up if you have admitted to anyone you are writing something.
But there's a weird thing going on here. I seem to be more worried about form than content. Uh-oh. I've been here before, it's true, and I don't let it stop me, but I still think it's strange.
It's horrible to be rejected, whether it's by The New Yorker or by the glazed eyes of an audience (been there all right, done that); but bizarrely it's nowhere near as great to be accepted as it is lousy to be rejected. Is that just me? I doubt it.
Certainly it's better to be accepted by an audience than by a magazine, though both are good, but the reward of writing really comes from the act of creation. Even when, looking back, I see that something is unutterably mediocre, there is still the memory of the time when it was finished and I was convinced that it was good. That's a buzz. Definitely worth it.
Second best is to have someone you know and respect tell you, or even better tell someone else, that something you did was nifty. Third is to have an individual stranger go out of their way to express approval. Applause is fourth; it's a sugar high, an instant rush, and it evaporates into emptiness.
But you gotta put yourself out there.
And I am much more worried about the look of the thing than the thing itself. Isn't that weird? It was the same when I first made chapbooks to give away to friends; the first one (Borders) contains hints at least of some stuff I was reluctant to let my elderly relatives in on, though surely they knew drugs, basically, and it may be they thought I did a lot more than I did. That caused me some nervousness at the time, as though they might think that I was the junkie vanishing into the evening air; I wasn't, I was the guy across the room watching. But it wasn't too hard to convince myself that nothing bad would happen, and that turned out to be true.
No, what scared me was that my designer and typesetting friends would think the actual thing was crap.
It was amateurish, of course, since I had neither the expertise nor the money to hire the expertise to make it perfectly professional; and the pro's I knew (and worked with; I was a proofreader and customer rep) respected that and in general complimented me on a reasonable effort. It worked out fine, and over the years I have become comfortable with my standards for paper publication, as I have delineated the parameters of 'good enough' and I know that worse is sold and not many better are given away for free.
So here I am, going through it again on the Web. Same deal, same goals, probably same result, or so at least I tell myself.
I have upped the ante, though. I dared to write down and put up some of my opinions, and that feels like setting myself up big-time.
Because I really don't know for sure what it is I don't know.
What kind of arrogant sumbich am I to go venting my opinions? Does saying I am a scared and confused one excuse it?
So I am worried not just about the form but also about the opinions on the form. Well, I could cancel them out. I could restrict the Essays to things I've done before, like political articles, where I know that if I do a good job by my own standards some people will approve, and that's all that counts. Some won't, of course, but that doesn't matter much.
Back at the time of the Gulf War, which I strenuously opposed before, during and after the event, I wrote all kinds of leaflets and articles expressing my viewpoint and that of the local Persian Gulf Peace Committee or Coalition (we had a hard time agreeing on a name), some anonymously though my name and phone number were usually on them as a contact, some by-lined either as hand-outs or in the local paper. I think I got precisely one piece of negative feedback, and that was so irrational there was no possible reaction but laughter. And this was when the polls were running nine to one against us! I didn't get much more in the way of direct praise from strangers either (there was some) but I certainly got good feedback from my cohorts. And neither of them really mattered, because I was confident in what I wrote.
Well, I could do that on the web, and I probably will. But writing about fonts and design and even daring to disagree on the subject of sentence spacing with David Siegel, who certainly knows more about typography than I ever will; isn't this foolish?
Maybe. But here we go. I do know quite a lot about the subject; more than most amateurs. And with luck my opinions will be of some interest.
I ain't God. But I don't think anyone should be. Let's leave it at that.
So first I try to put stuff up; then I write about the process; and now I am writing about why I chose to write about it. How far back can I take this particular regression?
Partly, it's practice. I was suffering from writer's block, and the way I usually get out of it is to write something, anything, which usually means freebie articles for periodicals friends of mine put out on a volunteer or very-low-paid basis. This is a version of that.
It's also a way of clarifying my own thinking (like ghee), as I make these decisions about Acrobat, and font calls, and design parameters and so on. Not to mention the rationale for computer-publishing as a technology.
I did want to make sure there was substance in the site. At this point, I think I overdid it for a launch, but I stand by the idea that a site like this should err on the side of having too much to read rather than too little. I hope that people will return, and I shall certainly be putting up more, both selections from my considerable backlog and new writings. Eventually it would be wonderful to post beta versions, to borrow a computer term, of work that I think is finished (this always happens) and get feedback on it while it is still fresh in my mind. I'd love to know what people think about my writings, but the poems and stories that are up here now are pretty much cooked; they are unlikely to change. The essays, however, might.
And finally, there is the matter of suggesting how these pages should be viewed, which seems worth spelling out; and led me, naturally, to playing with screenshots and all that jazz. Which was fun. And harder work than I expected.
I am sure I will continue to learn about presenting stuff on the web. I am equally sure that what I have learned so far is about making a container, and the rewarding part is on the horizon, as I begin to fill the container. I look forward to that.
What the heck, it's here and I hope you find something of value in it.