Create PDFs from DOC, not DOCX Files

We learned a lesson tonight when I was trying to submit a script to a production company: PDFs from DOC files are much, much smaller than PDFs generated from DOCX files.

Microsoft Word migrated from the familiar “.DOC” format of Word 97-2004 with the release of Word 2007/2008 (Windows/OS X). I recall the painful transition from Word 95 to Word 97, but nothing has compared to the nightmare that is the DOCX “Office XML” file format. I appreciate the idea of XML-based documents. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s DOCX seems to cause a fair amount of pain.

The 101-page script stored as a DOCX refused to convert to a compressed and optimized PDF with Acrobat Distiller, Acrobat Pro, or Apple’s built-in PDF driver. This left me able to create only an uncompressed PDF. The file was 62 megabytes! A 184 kilobyte document exploded to 62MB… and it couldn’t be emailed through our server.

Saving the document as a DOC file, the document grew to 214KB, a bit larger than the DOCX. However, when a PDF was generated it was only 800KB. Not that 800KB is great, but it is much better than megabytes of bloat.

I often tell my students to save documents in DOC format, instead of DOCX, if they intend to email a document. I never considered that the DOC/DOCX differences would affect PDF output.

In trying to “help” the layout, Microsoft’s DOCX format includes a lot of redundant font and layout information. Although I didn’t have any graphics in my script, the DOCX format also links to higher resolution images than the DOC format supports. I examined the PDF output from Word 2011 (OS X) and discovered nearly 100 font “embed” occurrences. The problem is that Word styles are assigned multiple times — for no apparent reason.

You might imagine “Character Name” would be a single style that is assigned to all paragraphs. But, no, Microsoft’s DOCX included two dozen “Character Name” styles, each assigned to varying number of paragraphs. It makes no sense at all to me. During the PDF creation, it seems fonts are embedded repeatedly with the styles. I’d have to do some forensic work to discover what is happening in greater detail.

No matter what the cause, the best way to create a PDF from Word appears to be saving a document as a “DOC” file first.

I get that hard drives are cheap and broadband is fast, but that’s no defense for lousy file formats. More is not always better, as Microsoft’s bloated file formats constantly demonstrate. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s bloat adds to Adobe’s bloat.

Reviewing a Book, Part I

Book reviews allow us to share more than our opinions about specific books or authors: they are an opportunity to defend what we consider the qualities a good book should have, while often giving us easy examples of the traits a book should not posses. A well written review offers a lesson to writers and readers.

In this first part of “Reviewing a Book” we examine basic school book review assignments and promotional marketing reviews. Our second part will explore impartial reviews such as those appearing in newspapers and magazines. Some college courses also encourage students to compose long-form impartial reviews.

Beginning with Book Reports

Our first experiences with writing about books is the elementary school book report. The genre is the simplest form of a review. Consider one possible assignment outline for young students:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Setting
  • Protagonist(s)
  • Antagonist(s)
  • Other Characters
  • Summary
  • Why I would or would not recommend this book.

In the lower elementary grades, students might complete a basic form with spaces for the required information. Teachers want students to develop the ability to identify elements of narratives. Early reviews reflect this emphasis on identification. Once students can identify narrative elements, teachers encourage more advanced comprehension and application activities.

Once you can identify the role characters play within a narrative, you are ready to explore the lessons taught by the choices characters make. In upper elementary grades and middle school, students begin to compose five-paragraph reviews exploring the themes and theses of books. The theme of a work is often a generalization. A thesis is the core argument of a work.

Theme: A family is more than genetic inheritance.

Thesis: An adopted child is as much a part of a loving family as any child might be.

Appreciating the relationship between a theme and the thesis of a work helps you understand why a writer makes certain choices when developing a plot. Exploring such complex concepts as “theme” requires more than a simple fill-in-the-blanks approach.

The (infamous) standard school essay format leads to a review that might be structured according to this model from the state of New York (http://www.nysedregents.org):

Catchy Review Title

Paragraph 1: Introduction of the Review. This paragraph mentions the author and the book title. Indicate your overall recommendation in the first paragraph, which will be rephrased in the conclusion.

Paragraph 2: Summary and Main Characters. Summarize the story and describe the main characters.

Paragraph 3: Favorite Section. Describe the best part of the book, explaining why other readers will enjoy it, without giving away the entire plot. If you are writing a negative review, explain your least favorite part of the book.

Paragraph 4: Lessons Learned. Explain the theme of the story and any lessons that the author wants readers to remember.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion of the Review. The last paragraph should restate if you recommend the book to others or not.

