Goodbye WYSIWYG

If you know WYSIWYG, an abbreviation for What You See Is What You Get, you’ll remember that it promised to put the same thing on paper that you saw on the screen. That is, whatever your text looked like on the computer’s LCD, that’s what it’d look like on paper.

In the dawn of text processing, Apple was one of the first companies to make good on that promise. I used an Apple Lisa, and later the squatty little MacIntosh for my on-screen typing. I formatted text in Helvetica, Courier, and Palatino, bold-face and italic, big and small size text, and when I printed a hardcopy on paper, it looked the same as the screen version.

Back then, the only output device most of us had was a hardcopy printer, so the ink-on-paper output for what we wrote always went to that one device.

Times have changed.

Today, what I write may go to Facebook, cellphone text apps, MeWe posts, Trello cards, and all sorts of other places in addition to my laser printer. Many of these understand the usual basics of bold-face and italics, but each of those destinations makes it own set of decisions regarding fonts (Helvetica, Courier, Palatino, or hundreds of others), paragraph width, first line indentation, vertical line spacing, paragraph spacing, and dozens of other settings.

For those of us engaged in formal writing, be it text books or fiction, there are many other output choices, each of which will impose their own formats.

An e-book, for example, uses the font and text size chosen by the reader, by the human being holding the tablet or cell phone where they’re reading the words. The original author has no say, other than bold or italics, in how their words are displayed. Line breaks, where words end on one line and start appearing on the next, size of text, all these and dozens of others happen automatically, and may change at any moment if the user rotates the display from portrait to landscape orientation.

Paperback novels come in two industry-standard sizes, each of which accommodates a different size area for the words on each page. Hardcover novels use yet another size and shape area for text. Picture books use different layouts than comic books, and coffee table books go from tiny to gargantuan.

The person writing the text, in most cases, has no idea what the final output will be, so there’s no way WYSISYG can help.

Professional novelists may first see their finished work in a stack of hardcover books at a signing event. A year or two later, a paperback edition may be rolled out by the publisher. Authors following the electronic path may “print” e-books for Kindle, or in a different format for industry-standard readers, first one, then the other depending on their contract arrangements with Amazon.

WYSIWYG editing is a thing of the past. It still appears in outdated tools such as Microsoft Word and, yes I confess, I still use it or the equivalent tool on Mac or a similar one on Linux. For simple works, I want to see what the output is going to look like before I run that hardcopy for the mail.

But that’s a shrinking niche.

Today, you write your text according to the dictates or choices permitted by the software on your computer or in the web app you’re using. Formatting for a particular output, be it e-book or hardcopy book, comes later.

Authors hoping to see their work in print might choose the DIY approach and print their own paperbacks by a contract house—I’ve used lulu.com a couple of times and have been very pleased at the result. Or they might choose to submit the work to a book agent for consideration. Most agents want a PDF or Microsoft Word file, each of which has font and point-size settings.

Or, like I do long before publishing the entire work, they may choose to run a hardcopy of an individual scene to be critiqued at a local writers group. The group I attend prefers to see italics instead of the standard manuscript format’s underlined text (which my web page formatter doesn’t seem to support!), and Palatino (font) instead of Courier or Times New Roman.

A few professional writing tools understand today’s new environment. Scrivener, a software tool designed primarily for novel-length (big!) works, lets me do my day to day, on-screen work in a font and size that’s comfortable to the eye. I can then later “compile” what I’ve written to any of several different output formats. Accordingly, I have “compile formats” for manuscript submissions, writer’s group review, paperbacks in two different sizes, and several others. It’s a marvelous capability in Scrivener but with the wide range of outputs plus the ability to adapt or make new ones, this part of the tool can be intimidating.

If you are a Scrivener user, my advice is little bites. You may have bought the while pizza, but you don’t have to eat it in a single sitting.

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