The Aesthetics of Form; or, I Can’t Write Unless It Looks Pretty

by Travis Sharp

It may sound weird, but I begin writing by choosing a font. If I am writing a paper for class, for example, I will go straight for the 12-pt Times New Roman. A mainstay in academic writing, Times New Roman is clear and concise. It is easy to read. It doesn’t have any wacky, loopy letters. It is a very serious font. When I am writing in Times New Roman, I know that I am writing academically. The font reflects the tone of the writing, and by using Times New Roman, I know that what I am writing means business.

If I am writing a story or a poem (or something in between), it is a different matter entirely. I can spend a lot (read: perhaps too much) time picking a font. I can’t use Calibri—the default is just so default, you know?—and Times New Roman fits a different feel. I need to write with something more minimal, more aesthetically pleasing, artistic, less academic. Times New Roman carries with it the heft of academia, an oppression of form, a politics of do-it-this-way. For creative writing, I prefer something like Aparajita or Lao UI or perhaps sometimes Raavi.

Font can also impact perception. We don’t think much about it, but we use font in different ways when we want to convey different things. A sign that we put on the door saying we’re out to lunch would not be written in 12-pt Times New Roman. A memo to your boss would not be written in Comic Sans. (Comic Sans has also been known to turn people off from restaurants. The reasoning: if you make that bad of a choice of font, what is your food going to taste like?)

But font isn’t the only thing I keep in mind when writing. Layout can convey meaning and have aesthetic power. The automatic response to a double spaced manuscript, for instance, is that this is work to be reviewed (graded by a teacher, reviewed by peers for a journal) or that is incomplete (leaving space for comments).

The choices of physical layout can impact perception. A page with large margins and small, left-and- right justified text can serve to emphasize what is written (this is important or essential and deserves its own page, deserves to be the center of attention). It is also metaphorical: this text is a window into understanding. Pages with a lot of white space (large margins, many line breaks) will intentionally fragment the text, indicating that there is a lot to be found between the lines and indicating to the reader that they will have to work a little harder to get what is being said.

Punctuation can also have an impact on a reading of a text. A piece of writing with many semicolons, for example, both sounds and looks fragmented and jumpy, the ideas all cut off but slightly attached, as if hanging on by a small thread [;]. A page with numerous short paragraphs gives a text a look of jumpiness, of erratic behavior. A page with large, behemoth paragraphs can indicate heavy material, a denseness that is literally transcribed onto the design of the page.

After taking these into consideration, I finish things off with a distancing, a far-away looking-at. I’ve chosen my font; I’ve arranged the content; I’ve designed the layout; I’ve made punctuation and organizational choices. I’ve written everything down. Now is the time to step back and take it all in and ask myself some questions: is this working? How/in what ways is it working? Do I like the effect of this, that, or that? Do I need to change anything? (Usually yes.) Always I find myself ending on these revisions. Always it ends on the overall effect, the combined aesthetics.

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