Book reviews expand in detail as we gain experiences as readers and writers, but the underlying structure remains the same. A New York Times book review tells us a bit about the author, the basics about the book, and tries to persuade us to either read or avoid an encounter with the text. The breadth and depth increase, but those elementary school models remind us that most of us have written book reviews.

In high school, book review assignments resemble marketing reviews. Teachers tend to ask students to write about books they enjoyed reading. As a result, the book reviews of high school students read like promotional materials.

Blurbs and Marketing Reviews

If you read dust jacket endorsements, known as cover blurbs, you are familiar with the shortest form of marketing review. A marketing review is meant to sell a book; rarely does a marketing review teach the potential reader a meaningful lesson. Of course, if you do buy a book based solely on blurbs, you do risk learning how useless blurbs are.

Blurbs read like the snippets of movie reviews studios use (often out of context) to promote their films. Hyperbole is the norm in blurbs. “The ‘must-read’ book of the year!” “This book will change your life.” “I had to read it cover to cover. It is impossible to put down this book.” If blurbs were accurate, then every book published would be superior to all previous books. Blurbs are less than 100 words and seldom longer than 50 words.

Marketing reviews are short reviews commissioned by a publisher or author. Some writing groups offer to review member books, so these reviews can be cited in marketing materials. Such reviews are collegial and supportive, rarely examples of detailed critical analysis. However, before dismissing all marketing reviews as useless, appreciate that there is a difference between being supportive and being dishonest. When writing groups review books by members or when an agent asks an author for a review, these reviewers tend do their best to compose honest reviews.

Marketing reviews tend to be less than 750 words. Within the constraints of their purpose, the reviews adhere to the conventions of longer form reviews you might find in newspapers or magazines.

A sample marketing review structure:

Catchy Review Title Review Subtitle

Paragraph 1: Introduction. This paragraph includes short, easily quoted sentences about the best qualities of the book. Mention the author and the title in the middle of the paragraph. The wittier your statements recommending the book, the better in a marketing review.

Paragraphs 2 and 3: Summary. In the summary paragraphs, continue the positive and witty recommendation model. Marketing reviews tend to embrace adjectives and adverbs, without the absurd hyperbole of blurbs. Clichés pepper marketing reviews, but we wish they didn’t. You do not need to write, “The dangerous voyage across Lake Superior during a squall had me on the edge of my seat.” Replace a cliché like “edge of my seat” with more detail to make the marketing review more substantial.

Paragraph 4: Characters. People want to know what makes the main characters compelling. Marketing materials know that people remember characters better than plot points.

Paragraph 5: Promote the Author. Marketing reviews tend to include more promotion of the author than impartial reviews do.

Paragraph 6: Style Points. Because most marketing reviews try to associate an author’s style with his or her biography, praise of the style tends to follow the biographical information. For example: “Drawing on her experience as a surgeon, Dr. Garza vividly describes the operating room scenes. Readers witness the common mistakes surgeons make under pressure, from a firsthand perspective.”

Paragraph 7: Conclusion. Again, the wittier, the better. The first and last paragraphs of a marketing review are the most important because they are meant to be quoted.

If you are asked to write a marketing review, we suggest outlining the review using the above model. A marketing review needs to fit on a page or two. The sentences and the paragraphs are short, allowing them to be quoted. As Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Part II

In our next post, we will address composing long-form reviews.

Publishers Losing Control

Publishers are still relevant in the Amazon-dominated world of book retailing, but they are losing their influence in some of the most important areas of publishing — and they will either adapt or fade into the smallest niches.

Academic publishing is a huge industry, from peer-review journals to textbooks. There are also industry journals, which cater to a variety of fields and specialities. Publishers charge a lot for academic and industry publications because they can.

Over the next five years, and certainly within a decade, major universities with in-house “presses” and journals will migrate to digital editions. There are several content management systems (CMSs) designed specifically to manage academic journals and monographs. I anticipate that these systems will someday support numerous output formats from a single database of articles or chapters. If you need an e-book in ePub format, a few clicks later it will be transferred to your device or computer.

The Public Knowledge Project (http://pkp.sfu.ca) is one example of a set of open platforms targeting the academic publishing market. The applications are free and already popular among research universities around the globe. Other open software solutions and numerous commercial solutions exist. I’ve helped install many of these platforms; one or two good administrators can manage a complete publishing and online solution.

