If a thing's worth writing...
The York Festival of Writing 2011 #FOW11

The desirable difficulty of sleeve and paint

Oh, how I do love a thoroughly counter-intuitive discovery! Apparently, the plainer and cleaner the typeface, the less a reader will learn and remember of the detail of the text. A typeface which slows the reader means they learn and understand more of what's being said. Not just the denotation, but the connotations, the friction between them, the prosody which affects the tone and 'feel' of the piece... they all have time to grow and flower, and create a full meaning, rather than only a basic meaning, in the reader's mind.

This sounds to me like something fairly fundamental in human consciousness. In Rembrandt's painting The Jewish Bride, for example, the huge, thickly embroidered sleeve of the man is the most extraordinary assemblage of paint, whereas other areas are quite smoothly painted to convey basic information. Rembrandt used the skin from paint left out overnight to create the the white highlights, and even as you sense the richness of the cloth and the pride of the man you can see the wrinkles and bumps of the paint; your eye-movements catch on the physical nature of the art, the extreme paint-ishness, in a way which makes the mimetic nature of art – the evocation of the garment – even more vivid. The 17th century treatises on painting that Rembrandt knew said the same: rough paint holds the eye longer than smooth, they declared. And I don't think you have to know anything about painting technique, let alone be thinking about it, for that effect to work on you; it's built into what the artist has done to the canvas.

Journalists are taught to work with received phrases - smoothly painted, if you like - so that readers can understand them with minimum puzzlement and maximum speed, and move on. Whereas one important characteristic of literary fiction is almost always that the words on the page are more unusual for that subject, or more unusually put together. Once un-received words or conjunctions of words catch on the ear and mind as the gaze catches on the roughness of the sleeve, then the mind has to work harder – so probably slower – to understand it. This frustrates readers who just want to get on with the story, but at a slower speed of taking in the denotation, the connotations to begin to flower. (Though readers who don't know how to slow down deliberately in reading an apparently super-simple text may also be frustrated by not finding those flowers either.) That's not about consciously appreciating technique in a writerly way, versus immersing in the story, as much pro- and anti-literary talk assumes; that's about how the brain works.

Experts in pedagogy call it desirable difficulty. Studies show that students are most satisfied by the courses where both goals and processes are made very clear, and are worked through in an organised way. But they also show that such courses don't help students gain good understanding or grades nearly as well as courses where both processes and goals are more opaque and less easily found. In having to work out what they need from the course, rather than being told, and then grapple it out from what they're offered instead of being shown what they must learn, students integrate the new knowledge and understanding: it becomes their own.

And then a student learning to write poetry said how hard last lines seemed to be: it was difficult to avoid them being trite or a let-down. And I talked about the first of Edwin Morgan's Glasgow Sonnets, and said about the end,

What he hasn't done is gone on to write - to spell out, make explicit - the conclusion that he (presumably) wants you to come to. The poem led us to that point, and now leaves us there, to think and feel in the space after the last line; the understanding is ours, not handed to us by the poet...

As any adult finding themselves crying or laughing on cue in a well-made Disney film knows, we can be made to think and feel precisely as an artist wants us to. But the experience of most really good art is a more ambiguous business; it offers both sleeve and paint and the perceptual friction between them, to get you to grapple out what you see, think and feel. And because it's you who did the grappling, the thought and feeling are yours: you make the book, or the picture, your own.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Rebecca Brown

Excellent post, what interesting points. I'd heard about that research about typefaces and it really made sense in a totally counter-intuitive way!

Thanks for this, I'll be thinking about the points you've raised when I next sit down to write.


Yes, it makes sense BUT there would have to be a "tipping point" - the point where the typeface (and anything else) becomes just a little too complex for it to be easily understood. I suspect the real art is in finding that point and staying on the right side of it.

Emma Darwin

Rebecca, I've been wondering about how this applies to the practicality of sitting down... I think it's partly that it's reassuring that it's worth wrestling for the really right word - even if it takes time, and even if some readers find it a bit disconcerting.

But Cat, yes, it occurred to me too that there is a point at which it becomes unintelligible. Complicated, of course, because part of that is absolute, but part of it is relative, depending on who's looking/reading.


Fascinating idea, Emma. Now that you've said it, it sounds immediately true, like one of those things I've known in some way but have never put into words. And I wonder whether the converse is also true.

My wife finds it hard to slow down when she reads; I can't speed up. Reading to myself, I cannot read any faster than when I read aloud, because the only way I can read is to hear my voice, or something like it, speaking the words - in effect, I have to read aloud silently. Writing that has had a lot of engineering put into it tends to attract me, and now I wonder if that is because, at the pace I read, I have plenty of time to look for more in the writing. I guess while the part of my mind that reads is lumbering along, the rest of it is bored and looking for something to do.

My wife can read four or five novels in the time it takes me to read one, and she is attracted to fast-paced thrillers, dense plot and smooth, familiar phrases that won't slow her down. When she thinks, she doesn't hear the words, she sees them written out in her head. Written language is more a native thing for her, so that when she sees words on the page they instantly have meaning. Unusual expressions and implications irritate her, as if they are tripping her up maliciously, because, she says, they force her to hear those particular words.

Could it be that we are all affected by the way we perceive the page and that we fall into distinct groups with different reading techniques? I'd love to know how widespread this is, and whether typeface also affects us to different extents!

I can think of a few books I've read where the plainness of the language helped me enjoy the story, even though normally it turns me off, so I wonder how much this has to do with the kind of story being told. In Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton's sentences were so easy to digest, without thinking, that even I managed to finish it in a couple of days. Just reading that fast was in itself thrilling enough for me, and dinosaurs raging about eating solicitors on top of toilets could only add to the effect.

Emma Darwin

Jules, what you say about you and your wife is completely fascinating, because although I can read as your wife does, when I really want to concentrate on something - either my own, or a novel I'm reading editorially, as it were - I'm aware of telling my mind to read 'aloud' - and yes, it is slower. And, of course, reading actually aloud is an important part of my process, as it is for many writers - because it comes up differently.

It's known that words for reading aloud are processed in a different part of the brain from words you're reading to yourself - and, indeed, that silent reading was unknown until (I think) the sixteenth century. So maybe there's something physiological in the difference too. But maybe, also, it's simply a question of the speed...

Sarah Allen

This is super interesting to think about. If only authors had more control over the typeface, covers, etc. When I really want to get control of a text, I do read it out loud. Even though writers don't have control of the end design result, maybe these principles can be applied in the submission process, so editors, publishers and agents can be made to slow down and really experience the text. I'll be thinking about this :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)


So I am left to ask, are you going to abandon the plain, clean typeface currently on your blog, adopting something more complicated so we can better apprehend your charm, discernment, and wit?

Emma Darwin

Sarah, I know what you mean, though I must admit I'd hesitate before applying it to a submission.

Paul, very good question - and thank you! I doubt it - not least because online being so crude compared to ink on page, more complicated fonts can look awful! I'd actually prefer to use a seriffed face on here, but again, you don't know how it'll render on smaller screens, fuzzier screens (mine's v. old but very good), different browsers and so on...

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)