Font of wisdom

Today I want to kvetch a bit about fonts. You see, I am super partial to serif fonts. To be honest, I love all fonts, even the ones that make me shudder at the thought of actually using them in anything someone else would have to read (I’m looking at you, Western font). But my favorites have serifs.

So a few years ago when someone I respected told me that we should only use sans serif fonts because they are easier for people with dyslexia to read, I bristled, and of course, felt a bit guilty about the bristle. I mean, I am on board with accessibility. But also I was trained years ago as a reading specialist, and there was no talk of fonts back then (plus there were questions about dyslexia as a specific diagnosis versus the more appropriate and all-encompassing phrase ‘reading disability,’ for which direct support in word knowledge, fluency, and comprehension matter more than worrying about fonts, especially once the reader has advanced past primary reading levels, which was true for the college-age audience we were discussing). I made a few doubtful sounds, and the person told me I was out of touch with the latest research, which was likely true, but I wasn’t 100% clear that my colleague’s sources were grounded in reading research, so I continue to prefer serif fonts but am open to using sans serif sometimes just in case he was right.

Fonts came to mind again recently after listening to a podcast where one of the speakers was an agent complaining about writers pitching using Courier font. She suggested that the default Arial was much better.

I had to take a few breaths because I really resent the way my Pages app tries to force me to use Arial on anything because it feels like such a lazy font to me, skipping serifs and breakfast as far as I can tell. I even created a special template called 14 point Times New Roman for when I refuse to even look at Arial. And don’t get me started on WTF is going on when I copy and paste text into a Google email?? Or make edits to the email before sending? These emails sometimes show up with strange variations in font type and size, and I feel as if I was walking around with my underwear showing if my email gets sent in that mixed font state.

While I would never send Courier to anyone (except maybe back in the day when I submitted a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine and she wanted it in Courier— she of course rejected the story, but I loved having the rejection letter signed by her), I have an affection for it because it heralds for me old school typewriter writing (though not as well as the American typewriter font, which is the one I use in my online journal :)). For me, Courier evokes writers like Stephen King sending out zillions of stories to publications that no longer exist today.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I decided to take a peek at recent research on fonts. I found some imprecise information online, including the fact that the British Dyslexia Society recommends sans serif font, but sources tell me it is unclear why they took this stance.

I then came upon an article in the International Journal of Psychology (citation below) that looked specifically at the impact of serif versus sans serif fonts when college students were asked to evaluate research articles. Now granted, this study is limited in scope, but it included some findings that resonated for me. First, their review of the literature was helpful. It showed what I (who just recently upped my eyeglasses prescription) would agree—font size affects readability and even reactions to what you read. Also, letter recognition is a base skill, acquired well before word recognition and likely less of a concern for intermediate and advanced readers.

The review of the research and this study found that sans serif fonts support faster reading speeds. On the other hand, for smaller font sizes, serifs were helpful because they cause the letters to be spaced out more, making it easier to read.

The study also yielded this result: serif fonts may have slowed the readers down a bit, but the readers found serif font texts easier to understand, and the serifs font increased the readers’ interest and appreciation for the texts.

Do I feel vindicated? A little. Should I? Probably not. It’s just one study. But it did strike me that when I pick up a book to read, it’s almost always in a serif font. When I read a book or article with a sans serif font, it often feels less professional to me. So there seems to be some kind of cultural vibe at work here, and one that may say more about my age or for the academic audience, than a strictly cognitive response.

Still, go team Times New Roman, American Typewriter, and Didot. And I still love you Helvetica Neue, Marker Felt, and Noteworthy.

Article discussed:

Kaspar, K., Wehlitz, T., von Knobelsdorff, S., Wulf, T., & von Saldern, M. A. O. (2015). A matter of font type: The effect of serifs on the evaluation of scientific abstracts. International Journal of Psychology, 50(5), 372–378.

Postscript: It may be time for me to change my blog so I use serifs again :).

The process log

I thought today I might write about a strategy that has been very beneficial for me in terms of writing, or really, almost any endeavor: the process log. It’s not that far afield from journaling, which I already find so helpful. But a process log is a bit more focused than journaling. I suppose it’s a akin to a daily log that some people keep, which is a record of what they actually accomplished during the day. If I am working on a novel, a process log is where I jot down what I’ve done that day to develop the novel.

