Posted by: Linda Proud | August 20, 2008

Text blocks (or how not to present your work)

When you send your manuscript out, it should go in its Sunday best. It’s the equivalent of an interview, after all. More and more these days I receive people’s novels laid out in text blocks, and I scream when I do. What is a text block? This is. Now listen up while I explain a little about HTML. That’s the code behind webpages (or will be until XHTML takes over soon). Every element is tagged, including paragraphs, and the standard styling for that tag is that the paragraph will be followed by a double-line space and will not begin with an indent.

Here we are, text block number two. So, this new habit of writing novels in text blocks I took to be a consequence of emails, the style of which may have been influenced by websites. But perhaps not.

Text block number three (once known as a paragraph). When I was tutoring at the Oxford University summer school recently, the most advanced student, who is doing a PhD in creative writing, presented his work in text blocks. I screamed. ‘No one,’ he said, ‘in all my years studying this subject, has ever mentioned it. Quite the opposite. They insist on it.’

What? He went on to explain that he’s studying creative writing academically, and academic papers have to be in text blocks. Given that the internet began as a means of academic communication, is that the source of the rot? It seems likely. After all, it almost makes sense given that the composition of essays is often thought of as building blocks of ideas, each paragraph representing a single unit of thought, building block on block to your thumping conclusion. And what academic essays tend not to include is dialogue.

It’s when we get to dialogue that this format looks really ridiculous. After a block of exposition you suddenly get very spacy speech, and if a novel is dialogue rich, the visual impact is just dreadful. Subtle things, words on the page. As poets know, how you arrange them is important. Text laid out in blocks does not invite the reader in to a long and fruitful fictional dream. Instead it makes her blink involuntarily and possibly even unconsciously as she tries to imagine people not speaking in dialogue so much as alternating monologue.

‘What?’ she thinks, ‘is this all about?’

‘Did you say something, dear?’ asks her husband, muting the sound on the TV.

‘No, just mumbling to myself,’ she says, and pushes the earplugs in deeper.

See what I mean? In between block paragraphs, you get this odd interchange between characters which has no flow. So please, have a look at your precious manuscript. Could you not make it look a little more like a book?


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