Looking good in print isn’t just about “art”

Ann Wayman, whose excellent blog is a terrific resource for freelance writers in any field, left a comment the other day about an author whose book had been “designed” by someone with super-powerful design software, but who clearly had never bothered to learn the hows and whys of graphic design. It wouldn’t, Ann conjectured, sell very well. She was exactly right.

Her comment reminded me of a design/edit project I took on a few months ago that was supposed to be an “update” of a previously-published e-book. The author had paid someone to design his book, but what he got back was a disorganized, ugly, unreadable mess that required a complete redo-from-scratch. (Imagine a dining room table built from scraps of old plywood and nailed together with six-inch nails. Would you “upgrade” it, or start over? I started over.)

The whole point of the Creative Tips newsletters is to give people a bit of control over how they look in print, using only the tools they have on their computers already. Most documents don’t need a professional designer to make them look decent. A few design basics and a bit of insight into how the software works can do wonders.

But, just as there is a point where a home carpenter’s “do-it-yourself” tools and skills aren’t enough, so there are times when DIY design isn’t appropriate. For one thing, 500 years of design technique for print isn’t something you pick up overnight. For another, few authors have professional-grade design tools (and most of are trained designers).

More to the point, very few authors study design or typography with the same enthusiastic attention they pay to plot development, paragraph structure, or character.

You can create a good-looking book using only Microsoft Word, just as you can create a sculpture using only an old screwdriver, if you are really skilled and can work within the limitations of the tool. It’s always harder, no matter what field you’re in, to work with unsuitable or cheap tools.

I love to read. I think it’s incredibly sad that good writing is made inaccessible just because it looks so bad nobody wants to read it. Potential book buyers will reject a book with tiny margins, densely packed text and an ugly typeface. They might not say that’s why they rejected it, but will, if pressed, admit that “It looks hard to read.”

The author works hard to capture the reader’s interest and sweep her along with a great story. It’s the designer who opens the door and makes the reader feel welcome.

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