Sometimes, I note what is working and/or what isn’t. It’s very metacognitive, I suppose, if you like that kind of word. The process log sometimes works as a self-coaching process, where I unpack what I’m doing, kvetch if needed, and consider possible changes. But my log doesn’t always have to be that elaborate, just a record of what I did, such as “revised chapter 4, brainstormed chapter 5.”

This approach gives me comfort because when I don’t keep some kind of notes (and I don’t always do so), a week later I struggle to recall what, if anything, I actually did because there is not always a direct path between time spent writing and producing a final product. I was writing, I was thinking, I was creating, but more than that I can’t say. The trees get lost in the forest, I suppose.

As I said, I don’t always remember to use a process log, but I’ve always valued it when I do. As I have a bit more time to work this summer, I have several process logs underway, one per project or goal, which, by the way, is another perk of the process log because it helps me get back up to speed when I shift between projects.

As I peek at some fellow writers’ blog posts, I definitely see elements of process logs in those posts, which is probably one of the reasons I so enjoy the blog community. It’s nice to have some company as we coach ourselves along.

Fast reads vs slow reads

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through the back episodes of the very helpful and entertaining Print Run podcast. In a March 2017 episode, Laura and Erik discussed the vagueness and general inaccuracy of the category of books called “literary.” Many books that seem to fit well within a genre such as science fiction or mystery also have qualities that could be considered literary. Also, differentiating literary from other genres makes it sound as if one is better than the other.

I like the idea of rejecting literary as a category. General does feel like a better fit if a novel doesn’t fit neatly within one genre.

I’ve lately been thinking that some books are fast reads, while others are slow. I sometimes hear people describe a book that is a fast read as a “light read,” but I’m not sure that’s fair to these books. There can be richness and insight in a book I read quickly. Fast reads often, but not always, are clearly within a genre, and the expectations of the genre are partly what makes for a fast read. In a mystery, for example, I tend to expect a crime that needs to be solved, and I quickly recognize one character in a role like a detective and another as perpetrator.

But even novels that fit the mode of a traditional genre can be filled with dense language or insights, and by dense, I mean abundant and rich as opposed to hard-to-decipher. So that kind of novel would fall in my slow read category. I enjoy both kinds, for the record. Fast reads have a special allure because I get caught up into the story and race to the end, almost unaware of what is happening in the world around me as I jog after the answer to my driving goal to know what will happen next. I sometimes find myself skimming parts in my eagerness to keep going.

Slow reads, like slow food or mindful eating, ask me to slow down and savor each step. One book that comes to mind for me is Lorrie Moore’s A gate at the stairs, where I recall feeling torn between my curiosity to know what would happen to the protagonist and the discovery that almost every paragraph had a kind of inside joke or flash of irony or startling use of language.

It seems to me that some slow reads might be described as a reading experience—that is, the experience of connecting and absorbing everything as you go along.

I doubt these reflections help resolve the tension around trying to force a label on a novel, but it helps me to make sense of what brings me to a book as a reader, and what to consider when I construct a novel as a writer.

photo of path

Write a lot, write a little

I want to reflect on what helps me write a lot, or even just a little. I wrote about trying to dabble in a variety of writing activities to boost my writing practice. Which, as I said, I love doing, but I have a habit of focusing on one top priority (usually my novel) at a time—mostly because that seems to work. Yet I know I typically have the opportunity to work on more than just that one top priority.

I also benefit from stops and starts. I mean, if I get on a roll, then I stick with it until I lose steam. But otherwise, I tend to come up with a few paragraphs or pages, then something clicks and I need to switch gears.

One genre of writing that I find easy to do at any time is journaling. I have often used journaling as a way to foster my work, by journaling about what I might write, discussing questions with myself that then turn into tasks to add to my to-do list, or sometimes drafting new work.

Since I have reached a moment between larger projects, I want to see if I can broaden my reach. I’d like to write more, both in terms of quantity and genres.

So my idea is this—I will aim to journal throughout the day. Not a lot. Maybe a phrase here and there, between various commitments. And the journaling can be my springboard—I can then jump into a longer piece, or I can jot down ideas or questions to pursue later.

And if I find I can’t write anything, I could take a short walk. Not to steal Brenda Ueland’s thunder (and I think Anne Lamott mentioned this too when she recommended carrying index cards at all times), but walks really can help me write more. Of course, it helps if I get back to the writing as soon as I’m done with the walk!

Reading also helps me write more, especially if I could read a little, then write a little. Sometimes I just dig in and keep reading to finish the book, but if I do that, I often forget some of the insights or ideas that flickered in the background as I read. I think it could be very helpful if I would try a bite-sized approach to reading—read a little, then jot down any ideas or impressions as soon as I can.

