A strident defense of mediocre formatting
In addition to a gratuitous (and entertaining) swipe at “noisome” DITA “fanboys,” Roger Hart argues that we need to reconsider the disadvantages of automated formatting:
The thing is, [separation of content and formatting has] all been taken rather stridently to heart in certain quarters, leading to a knee jerk reaction whenever author-controlled formatting/pagination/lineation is mentioned as anything other than bleak, sulphurous devilry. This is twaddle. […]
Uncertainty in meaning is anathema to user intelligibility. If we’re going to make sure we’re not writing poetry, there’s definitely value in having poetry’s level of control over semantic blocks.
Of course, it’s fully possible that this is an expensive distraction.
Possible? It’s definitely expensive. It’s possible that it’s a distraction.
I think Hart perhaps unintentionally put his finger on the real issue: value. How much value (in the form of improved comprehension) is added to a technical document when you are able, in the words of commenter Brian Harris, to “lovingly handcraft” each page?
How much value (in the form of cost avoidance) is added to an organization when you are able to spit out a reasonably formatted document in a few minutes?
Actually, I have a different question. How far should we take this argument? Here’s an example of the pinnacle of handcrafting:
Compared to the Book of Kells (above), the Gutenberg Bible looks quite pedestrian:
You can just imagine the scribes with their quills, lapis, gold leaf, and other implements muttering, “That Gutenberg and his noisome fanboys. He can’t even render two colors without our help. Poser. It’ll never last.”
Formatting automation removes cost from the process of creating and delivering content. For technical documents that change often and are perhaps delivered in multiple languages, it removes a lot of cost. Let’s assume that handcrafted pages can improve ease of reading and comprehension with careful copy-fitting and adjusted spacing (Hart’s article mentions “headings, line breaks, intra-word, etc”). This increases the cost of the content.
What happens when content is expensive? Fewer people get to see it.
I think we can all agree that e-books offer none of the typographic sophistication in question here. Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) wrote in 1999:
It is hard to imagine today, but one of the greatest contributions of e-books may eventually be in improving literacy and education in less-developed countries. Today people in poor countries cannot afford to buy books and rarely have access to a library.
Essentially, we can produce documents inexpensively and give more people access to them as a direct result of lower cost, or we can climb on our typographic high horse and whine about word spacing.
I’m with the noisome fanboys.