The Visual Literacies of Writing

Stylized lettering adding visual distinctiveness to an outdoor wall

My classes have all been discussing the concept of literacies recently. From foreign-language literacy to computer literacy to digital literacy, we very quickly establish two concepts. First, literacy is never just one thing. Second, each of our literacies is far more complex than “the ability to read and write,” despite the dictionary’s protestations to the contrary. To help illustrate that point, we spent a long time discussing computer literacy. It’s a concept all students have heard of. Nearly everyone has a sense of what it is. But agreeing on whether someone has it can be tricky, especially when others have more skill or experience.

One form of literacy went virtually unaddressed: Visual. Visual literacy seemed to be all the rage about twenty years ago, with Lynell Burmark creating a quick-and-accessible guide to introduce the basics to educators. But until I brought it up in Writing for Digital Spaces, no student had mentioned it. Visual literacy, it seems, often goes unnoticed or unidentified. The failure to suggest visual literacy in a writing class fascinates me. For what is writing, if not a visual form of communication, requiring visual skills and employing visual techniques?

First, an acknowledgement. I know that writing needn’t always be visual. My late blind paternal grandfather instilled in me a fierce love of audiobooks, which remain my preferred modality for reading. Dictation and text-to-speech systems, as well as Braille print, demonstrate the use of writing systems without any visual senses.

How Writing is Visual

However, as students in class pointed out, people often get an image in their minds before writing their thoughts down. (Think here of brainstorming, concept maps, and the like.) And in many cases, reading creates images in the reader’s mind. In a certain sense, writing involves two imprecise and imperfect processes of encoding and decoding of visual imagery through the medium of language. It’s no wonder that, when we need to pause to think about something, we avert our eyes. It’s as though our visual receptors need a blank slate for a moment of processing.

I also assert that for most people and in most cases, the text of writing becomes a visual art form. Typography, layout, and design work together to make writing look good. A lack of attention to the visual aspects of the written word can make it ineffective or inaccessible, or it can damage the writer’s ethos. Our education system does a horrific job of teaching the importance of writing’s visual design. Our insistence upon Times New Roman, 12-point, double-spaced text with 1-inch margins on all sides indoctrinates students to default to a combination of awful design choices, many of which are wholly inappropriate for the situations in which today’s students write.

Potential Culprit: The Sheer Ridiculousness of TNR12/2x/1″

Every bit of the standardized, normalized document design we expect students to use is awful. Insisting on formatting rules doesn’t just teach students to abdicate agency. It actually instills bad habits in students as unquestioned (and unquestionable) defaults. Requiring Times New Roman 12-point, double-spaced text with 1-inch margins (TNR12/2x/1″) forces students to follow senseless rules that ignore recent research and modern writing and reading scenarios. The crux of the matter here is that, within the past two decades—and certainly with COVID-19 lockdowns—most school writing is created and consumed on computer screens, not on paper. That one simple change affects every aspect of our design decisions, yet we carry on as though we’re working with technology from the 1980s. We need to let go of TNR12/2x/1″, immediately.

Times New Roman 12-point Looks Awful

Times New Roman (TNR) is an okay typeface, I suppose, if you’re writing in 2002. Back then, all major operating systems included TNR, so it was a consistent and reliable choice. Because it had serifs, TNR looked good in print. But on the screens at the time, it was rough—literally. Rough, jagged edges dominated the letter shapes, reducing clarity and legibility. As B. S. Chaparro et al. noted in 2010, “display resolutions of 115–145 points per inch (PPI) are … the ‘sweet spot’ for rendering serifs type” (37). And in 2010, display resolutions of 109 ppi were the standard on Macs. But since 2014, Macs have shipped with “Retina” displays that, on a computer, support 218 ppi, thereby eliminating concern of rendering clarity for clear type.

Speaking of clear type, Microsoft released ClearType fonts in 2007. They designed those typefaces to be more legible on computer screens. The company was so confident in their now fonts that one of them, Calibri, became the default font in Microsoft Office 2007. At that point, any new Word documents used Calibri unless a user took action to switch to TNR, which most classes still require. Requiring students to use TNR shows an ignorance of typeface-design and computer-display technologies and creates documents that are harder to read and less pleasing to read.

Double-Spacing Makes Reading Harder

When working on paper, double-spacing print drafts allows room for proofreaders’ marks on the text. Editors and teachers can make commentary on specific words by writing in the blank spaces above or below them. Double-spaced printed text affords editors and authors the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue on the work itself.

But when text is read on a screen, especially if it’s read using a word processor, double-spacing is unnecessary. Commenting tools are built-in with every major word processor on the market. With these tools, editors’ comments become marginal and automatically attach to the text under discussion, moving onto different pages as text changes and reflows. Adding space between lines has no effect on the ability to comment because comments no longer occupy space on the page itself.

The main consequence of increased line spacing is decreased readability. Studies have found the best line spacing to be normal or 1.2–1.5x, depending on the study’s terms. Double-spacing text slows readers down and decreases comprehension. Because we no longer employ its intended use case (comments on the printed page), we should abandoned the practice of double-spacing text.

One-Inch Margins Slow Reading and Comprehension

Page margins affect the amount of text that fits on a page. Top and bottom margins affect the number of lines that can fit, though line spacing (discussed above) has a greater effect on this. Left and right margins affect the amount of text that fits on each line. The amount of text per line is important because it affects readability. Too short of a line, and readers’ eyes bounce back and forth rapidly. Too long a line, and readers’ eyes strain to follow the print as it trails off into the distance. The happy medium, it seems, is right around 70 characters per line. Lines of that length are easy to track (follow the line across) and easy to scan (digest while progressing down the page).

Using one-inch margins on a page creates lines that are too long. When authors use TNR12 (which they shouldn’t), one-inch margins on letter-sized paper create lines 95–100 characters long. That makes the text tedious to take in. To create lines 65–70 characters long, side margins should be fully 1.85 inches—nearly double the standard requirement.

The Cumulative Effect: Visual Frustration

By requiring students to use TNR12/2x/1″, we ignore research on readability, ignore principles of visual design, and ignore decades-old advances in both software and hardware. We expect students to create documents that are difficult to read, that slow us down, and that cause us to scroll twice as much to read the same content. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we ignore the research and make our own experience so miserable? And if the answer is “because MLA/APA/whomever sets the rules,” then why have we not objected and changed those rules as our understanding of reading, typography, and technology has improved? We owe it to ourselves and our students to do better.

If you have students turn in work digitally using word-processing applications, create better requirements for easier readability. Try requiring a typeface from Microsoft’s ClearType Font Collection. Try requiring 1.8-inch margins. And try requiring 1.2x line spacing. Your eyes will thank you, your grading will be more pleasant, and your students will start learning valuable lessons about document design and the visual literacies of writing.