I also think that this could help ease some of my anxiety as a writer, because there would be more energy and change going on. I don’t quite have to know everything I’m going to write before I write it. I just open myself up to what comes, and move on from there.

It occurs to me that this strategy will require some intentionality on my part, the commitment to turn it into a habit. That is, this strategy will totally work, but only if I actually do it. Hmm. That feels like a good epitaph for my writing goals in general—it could totally work if I actually do it. Sigh.

Still, there’s no time like the present to give it a try.

Variety and consistency are key

I’ve been more successful this year in cultivating an exercise habit. Avoiding human contact has meant I haven’t caught colds or non-headline-grabbing viruses, and so far (knock on all things wooden) I haven’t pulled a muscle or injured myself in some way that would cause me to lose all momentum. The biggest break in the routine was the week after I received the second dose of the moderna vaccine. I was wiped out on day two, and just a little lower energy and babying myself the rest of the week, trying to encourage my immune system to put on its superhero cape.

In a workout video, a trainer stated that “variety and consistency are key,” and this year I’ve definitely added more variety to my workouts, including more time and more intensity. I’ve also discovered that I do better if I take one day off each week and switch each day between high intensity and lower intensity workouts.

But this advice made me wonder if I should aim for the same in my writing. I admit that I make more progress if I identify one main project as my top priority, either for the day or for the foreseeable future. Consistency tends to help. If I work each day or every other day on a novel, for example, even if just for a half an hour, the story simmers on a back burner in my brain the rest of the time, and ideas come to me at random moments. I’ve even gotten better about writing those stray ideas down. So consistency and habits of some sort work for me. Variety, now that’s an interesting idea, even if it sounds almost antithetical to consistency. For example, compare a consistent diet of one type of food versus a diet full of variety. But I guess the distinction is that one should be consistent in making some kind of effort, or starting over after essential breaks, but also aim for some variety in the actual activity. I realize that I have also found it helpful to designate one or two days a week as “pressure-free.” That is, if I want to write, great. If I don’t, that’s cool too.

I like to dabble with various forms of creative and reflective writing. Yet I found that I am more successful if I work on whatever I’ve deemed top priority first. If I dabble first, that effort often saps most of my writing energy.

But I know that a certain playfulness helps me too, at least to enjoy life in general. I want to believe playfulness improves my writing. If nothing else, it supports my ability to keep writing.

I am on summer break from my part-time job at the local university so this is a good time for me to experiment to see if and how I can add more variety to what I write. I noted on the blog post by S.G. Browne that writing for fun can help when one hits a wall in the longer project.

So I will explore ways to add some variety while still making the top priority work, um, top priority. Stay tuned! I’ll report back later this summer on how it’s going.

A blog without moss

It’s day 2357 of the pandemic. (Just kidding, who’s counting?) My teens ask me where their father is.

There are several likely answers. Putting in more time on a major volunteer project or grocery shopping again because he’s eagerly embraced the hunter/gatherer role during the months when we feared All Things Indoor. His age placed him at higher risk, but oh the heady freedom of leaving the house to get groceries. Now that we’re all vaccinated (phew), we all leave the house more often, even to go Indoors Elsewhere, almost as if that’s a normal thing to do.

Instead, I say, “Your father gathers no moss.”

Blank stares, a few blinks.

“He’s a rolling stone that gathers no moss,” I explain.

“That means nothing,” says one teen.

“What?” says another.

“You know, he can’t be pinned down. He’s always on the move.” Since he bore the role of full-time father for the eternity that was early childhood, this statement is not without some irony.

“Why can’t you just say that?” another teen says, shaking her head.

“Nobody says that,” the first says.

My teens aren’t fans of proverbs and cliches, I guess. In their defense, it is not necessarily one of the more helpful analogies. I mean, stones rarely roll. Sure, there’s probably an avalanche now and then. And I’m certain none of those rocks are gathering moss during that short span of time. But then again, a lot of rocks that don’t move don’t gather moss, either.

Still, I’m a fan of such sayings, just as I have moments when I love words like epistemology. I know it’s annoying when the word or phrase is unknown. But once you get your head around them, it’s a nice shortcut rather than explaining the whole history behind it (which, if you are curious about the history of the rolling stone proverb, there are helpful explanations on Wikipedia and the free dictionary that are probably accurate).

