Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Space Wars are Over, or HTML is a Harsh Mistress

There’s only one subject more contentious than politics or religion: single spacing versus double spacing at the end of a sentence. Think that’s hyperbole? Google it. There is no better example of literary internecine warfare than sentence spacing. (For a pretty concise history of the conflict, go here.)

For years, I’ve been vocally in the single space camp. Having gone to high school and college in the ‘80s (before personal computers), I learned to double space at the end of a sentence. But subsequently, in every publishing/writing job I’ve held (newspapers, magazines, publishers, advertising) I’ve been required to single space. It took me the better part of a year to retrain my finger/brain connection, but I finally managed it. And as a freelance editor, you have to pick a bible. Mine is the Chicago Manual of Style, which – along with the AP Style Guide and the MLA Style Guide -- state that single spacing is the norm. But – and this is a big but – style guides also state that double-spacing is okay. You’ll probably never get a rejection based on your sentence spacing. Still the war raged on.

I’ll readily admit to my participation in the war. If you ask me to explain why, I can’t. Maybe it’s the deep-seated need to be right. Maybe it’s the desire to control my environment by making everybody follow the same set of rules. Maybe it’s the fact that editors tend to sometimes act like petty fascist dictators. I really don’t know. But I discovered something yesterday, something simple and right under my nose, that showed, at least from a writer’s standpoint, what an idiot I was to argue about it.

I want you to do something for me. Go to your bookshelf and pull down any 10 books published in the last 60 years. Now get a ruler. (Go ahead, I’ll wait.) Flip open a book to any page and measure the distance between ending punctuation and the beginning of the next sentence. Repeat until this becomes clear to you: there is no single or double spacing. Yep, you heard me. There isn’t any. Books are typeset with proportional spacing. Each character is given its own spacing in relation to the characters around it. Sometimes it’s a fraction less, sometimes it’s a fraction more.

Example from the first book I pulled off my shelf, the novel Crime School by Carol O’Connell, paperback edition published by Jove, page 97: between a period and the top of capital T is 2mm; between a period and the bottom of capital A is 1mm; between a period and the bottom of capital N is 2mm. You don’t have to trust me on this, do the experiment yourself.

“That’s fine” you say, “but I’m self-publishing my novel. I don’t care what publishers do.” Well, if you’re publishing for Kindle, at some point your manuscript will be converted to HTML. And the thing I learned yesterday was that HTML doesn’t care about you and your spacing. HTML laughs at your spacing. (Actually HTML seems to always laugh at me, but that’s another issue.)

In HTML there’s this thing called “whitespace collapse.” What this means is simply that HTML ignores any spacing that isn’t coded for in the underlying CSS. Whether you single space or double space at the end of a sentence, HTML will ignore it and space it how it sees fit. You can single space, double space, hell, you can put 27 spaces in, and the HTML will still follow the algorithm and end up with the same space, the one judged to give the best readability for the medium.  (As an aside, you can code to preserve spacing, but it takes a pretty high proficiency with HTML.)

Now let me be clear: HTML did not pick single spacing or double spacing. It doesn’t care. Nobody won the war, the war just ceased – from a publishing standpoint – to matter. It’s like trying to decide whether the rooftop aerial or the rabbit ears gives you better TV reception and suddenly realizing you’re hooked up to digital cable.  Or maybe a better analogy: you and a friend are making smoothies. You insist that you should chop the bananas before putting them in a blender, while your friend insists, no, no, you must slice the bananas first. You know what? Once you put the bananas in the blender, they all come out a uniform consistency.

I had two feelings upon making this realization. First of all, I was appalled that I didn’t know this. How could I not know this? It’s discomfiting when you consider yourself knowledgeable about a subject and then realize you didn’t even consider the underpinnings of your argument. The second feeling I had was one of…relief. I never have to make the argument again. I never have to try and convince someone I’m right and they’re wrong. If I like Mumford and Sons and my daughter likes Lil’ Wayne, it’s a waste of breath me saying, “Lil’ Wayne sucks” while she yells, “Yeah, well Mumford and Sons is for wannabe hipsters.”  It all comes down to personal taste. Neither of us is right or wrong, and we can program our iPods however we want. (And no offense to Lil’ Wayne – I don’t think you suck, really. And I’m not a hipster, so shut up.)

So, this being a blog about self-publishing and all, what does this mean for you as writers? It’s simple: if you’re submitting a manuscript, format it exactly how the publisher/editor wants it submitted. (Which was always good advice anyway.) Don’t waste your breath arguing about it. If you’re used to doing it one way and they want it the opposite way, find/replace is your friend. For your own manuscript formatting or personal correspondence, do what you like. Whether Simon & Schuster gives you a six-figure advance or you’re publishing your first novel for Kindle, it’s all going to come out looking the same. The war is over. Nobody won, but nobody lost either.

(P.S. Many people blame typing teachers for starting the war, but if you research the history of typography and publishing, the truth is far more complex. Still, I did an unscientific sample around here and found that anyone over 30 was taught to double-space, while anyone under 30 was taught to single space. When I asked my 20-year-old daughter, who’s a junior in college, she replied something to effect of, “God, mom, single space. It’s not the stone age.” So I suspect that double spacing will disappear about the time that gay marriage finally becomes legal in all 50 states and marijuana is sold in grocery stores. Why, when I was a girl, we had to type THREE spaces at the end of a sentence. Now get off my lawn.)