I know how stupid that sounds, I mean, it’s just punctuation. But we had some good times, those double spaces and me. I can still remember the first time we met. I was just a young pup, fresh out of university, where every space was single. Things were different then. Essays flowed from word to word with but a single gap, punctuation agnostic. A little later in life, as I bumbled along through my first word processed typings, my space bar tapping remained a solitary whack of my right index finger regardless of which punctuation mark preceded the gap.
But then I met Avis. A wonderful woman. It was she who first showed me the romance of the double space. I was, by then, twenty-eight years old. Working as the lead digital copywriter at an advertising agency in London. Avis, although ten years my senior and far more experienced in the professional writing scene, was my personal assistant. Life was stupid like that, back in the ’90s. The young writer and the experienced administrative hand that guided me into professional maturity. I would have learned more as her P.A. but Avis wasn’t a writer, she was a formatter at heart.
The first time I handed her a proposal to read, she shook her head and said “You do know about putting a double space after a full stop, don’t you?”
I was shocked. She did a search and replace in MS Word on my document, setting it to place a double space after every full stop. And then she printed it out and gave it to me. It transformed the pages. What had been a mechanically precise rendering of the words I’d written was now a cascading flow of sentences. It turned the document into a story, a narrative of ideas and plans culminating in a finely crafted budget table. I fell hopelessly in love with that double space. It was the monosodium glutamate of typography. Everything read better with those wider gaps. I was an instant true believer.
From that day, Avis and I created beautifully spaced, if unnecessarily wordy, works of art with every proposal, email, brochure, article and advert proof. We spaced. Oh how we spaced. I was to her a muse, inspiration for her formatting bent to reach new heights of white spaced balance. To me, she was a master chef, who turned my word salads into Michelin star winning cuisine.
Of course it didn’t end there. She got me indenting paragraphs. Widening the line spacing to “at least 15pt” and reducing the text size from 12pt to 10pt so that the same number of words would fit on the page but the wider spacing between lines increased its ease of reading no end. A tip we gleaned from legendary typographer Erik Spiekermann at a typography conference, back in the day.
The great Spiekermann (who designed the typeface Meta) performed similar formatting wizardry with the timetable for the Deutsche Bahnhof in the ’80s. He blew the minds of commuters from Düsseldorf to Munich. German train users are a tough crowd, typographically speaking. His formatting trick of adding white space and reducing font size received the highest accolade: Nobody noticed precisely what he had done, but at the same time, everyone agreed the dense timetables were somehow inexplicably easier to read. The power of the space should never be underestimated.
Of course typographers don’t like the double space. They say it’s a hangover from the old monospace typefaces on old American typewriters and is ugly. And they might be right, too. But to my eyes, the double space made it easier to scan down the page and spot the demarkation between one sentence and the next. And also, more importantly, even if an old habit is ugly it doesn’t mean you can’t miss it. Like smoking.
But, the past is just that, passed. These days, it’s all single spaced. And after putting down 130,000 words in a draft and crafting it for a year into 112,486 better chosen ones I discovered 7,987 instances where I had placed a space too many after a little black dot. Like Avis had shown me, nearly twenty years ago, I searched and replaced them all away, by half. And now I am single spaced I feel a little smaller. Shorter. Denser. But no better for it. I don’t read quite as effortlessly as before, either.
Avis died earlier this year. I hadn’t seen her for fifteen years, but the double spaces she introduced me too meant she was always present at the back of my mind, tutting kindly with gentle admonishment at my bum spelling and poor formatting. It seems fitting that she didn’t live to see me sending out a 112,486 word novel manuscript with 7,987 single spaced gaps between the full stop and the capital letter of the next sentence. However, she was nothing if not practical, and wise, when it came to moving with the times. She would have approved whether she preferred the double spaces or not.
Avis was always very supportive in her formatting and being supportive was what the old double space was all about, too. The double spaces supported your eyes as they searched for regular patterns of breaks and characters when the words were reflecting light off a printed page. Now pages are often backlit and illuminated, our eyes don’t need the help like they used to. And now I’m an older, more experienced writer, I don’t need Avis’ help either. But like the double space, she will always be fondly remembered.
And so now I write renewed with single spaced vigour. My damned index finger still double taps with muscle memory and neural network obstinacy, but this will pass. A friend of mine who works in stroke rehabilitation assures me my brain will form new neural network pathways to accommodate the single spaces. I need to write about another 3,000 sentences with a single space between dot and capital to form a new pathway that will overwrite the old double spaced one, apparently. Which means my next book will be brain surgery, or at the very least, rehab.
But, all the same, here’s to the double space. And Avis. And the passing of a golden age. And the great turning of life’s wheels. Writing, like life, would be very dull if its formatting never changed. You may miss the past, but you must accept passing is how the future arrives.