All this to say, I always feel a bit apologetic when I post on my blog because it’s so random when I do (not to mention what I write). Sometimes I post regularly. Sometimes I post on predictable topics. Sometimes, not so much. Now technically, I think my blog gathers tons of moss. On the one hand, like cobwebs when I neglect it for months on end. On the other hand, I’ve apparently posted 146 times on my blog. That’s about five times more than I would have guessed. So by one reading of the proverb, this blog is taking root. The one who is not gathering moss is me, the blogger, because I regret to inform you that I have no idea what you might see appear on this page. I have a little time this summer and the desire (perhaps) to blog more often. I have a growing list of ideas and fragments to post. Is there a guiding theme or platform at work here? Nope. I’ve never been one to pick one idea or topic and stick with it, though a few tend to come up more often for me (time management, writing, democratic values, reading, my favorite tech, for example). But don’t hold me to it. I’m not sure that saying this helps anyone who stumbles upon my blog at random. I guess I’m mostly saying sorry, not sorry. I’m just a rolling stone…

“Stop it,” the kids say.

Okay.

Day One: Nanowrimo

It’s November, and some of us know what that means. No, not the election, but if that’s on your mind, this is the video that is giving me a burst of hope and determination despite some desperate acts of repression this weekend. And visit votesaveamerica.com to explore how you might help.

November is *also* National Novel Writing Month, the month where writers around the world choose to set a goal of writing at least 50,000 words on a new project, usually a novel, in 30 days. Or they set whatever goal they want because it’s just a chance to say, let’s write a lot, have fun, and not worry about getting it all right or making it all make sense. That’s my favorite kind of writing–writing for the joy of writing.

As someone who likes to manage time well, at least sometimes, I love that the power strategy to succeed is to write at least 1,667 words a day. Since I wasn’t 100% confident my head was in the right space to write, I decided to aim for just 1,667 words today. And my opening scene actually ended right at 1,668.

Seems like a good sign. Find out more at www.nanowrimo.org

A playful approach to revision

Lately I have been making tiny steps forward in my writing. The most effective strategy for me to be able to write anything is to NOT look at the news or social media. Because the news is so terrifying on so many levels (with the occasional flash of hope for something better in the future… which is almost painful given the circumstances), I can’t quit reading the news. But if I want to get anything done, I need to try to do my work before I let myself peek at the latest scenes from this slow-motion disaster. There are true villains in this drama, and I am also carving out time to try to change that by working with Vote Save America, which provides some solace, at least, to know I am not alone in wanting something better.

So anyway, that is step one for me to get writing done. But the other challenge is the same challenge as always: I just don’t feel as excited about revising my writing as I do writing first drafts. When I write first drafts, I am a rock star. I am creating something new and amazing. When I am revising, I feel like the lowest form of life imaginable. I can’t believe how much is missing or poorly executed. You won’t be surprised to hear that procrastination is a challenge right now.

I have found this blog a useful accountability partner, so I may start posting progress reports on here again. So for today, I want to remind myself of the ways I can make revision feel more creative and rewarding.

1. Journaling.
I love journaling, free writing, brainstorming. It goes hand-in-hand with my love of writing first drafts, I guess. There is no standard to achieve when I journal. It’s just a chance to let the ideas flow. And it seems to cheer me up if I tell myself, okay, journal a bit about what you are going to write or revise today, and then you can journal afterwards on how it went. If I journal specifically about the novel, I call it process-writing, and keep those notes in the same Scrivener file as the novel. If I journal more generally, that part stays in my journal file on Ulysses.

2. Timers
I know that timers are a source of torture for some people, but I have found it inspiring to set a timer to see how much I can get done within a time limit. This works with fresh drafts, yes, but it is a powerful tool with revision because it helps me commit to the moment rather than pondering ways to procrastinate. I can also count on the time running out, and then finding some small reward. Or even better, to get so wrapped up in the work that I keep writing, even though the time ran out.

That’s the irritating thing about my reluctance to revise. It’s so doable. If I can just start, I discover all sorts of ways back into the work, little fixes that are easy to make.

3. Reread my work.
Sometimes, when I feel most resistant to the work, I say, okay, that’s fine, why not just reread it? Just by reading over what I’ve written, I usually find myself making changes. It’s super easy and doable. It also helps to read the work aloud, but I tend to save that for editing, not revising.

4. Creative writing prompts
I love working on writing exercises from creative writing books. I think there are probably tons available online or via apps, now, too. It is perhaps what I miss most when I am trying to be disciplined about focusing on one main project. But creative writing prompts can be applied to revision, too.

