The Rules are There for a Reason

Something that bugs me: the way technology has turned everyone into self-styled experts, even those with no qualifications, no training, no skills and no aptitude for the very things they profess to be expert at.

Just one example: here’s a book review I just stumbled across on a blog, written by someone who professes to be an avid reader. The book under review is a favourite of mine. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or what’s it called, what matters is the quality of the review, an excerpt of which follows:

“all in all it was a decent story. i would suggest it to others and found that it was very enjoyable. The problem was the delay I experienced putting myself in the storyline. The clumsy (yet precise) speech and the conversations the characters had were the problem. The characters are all witty and seem to share constant inside jokes, without the courtesy of letting the reader in.”

As is (I hope) obvious, this person has no business writing book reviews, but here’s his blog up on the web, alongside god knows how many thousands of others, a morass of ill-conceived, incomprehensibly expressed, uninformed opinion in the name of free speech and the offensive, illogical, but somehow currently widespread idea that because everyone is entitled to hold an opinion, it follows that everyone’s opinions are of equal worth.

Back when I was a cadet journalist in the 1980s, desktop publishing had yet to take off. There were only two computers in the office, both brought in from home by the publisher. Our stories were typewritten, sent off to a typesetting service to arrive back on bromide sheets which were sprayed with adhesive, then cut up and stuck down on backing boards with headlines assembled independently and margin borders stuck down on transparent tape. It was a laborious process and one which required great attention to detail and care.

Then along came “DTP” applications and within a few years anyone who bought (or more commonly pirated) one could layout, even publish their own work. No need to know any of the rules of good typography, compositing, or layout. No need to know an emdash from an endash, a sans serif from a serif typeface – hell, all of a sudden there were no more typefaces, just “fonts” (a misuse which has stuck seemingly forever, thanks to the ubiquitous Microsoft Word). There were no more emdashes because the word  processing software couldn’t guess when one was required in the type. For a while, until Microsoft Word evolved a bit, there were not even any more “smart” quote marks (that’s the curly type, as opposed to the straight up and down ones). Because, just like those “self-playing” piano keyboards that are claimed to make a musician out of anyone, DTP was supposed to give a monkey (or at least a monkey who could operate a computer keyboard) the skills of a layout artist and professional typographer.

Needless to say, it didn’t work, and despite the advances in sophistication of the apps which have followed in the past quarter century, it STILL doesn’t work.

Instead we have seen a hideous dumbing down and knowledge loss, culminating in today’s internet era populated by who-knows-how-many websites out there wherein every rule of good layout, good design, good typography ever evolved has been trashed as if they never existed.

The same now appears set to follow for all the rules of good writing, grammar, journalism … thanks to the decline of newspapers and the rise of the blogosphere.

The funny thing about all this is that people still seem to intuitively recognise and respond to those websites with good quality layouts, those blogs with good writing and correct grammar. Even though they can’t tell you WHY they’re better, they can still recognise that they ARE.

All of which proves the truth of what I was told back as a cadet: the rules are there for a REASON.

And good writing, good layout, good typography is something that can’t be done well by dummies, not even dummies equipped with the very latest apps.

ADDENDUM: I wrote this in Microsoft Word and when I cut and pasted it into its original home in Facebook Notes, all of a sudden I had words running into each other at odd intervals … Facebook had simply taken out the empty spaces between my words at random. Point proven.

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