The Importance of Paragraph Composition
Gary Cosimini (who used to be a senior art director at The New York Times and is now at Adobe) sent this little quote to me recently, regarding the importance of the paragraph composer:
It is possible to have the best hyphenation routine in the world and still get results inferior to those achievable by a human, so long as the end-of-line decision is made in the vacuum of a single line of text. What makes the human operator’s result better, in many cases, is his rejection of the line he has already composed. He then goes back and resets the preceding line, bringing a small word down or up, or dividing the fall-off word in a different place, to get better results in the line that follows. In the same fashion, we believe that a good computer routine should have the same capability, and should be able to “look at” five or six lines at the same time. If it can succeed in doing this, and if it used a total dictionary with preferred hyphenation points, no human would be able to obtain comparable results in a consistent fashion.
–John W. Seybold, Fundamentals of Modern Photo-Composition, Seybold Publications, Inc., 1979. Page 233
This quote brought back all sorts of memories, including those horrible days (and nights) of tweaking line after line, paragraph after paragraph to make it look better in my QuarkXPress layouts. I don’t mean to harsh on Quark here, but another memory is of a high-level product manager there (this is about 7 or 8 years ago) calling me and asking, “What about that multi-line composer thing in InDesign… do you think that’s important? Do you think anyone cares about that?” It was so shocking that this guy wouldn’t understand the importance of paragraph composition that it actually was one of the deciding factors in me starting to use InDesign instead.
Here we are in 2007, and–like MS Word–QuarkXPress 7 still doesn’t have paragraph composition and InDesign’s H&Js just keep getting better with each version.
I was recently surprised to learn that a surprising number of InDesign users turn off paragraph composition, choosing the Single-line Composition instead. The reason? Because it acts more like XPress and when you edit a line, it only reflows that line (and subsequent lines) rather than adjusting lines before and after in a paragraph. I believe these folks really think they’re saving themselves time and aggravation, but in fact they’re going to be less efficient because they have to tweak and re-tweak. Single-line composition is living in the 20th century. It takes some effort, education, and patience to enter the 21st century and use the paragraph composer, but you’ll be rewarded by it virtually every time.