5. Switching Point of View
If there is a section that needs work, I can try writing it from a different point of view to see what happens.

6. Conversations with the characters
I can write a conversation with a character asking them for advice on a section. Sometimes they are wiser than I am. And it’s just fun, too.

Takeaway: Be playful.

I have to admit that I prefer to approach writing with a sense of play rather than with some serious, grim Calvinistic demeanor. It is the joy of creative play that draws me to this work. It seems to me revising should be, or could be, just as playful as writing the first draft.

So my goal this week is to find ways to enjoy and look forward to the time I spend revising. I will report back here now and then on my progress.

I hope you all are finding ways to write, too, and possibly to find moments of joy in defiance of all that is so grim right now.

Image woman with burning paper

Writing during a pandemic

The appropriate content for such a title should be a blank space. How can I write while trying to make sense of the What If’s and the What Actually’s of this pandemic?

It is an irony that I now have more time to write thanks to an extended spring break at the university where I work part-time, yet it is harder than usual to write. I open up my laptop, intending to work on something, anything, but instead I find myself bouncing from Twitter, to Washington Post, to the New York Times, with a dash of NPR and the New Yorker. Hours pass. My daughter comes in, wanting to go to the climbing gym, and I jump. Doesn’t she know what’s going on? Doesn’t she know all the permutations of social distancing and how we are all supposed to act as if we might be contagious if we have any hope of preventing… I take a breath or two before I speak. But that was a few days ago. In less than a week, enough has changed that she knows almost as much as I do because everything is closing down. And everything that was normal to do even a day before is now inappropriate or somehow sinister. And as I both planned and feared, I can’t visit my mother at her assisted living center for the foreseeable future.

I would say it is distracting if it weren’t such a failure to find the right word. All-consuming? Immobilizing? Unlike an approaching hurricane, this disaster inches forward, and in my country, invisibly until testing is universally available.

Yesterday I took a break from pandemic news to read a nice NY Times Article about how to manage procrastination. The author shared the theory that we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. And he shared other tips to manage procrastination that reminded me of some of my favorite strategies. What was most helpful for me was to journal about the emotions that are interfering with my writing right now. Nervousness about what is happening. Even more than that, a FOMO (fear of missing out) in which I worry that there will be some important announcement that I need to know that I won’t know if I don’t constantly check the news and Twitter. Even worse, sometimes that seems to be the case. I took a much needed nap the other day and woke to find out that the governor was closing schools for the next two weeks.

So how to get myself to write when I am torn between staring at my screen with dark circles under my eyes or hiding under my covers? I will fall back on some of my old favorites. Write first. When in doubt, write first. Even if I cheat and look at one or two headlines, stop and write first. Looking at Twitter, for example, could be a reward after I get some work done.

Right now, I can’t stop thinking that I should check news reports more than once a day, but I could deliberately limit how long I allow myself to do so.

Finally, I have been remembering my first year of teaching middle school, years ago. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, and for the first few months, I would replay almost everything that happened in my head, constantly trying to figure out what I should do differently. At some point, I realized that I was obsessing about work every minute of the day. While I am all for reflective practice, I had to admit that I wasn’t gaining any benefit from endlessly worrying about how my job was going. So I made it a goal to stop work at a certain time each day, including thinking about work. And what helped me the most in stopping the overthinking was to pick up a favorite book to read and force myself to dive into another world.

So, that’s my plan for now. Write first, set time limits each time I peek at the news, and read for fun once I declare my work day over.

Write on, my friends. And hang on. May we find reason for hope in the face of so much to fear.

Path

Clearing a path forward

I am glad to report that I am finding my way back to the words, though my progress could best be described as uneven. After spending a few weeks mostly journaling and blogging, I have decided to shift priorities. My top priority each day is to spend time revising my YA SF novel and to train on how to use my newly purchased Serif Affinity Designer app to help me, eventually, develop a new nonfiction project. Or perhaps it will just be a hobby, in case I’m not satisfied with what I’m able to create. I’ve realized that it may take some time to feel comfortable with this app, and I’m more motivated if I can approach this learning process with a sense of play rather than a sense of urgency. So call it a chance to dabble with an artistic tool each day, regardless of where it leads.

Now that blogging is less of a priority, I’ve decided to save time each Monday so that I post at least once a week. It seems like an achievable goal. Maybe?

At least it’s achievable today, and that counts for something. It is Monday, and the week lies before me, glimmering with opportunity. I take one step forward. And another.