The art of the rag

I don’t know if that raised your eyebrows or not, but unless you are an instructional designer you may not have known what “the rag” is. In simple terms, in publishing, the rag is the uneven, or ragged, edge of a block of text. What that means is that this paragraph, which is aligned so that text butts up against the left margin, has a right rag; text that is aligned against the right margin (such as the signature line, below) has a left rag; and text that is center-aligned has both a left and a right rag. Justified text (text that runs from margin to margin) does not technically have a rag; old-timers, though, may say it has a straight, or even, rag—regardless, it has no ragged text edges to worry about.

Justified text is also the most difficult text for beginning, poor, or borderline readers to focus on, follow, and comprehend. So, as a rule, publishers want ragged text. But they need it to be visually appealing and aesthetic so it works for the reader, so it can help lead readers to the next line of text.

The truth is, a good paragraph rag can help lower the reading level of a piece of text. Unfortunately, the rags of today’s electronic text cannot be controlled; however, if you are publishing on paper, or some other fixed medium, or if you are publishing to a PDF file, you do have control and you should take advantage of it.

Instructional design and the rag

One of my current clients is having issues with the rag on her left-aligned display text. To help her understand, I’ve pulled some guidelines from my instructional design background and listed them below. While designing a pleasing rag is a talent that takes training and practice, here are some of the basics I’ve presented to start her out:

  • Do not allow obvious “hangovers”—a line of text in which several characters hang farther out than lines above or below.
  • When possible, do not allow the rag to run in a straight line down the page, especially not for more than two or three lines.
  • Do not allow “stacking”—ending consecutive lines with the same word.
  • Avoid widows, orphans, and singles:
    • a widow is a single line of text that ends up alone at the top of a following column or page;
    • an orphan is a single line of text that has been stranded in a previous column or on a previous page, separate from the paragraph it starts;
    • a single is a single word (or the end of a hyphenated word, or two or three short words) that winds up as the bottom line of a paragraph; some people still errantly call these widows or orphans.

Fixing a rag

Three options exist for improving the look of a rag in professional publishing. A good rag wanders in and out from line to line to line in small, wavy increments that do not call attention to the ends of the lines or the white space they create. Good instructional designers always pay attention to the shapes created by the rag and make adjustments to decrease distractions.

The first option for fixing ragged text is simply to delete text or reword a paragraph. Of course, the author would have to be consulted before taking this action!

If recasting text is not possible, the second option is to adjust the kerning (the space between letters of a word) and tracking (the blank spaces between words) of text in a line. Adjusting kerning and tracking is easily accomplished with modern desktop publishing programs, and an adjustment of six or seven points in either direction is basically imperceptable to readers. This option is generally the most professional option and results in text that is easy for readers to follow.

If only one line needs adjusting, select the entire line at once and kern or track until the line length is where you want it. To adjust longer segments of text, select as much text as possible in the paragraph, starting with the first line that is not aligned as you want it. If the rag is still not right after kerning and tracking, “undo” and try a different segment.

The third option for manipulating a rag is hyphenation. Here are some guidelines to follow when hyphenating text:

  • when necessary, do not break proper names;
  • do not allow hyphens in two consecutive lines;
  • do not allow more than two hyphens in one paragraph;
  • do not leave only two letters of a hyphenated word on a line by themselves;
  • try not to hyphenate a word that is already typically hyphenated; and
  • do not create a widow, an orphan, or a single.

And remember: hyphenating words should be used as a last resort because doing so does make reading more difficult and can increase the reading level of text.


e-mail: editorial –at– Im Your Editor –dot– com
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You just never know . . .

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but the-freelance-editor is once again located in Raleigh, North Carolina!  No, I never thought I would be back, either (I never even thought I would leave Orlando), but when a good opportunity knocked I could not resist the temptation.

The whirlwind that brought me back began shortly before Thanksgiving last year, after finding out that an editorial position had opened up at the Museum of History. This was not the same position I vacated roughly thirteen years ago, when I left to help care for aging relatives outside and around Orlando, but it was a comparable position—working primarily with the museum’s events and programs staff, its membership and fund-raising arms, and its Web presence.

