Writing For The Eye (When Yours Don’t Work)

As a university student, I am continually required to think about (or, more accurately, worry about) proper formatting. Beyond the simple process of following letter templates and adjusting fonts, I have to fiddle with things like tricky citations and nastily precise documentation requirements. My every piece of writing is micromanaged, right down to its one-inch margins, italicized journal titles, and perfectly-indented footnotes. This is a reality every student faces, especially if they do any academic writing. The various documentation styles required for scholarly writing are notorious for their complexity and constant (unnecessary) revisions. Time and time again, new editions of the style books are released, containing the latest “improvements” to the documentation style. Usually, they change one or two things and the rest remains exactly the same. While this does cut down on the learning and relearning a student has to do, it does make buying the new editions a wee bit frustrating, considering that they’re not exactly inexpensive. I have had some instructors who graciously gave me a pass when it came to specific aspects of document formatting I simply couldn’t do. For example, I was not always able to paginate properly, because my screen reader and Microsoft Word had a love hate relationship. I also have trouble spotting things like italics where they shouldn’t be, or improper indenting. Citations and bibliography writing literally take me hours, and I’m never sure I got it right. This can be a big deal when you consider that a few of my instructors knocked off several marks for every formatting error we made. Writing the essay is the easy part: I have to worry about my margins!


At least this is just for essay writing, yeah? I won’t have to worry about any of this in the workplace? … Come on now! I’d never be that lucky. Even in business writing, formatting and document design are essential. It seems that in every class I attend, I’m reminded once again that visual elements are as important, if not more so, as the words I write. My websites have to be visually appealing and skimmable. My documents must be consistently and precisely formatted, lest I distract the reader (and boy are they easy to distract). My power point presentations have to include multimedia, pretty pictures, and lots of lovely charts to make everybody care about them. Without these, I’m just going to be boring, unpersuasive, and ineffectual. And, as with fashion, there’s no handbook to guide me; it’s all about knowing what will please the eyes—the eyes I don’t use and don’t really understand.


This creates even bigger problems when you consider the types of positions opening up in my field. These days, employers don’t just want a writer or editor. They want a writer who can edit, take pictures, design web content, and make pretty posters to hang on the walls. They essentially want to combine three different roles into one efficient package, and of course I’ll never be able to do that for them. I can’t take pictures—at least, not well—and I can’t do much with images beyond simply placing them where I’m told to. I have wondered seriously about my career prospects if this disturbing trend continues. It’s a sobering thought, indeed.


I’ve never tried to deny that we live in a highly visual world. I know and respect this, which means I respect the fact that visual elements will always have the utmost importance in almost any field, communications included. I just wish it wasn’t so hard to adjust to. You see, screen readers (the software I use to navigate on my laptop) can only do so much. I have very little trouble checking that my font is the right colour, size, and style, because the software can describe this to me. I know how to make headings and tables. I can fiddle with paragraph style, and make lists, and even create power point presentations, though it’s a struggle. If you tell me exactly what to do, I can probably figure it out. Herein lies the problem, though: in the “real world”, people probably won’t be telling me what to do. They’ll be expecting me to design my own documents, using all those wonderful skills I picked up in university. Don’t get me wrong, I have as much intuition and creativity as the next person, but how am I supposed to understand on an intrinsic level what is visually appealing and what isn’t? I have never read print, so I have no idea what is “distracting”. I don’t have an innate understanding of why certain things look clean and appealing and why other things look cluttered and inelegant. Give me a braille document and I can critique it all day long. I also have my own opinions about web interfaces and document formatting, but they are only relevant to people using screen readers. I can create excellent content, but to hear some of my instructors talk, I could be writing Shakespearian quotes for all it matters. The visual elements have to be present, and they have to be superb.


I’ve definitely had my share of formatting mishaps, most of which I can laugh about because they’re years behind me. In high school, I once sent my teacher an essay that had somehow been written in several different colours. He thanked me for the “rainbow”. I tried to claim I meant to do that, but I don’t think he believed me. On the plus side, the colourful fonts probably helped to offset my research on charming gentlemen like Hitler and Stalin. If you’re going to read about vicious dictators, at least read about them in rainbow colours, right?


Another memorable assignment I’d done had been meticulously formatted, right down to the beautiful footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography. It was my first attempt at Chicago style, in my first year of university, and oh my, was I ever proud of it. When I got it back, it had been given an A. One little problem, though: the professor asked whether I’d meant to centre the entire essay, by any chance? Apparently, it was just a tad hard to read that way. Some people really are hard to please, eh?


Luckily for blind writers everywhere, times are changing. More and more applications are becoming accessible with screen readers, and the readers themselves have features that help us edit our own work. Still, automated editing features will never replace the human eye and the fundamental intuition that comes with it. I’ll just have to hope that my content is enough to rise above the glaring lack of pretty pictures. I do hope you will all continue to read my ramblings, even in the absence of eye-catching graphics. My heart might just break otherwise…