We’ve already seen self-published books for the mass market displace books from major publishing houses on Amazon. Self-published textbooks are starting to rise on Apple’s iTunes U. The publishers are losing control — so they can either adapt or fade away.

Industry organizations will also move to online, digital publishing. They won’t need to rely on massive publishing companies to print and distribute journals. Those organizations that are also publishers, and there are many, will also migrate to digital publishing. They will be forced to make content more affordable and more readily available.

As an aside, I hope writers aren’t among the losers in this shift to affordable distribution models. So far, moved to digital formats haven’t helped publishers or writers. We will need to find a way to balance the needs of writers with the needs of readers. Then again, academic publishers have seldom offered fair compensation to writers.

 

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Design Changes – Coming November 19, 2012

The Tameri Guide for Writers had fallen behind the times. In Internet time, we were a generation behind the latest design and feature trends. The site had been moved to a three-column “fluid” layout a few years ago, accommodating a variety of computer screen sizes from 800 to 1024 pixels wide. Today, however, people have huge screens on the desktop and little screens of 320 pixels in their pockets or purses thanks to smartphones. The Tameri site wasn’t working well for many visitors.

Writers and publishers once could assume words would appear on a page that didn’t change from reader to reader. If two people purchased copies of a book in the same format, the books were the same. Today, however, digital texts are unpredictable. My iPhone has one display, my wife’s iPad has another. Plus, both devices “auto-rotate” pages depending on how you hold them: portrait or landscape is up to the user, not the designer.

I am now testing a layout that seems to work well on my phone, okay on a tablet, and perfectly on a standard screen from 1024 to 2048 pixels wide. That’s the new design conundrum: each layout has to be at least good enough, if not perfect. I’m still designing with the assumption people will have a 1024-pixel or wider screen, with phone and tablet access for convenience. Design is a compromise.

When we do unveil the new template, we will be converting one page at a time. That will allow us to catch problems as we update the entire site. Once we are certain things are working well, we will bulk convert the remaining content. Expect a few glitches, though.

For the technically minded, the new site will be using a mix of fluid and responsive grid templates from Adobe Dreamweaver’s library [link http://www.adobe.com] and the 1140 Grid System by Andy Taylor [link: http://cssgrid.net]. Merging two basic template sets has resulted in a better overall design for website visitors.

As always, please let us know if you locate any design or content errors. We are dedicating more time to Tameri projects in coming months.

Writers Need Editors

Many great writers need great editors.

I recently watched biographies of Mark Twain and Jules Verne. Both of these writers relied on collaboration to craft their famous works into masterpieces.

Pierre-Jules Hetzel edited and published the works of Verne. According to the biography, Hetzel was involved in every stage of Verne’s writing. The editor-publisher would help with outlines, guide character development, and aggressively edited the works of his friend. There is some debate as to how much Hetzel might have written — but that doesn’t matter to me. What is important is that the works of Jules Verne seem to have been sloppy and disorganized without editing.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the legendary Mark Twain, relied on many colleagues to help shape his works, including William Wright and Bret Harte. Twain wrote a great deal, often in choppy vignettes that had to be stitched together with some assistance. Friends like Wright helped Twain balance his wit with storytelling. Pacing a story is not easy, and Twain recognized the value of collaborating to polish a tale.

While these are only two examples, many — if not most — famous writers share credit with editors.

I’ve met too many aspiring writers unwilling to recognize that writing is a collaborative process. The self-publishing boom is not helping this situation. Maybe it is because a writer needs to be confident; rejection is part of the publishing process. Maybe it is because a writer doesn’t want someone else to alter a work that is a part of the writer’s soul. There are probably a dozen reasons many emerging writers don’t want to call on an editor.

Read about famous writers and learn about their relationships with editors and publishers. We are losing those relationships in our digital era, and that concerns me.

Lately, I’ve read too many stories that are not “good” by the most generous of standards. I imagine sitting down with the authors and asking them questions. Yes, I see too many grammar and mechanical errors, but the problems that annoy me involve storytelling. Characters suddenly appear, clues are omitted, and hate turns to love in an instant. Books feel like puzzles that shipped with four or five missing pieces. You can still make out the image, but it is unfulfilling.

If you are set on self-publishing, find an editor. I don’t mean a copyeditor, though that is certainly good advice. No, find an editor with experience shaping stories. You want someone able to tell you why the main character won’t be liked by readers. You need someone to tell you when the story is boring. You need someone willing to bruise your ego a little so that story you want to tell is the one you finally publish.

There are solitary writers, but they are exception. Most writers need feedback to be at their best.