After lots of encouragement (and just a little pause), I applied for the position, and a week before Christmas, I was driving to Raleigh, not just for an interview but also to revisit the setting and its current players. In what I gather is a customary feeling, I did not feel I had interviewed well; however, I had been able to see how the museum and the city had changed and to catch up with a friend or two. Surprisingly, I did get news&#0151and just a few days later: I had made the short list and the decision would be contingent largely on the comments of references. While I took that as a promising omen, I was beginning to wonder what those references had said as Christmas week . . .  then New Years week . . .  then another week dragged by. But the call—the text, actually—did come: “How many days would you need to get here?”

I’m not sure they expected me so quickly, but I booked a hotel room for the following week and drove back to start the next Tuesday, January 15!

What this means to my existing and future clients is that I’ll be more in tune with the editorial world, again. While I will be working as a full-time editor at the museum, I will no longer have to change gears from accounting during the day to editing at night; I’ll be editor-oriented at all times. And, while I’ll be getting back into the swing of things for a few months, I do plan to get back to you—slowly at first, by working with bloggers and business clients, I suspect; then, graduating back to lengthier, more in-depth projects.

Thanks for all the help, all the support, and all the patience during my transition. I’m as anxious to get back to my passion as all of you!

Hoping you’re finding yours, too,

e-mail: editorial –at– Im Your Editor –dot– com
text: 832-233-0041 (temporary)

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The top ten mistakes authors make, new or not!: from

Off the bat, let me warn you that I do not endorse the Web site, or the related Web site, or any of the products and services mentioned there because I do not know anything about them; however, I present their list of “The top 10 mistakes new authors make and how to avoid them” as one of the most thoughtful, in-one-place lists of common author mistakes I’ve come across in recent times. Below are the ten points of’s list (with some needed editorial adjustments on my part), along with some minimal commentary of my own; for their complete discussions, please visit their site.

     1. Placing a “forward” in your book  . . .  the truth is, few books should even have a foreward!  (And, be careful with the title on that “acknowledgments” page, too!)

     2. Using a “spell checker” to substitute for professional editing  . . .  I don’t need to go any farther in this discussion, do I?

     3. Falling victim to predatory editors, designers, publishers, and agents  . . .  Web sites do exist to help you weed through the greedy, villainous, untrained, unscrupulous, ungrateful b$#@%ds that give us all a bad name.

     4. Forgetting that your book’s title and subtitle are the most important pieces of sales copy your book has!  . . .  Seconded!  And, when your editor suggests that you might want to consider options, please, do consider them!

     5. Forgetting to apply the “Who cares?” test to every sentence of your content!  . . .  ’Nuf said on that one!

     6. Being ambiguous or unclear  . . .  The authors of the list discuss this so well that I won’t even bother trying to restate it:

This is one of the main reasons that authors can not edit their own books. Ambiguity creeps in because they are too close to their own work. . . . The author can see it very visually, because they are writing down what they see in their imagination, but it just doesn’t always get communicated well in the text.  [all errors in original blog text]

     7. Being inconsistent and arrogant  . . .  In fictional works, I’ve found that the major issue is inconsistency; in nonfiction works, it’s more often arrogance—as explained at the blog.

     8. Placing the wrong information in jacket copy and other promotions  . . .  The blog provides a good, informative discussion of this point, too.

     9. Mismanaging schedules and sequencing of your project  . . .  In addition to the blog’s issues with sequencing, I more often find that authors have trouble fitting editorial assistance into their project’s schedule. Editors should be involved in a project as early as possible so that a rapport can be established during substantive reviews, copyedits, and proofs. Nonfiction authors also need to allow time for research and fact-checking. And, if artwork is involved, additional time needs to be included for researching provenance and securing rights.

     10. Allowing “fear storms” to destroy your confidence  . . .  Yet another reason to form a publication team instead of venturing out on your own.  Run with your idea—write, write, write. But, then, rely on a good team for advice. A good team will not try to take away your authorial privilege; rather, its members will complement and support you and provide professional assistance—and constructive suggestions, not destructive criticisms.

Remember to visit the original blog post at for complete discussions and to thank them for putting together such a good list.

Excellent work, guys,

editorial –at– Im Your Editor –dot– com
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