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.


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One more chore off my lists!

So, I’ve finally finished updating my new website, and this is it!  After two life-changing decisions—moving to Raleigh in January to return to work at the state Museum of History and deciding to re-establish my editorial services business—several lists of chores followed.  Getting a website back online was near the top, of course, but it just kept sliding from the top.

Today, however, I am proud to announce that I’ve finished fine-tuning most of the pages and that I feel confident enough to announce they’re ready for review.  So, take a tour and let me know if you find any mistakes, major or minor.  I still have a couple of pages to post, including a payments page and the “‘instant’ help” page, so you can skip those—I’ll announce when they are ready—but, as they say, have at the rest!

One of the delays in getting a presence back online was the debate over continuing to use an HTML-based website or following the industry and moving to a content management system (CMS).  I finally opted to switch and to use WordPress (which I’ve used for years as my blogging platform) for this version of my website.  In addition, I decided to promote my blog address, “anEditor’s Blog”, to serve as my home on the web instead of reviving the old “the-freelance-editor” URL I’d been using since the late ’90s.  In line with those decisions, I will, however, be keeping my formal business name as the-freelance-editor.  Enough change is enough!

Key to the new site are my specialty pages  (you can access them with “Why use a freelance editor?” on the main menu bar, above, and then sliding down to “My specialties” and hovering for the page line-up  or  by using the more-standard menu list at the bottom of the page) (or you can be lazy and simply click the following links)  for the so-called divisions of the-freelance-editor:  the-blog-editorthe-history-editorthe-young-adult-editor,  and  the-freelance-ghostwriter.  I’ll be adding more detailed sub-pages under them eventually, but these get the point across for now.

I guess the race has begun!  Thank you, all, for your patience and continuing support.  And, let me hear about those errors—you know I’d let you know about yours!

e-mail: editorial –at– Im Your Editor –dot– com
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The “frontier” between fiction and nonfiction

One of my favorite new blogs, A Writer of History, recently posted an amazing interview about the writing of historical fiction—or is it “creative history” or historical nonfiction?  Personally, while some argue that the terms are synonymous for the same genre, I’ve always felt that the genre designation depended on the author, the research, the message, and the presentation, if you know what I mean!  And I’m glad that author Charlotte Gray not only agrees but has definitely earned the right to place her relevant works (Gray also writes pure nonfiction) into the genre of historical nonfiction.

During the interview, which was posted to the blog on February 25, Mary Tod asked two seemingly unrelated questions of Gray: “What ingredients make for successful historical nonfiction?” and “Can you tell us what you mean when you say that the frontier between fiction and nonfiction is under constant negotiation?”

Gray’s insightful responses are actually central to the fiction-nonfiction debate:

Trustworthiness. I have worked hard to establish a reputation as a nonfiction writer who does not invent characters, events, conversations. If I say what somebody is thinking, I know about their internal monologue from private letters etc. So readers can know they are increasing their knowledge and understanding of Canadian history without constantly asking themselves, “Did this really happen?” . . .  A novelist is not under such constraints to stick to the known facts . . . he or she can let their imaginations run! (But if they have somebody driving a car in the 1880s, that’s a problem!)

Jump over to A Writer of History and glean the knowledge that awaits in the many other information-packed answers. While reading, remember that much of the commentary and advice can pertain to other fiction genres and categories as well as it does to any type of nonfiction.

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