Keeping Your Text Flow Flowing: Removing Text Dams

This entry is part 10 of 18 in the series Tutorials


With a birthday, a new product launch, looming Kickstarter campaign, and a baby on the way, I’ve been pretty busy this week. That means I haven’t had time to do an in-depth tutorial for you, but I’d still like to talk generally about a few things you can do to structure your books to improve both readability and accessibility.

This week’s post may be more fluff than crunch, but it’s still substantial. Readability matters to everyone — a book that isn’t laid out properly just isn’t very useful. It also improves accessibility to people with print disabilities though, so by following some good guidelines you can ensure your book is suited for the widest possible audience.

Readability Concerns

Importing documents into your layout program of choice is usually pretty simple. You import the manuscript, assign styles, and your text simply flows from one page to the next As you move along, you add art, create tables, pull out sidebars and box text, and make your book look nice and pretty.

But have you been paying attention to how your text flows from one page to the next? It isn’t simply enough to let your layout software create new text frames and move the text along for you. If that’s all you do, you’ll wind up with paragraphs that end incomplete on the bottom of one page and begin again on the next.

By itself that’s not always a bad thing; most readers can keep a thought in their head long enough to turn a page and finish it. But someone using text-to-speech software may have more difficulties continuing, because your page likely contains other elements: headers, footers, page numbers, and watermarks (which I strongly advise against) may all be read aloud to the user before the text continues to the next page.

Try reading the following string of text aloud to hear what I mean:

Bullet Only one-twelfth of United States electorate actually turn out to vote in presidential elections. Reverend Governor Webber of Oklahoma is elected on the slogan of “Our Flag, Our God, Our Bomb.” He promises a return History 101 17 to Bible Values and State’s Sovereignty and an end to Radical Democracy.

(Interface Zero, page 17. I pick on this book only because it’s actually very well laid out overall.)

When you read that aloud, what do you notice about the paragraph? “History 101 17” doesn’t really seem to fit, does it? In fact, that’s the chapter title from the header and the page number from the footer. Those are read to a screen reader just after the paragraph ends at the bottom of one page and before it moves to the next page and begins reading the next portion of the paragraph.

This is a simple example of why paragraphs should begin and end on the same page as often as possible. Imagine an entire sidebar or table, in addition to the header and footer, being jumbled into the middle of a paragraph. It’s more common than you may think.

It’s not great for traditional readability — a reader needs to flip back and forth between pages to finish one thought and return to another — but the problem is exacerbated by a screen reader which has no way to differentiate or reflow text to make things sound more legible.

As one final and particularly egregious example, my wife’s Abnormal Psychology textbook has one paragraph split by three pages of tables. By the time she found where the paragraph picked up again, she had to flip backward three pages and re-read the beginning because she’d lost track of what the paragraph was saying (and she’s sighted and doesn’t use assistive technology). The only good news here is that this problem isn’t just limited to RPGs.

Removing Text Dams

It’s mechanically simple to remove text dams and keep your copy flowing smoothly. Getting it right takes practice, and you may find there are just some times where you need to break a paragraph, especially long paragraphs, but we’ll talk about a few tricks to help you avoid it at all costs.

Limit Sidebar Usage

For starters, you can limit the number of sidebars you use in your text. If you’re writing a manuscript, ask yourself if that sidebar is really necessary. Can it be reworded so it flows with the rest of the copy? If it really is an aside but really does need to be there, that’s okay. If you have a different sidebar on every page, ask yourself whether or not something should be changed.

Sidebar and Table Positioning

When doing a layout pass, try not to let your text crash up against sidebars and tables. It’s important to place these objects at certain places in a document, but you can often choose where they go and how large a space they fill.

Keep an eye out for paragraphs that break in the middle. If only two or three lines are at the bottom of the page, enter a manual column break just before the paragraph begins to force it onto the next page. It’s okay if there’s a little white space — it’ll give those sidebars room to breathe, and it will improve readability overall.

Adjust Tracking

If you find that you’re stuck with only one or two lines on the following page, but a big block of text on the first page, consider another trick: adjust your tracking (the space between words) by a small negative amount to tighten up the space and call those lines back home.

Remember that all of the text on a given page can be adjusted too. If you’re trying to bring two lines back to the original page, look at all of the other paragraphs on the page first. Do you see any paragraph that ends with just a word or two on its own line? Those are good candidates for making adjustments because there are fewer words that need to be moved.

Tracking can be adjusted using InDesign’s Characters panel, if that’s the program you’re using for layout. Highlight the paragraph you’d like to change (tip: you can quadruple-click a paragraph to quickly highlight it) and click the Down Arrow. InDesign defaults to adjusting tracking in 10/1000 of an em increments, so set the tracking to -10 or -20 and see if that paragraph tightens up enough to bring those final few words up a line or two. If you can save space by doing this, chances are the paragraph at the bottom of the page, the one you’re trying to fix, will come back into line as well. If you don’t adjust more than 20 or 30 1000ths of an em, chances are this slight tweak will be imperceptible to anyone reading by sight.

Final Thoughts

By using some of these simple methods to improve your text flow, you’ll be a step ahead of the curve in regards to readability and accessibility. It still takes a cautious eye to make sure everything looks okay and flows properly, but it’s a skill that gets better with practice.


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