Technology and Society

Book Reviews
Home
What's New
Privacy & Individual Rights
Commerce, Security, & the Law
Net Culture, Art, & Literature
International Affairs & National Security
Ethics, Rhetoric, & Metaphysics
Science Fiction

Other Resources
News
Publishers
Other Book Review Sites
Letters
Contact
Copyright

Title: The Mac is Not a Typewriter (2 ed.)
Author: Robin Williams
Publisher: Peachpit
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-201-78263-4
Pages: 88
Price: $12.99
Rating: 95%

Personal computers have made everyone a publisher. You can write a text, format it, print it out and even have it professionally printed and bound more easily now than at any time in history. But we've all seen the results of some of these texts: too many fonts, uninspired layout, incorrect spacing and just plain sloppy typography. Many people who create texts grew up with typewriters and still apply the rules that these devices require. But today's computers only resemble typewriters inasmuch as they put letters on paper—everything else is different. 

The first thing to say about this book, a revised edition of a title first published at the dawn of the personal computer era, in 1991, is that it is not only about the Mac. Blurbed as "A Style Manual for Creating Professional-Level Type on your Macintosh", the insights, rules and thoughts in The Mac is Not a Typewriter apply to both the Mac and the PC, even though a few points (such as the locations of certain characters on the keyboard) are Mac-specific. 

In my work as a writer and translator I often get texts from others to edit. Just like those horrid PowerPoint presentations where the lack of inspiration is matched only by an overuse of gimmicks, too many people still format text documents as if they were working on typewriters. They use double spaces between sentences, they indent paragraphs with tabs or, even worse, spaces, they use too much or not enough space between lines, or they use double dashes instead of em dashes. 

Robin Williams, a best-selling author of computer books who focuses mostly on design and typography, looks at the kinds of mistakes that everyone makes: the wrong kind of quotes and apostrophes (using smart and dumb quotes in the wrong places), spacing (within and between sentences as well as between lines), tabs and indents, widows and orphans, hyphenation and line breaks and much more. Each of these 22 chapters reads like the Strunk & White Manual of Style, going straight to the quick and telling the way things should be. 

Unlike grammar and usage rules, which can be questioned and disputed, typographical rules are pretty much hard and fast. They all have one goal: to increase the readability of texts. WRITING IN CAPITALS, FOR EXAMPLE, MAKES TEXTS MORE DIFFICULT TO READ. Using fixed-width fonts do the same; today's computers are designed to work with proportional fonts, and these, too, increase readability, allowing words to be displayed in lines with better spacing. The type of fonts used—serif or sans serif—also affects readability and the way readers navigate through texts. And what can be more annoying than texts where words are constantly formatted as bold, underlined and italic for emphasis? 

Admittedly, much of this advice goes by the wayside on the Web. (I'm sure I've given my editor a headache dealing with the formatting in the above paragraph so it displays correctly.) You have less control over such issues when users can set their browsers to override font settings. But for documents that are either printed or shared in PDF format, the advice this slim book offers is worth many times its gentle price.  

If you work creating texts for personal usage, the subtle improvements this book will help you make will improve their readability. And if your job involves formatting texts, your boss, clients and co-workers will appreciate the difference. While most people won't really notice the changes you may make when applying the advice in this book, they'll get more from your texts and feel much more comfortable with them. This book should be in every library next to the Strunk & White.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.