Designing Your Articles (Mistake #5)

You’re a writer not a designer. You work with words not a palette of colours. Your business is text not image.

What follows has been partly inspired by Julie Phillips, author of the Article Antics blog, and Diane Perry of the Working 2 Write blog. Julie recently posted here that her writing tutor had asked her to capitalise the first word of her articles. Not unreasonably, she wondered why. Diane, in response, also wondered why.

Why indeed. I have no clue. I’m open to enlightenment, but I remain in the dark. So until such illumination descends, I’d strongly advise against it. Although capping up a word isn’t the most exaggerated of aesthetic touches that can be applied to articles, I’d still urge you to avoid it or any other artistic affectations in your work, be they dramatic or subtle. Editors dislike them. Quite a lot.

Just because your font library boasts Palatino Linotype does not mean ‘What the hell – may as well give it a whirl!’ is an appropriate response. Engraved and embossed cyan text may sound pretty, but not to a frazzled editor with strained eyesight and scratched bifocals. Watermarks? No. And ditto clip art. No boxes with borders and shading. No drop capitals. For the love of heaven please please no dingbats or I’ll cry.

I don’t mean to be unkind, but if you fuss about with the design you risk giving the impression you’re all image and no substance. It’s just a bit distracting and amateurish.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with all these effects, you understand. If you want to use them in emails to friends, in the newsletter you send out to relatives abroad, even on your blog – fine. But these are all occasions when you’re both a writer and a designer. All publications have their own designers – and you’re not one of them. Let those who are do their job.

So, here’s what I think. Roman 12pt font throughout, black (always black), single spacing if sending by email, double spacing if hard copy, a line between paragraphs, no indenting, four one-inch margins. Bold for titles and sub-headings if you like. Italics in exceptional circumstances (but don’t italicise quotes; just put them in inverted commas). If you have sidebars or box-outs add them to the end of the article, and treat each as an extra paragraph with a sub-heading of ‘Sidebar’. If sending by snail mail use nice white sheets (no less than 90gsm) and envelopes which don’t look cheap.

A neat professional image. That’s all you need project.

Of course there are exceptions: photography, if requested and/or applicable, can be sent (but separately); ditto other graphics or line-drawings, if you’re talented and qualified to provide them.

But on the whole, you’re a wordsmith and so aim for smart simplicity of presentation.

And remember they’re called bullet points not cute-little-orange-butterfly points for a reason.

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