On formatting poems for e-readers — Part I. The nature of the problem.

E-READERS PRESENT SPECIAL PROBLEMS FOR FORMATTING POETRY.

One of the challenges in preparing Farewell Rio for publication was to format the poem fragments at the head of each chapter in a way that would look right not only in the printed paperback book but also in the versions for the Amazon Kindle and other e-readers.

ON AN E-READER, THE AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER OF A POEM LOSE CONTROL OF ITS LAYOUT ON THE PAGE.

Because the user of an e-reader may be able to change the line length, the font, the font size and whether or not text is justified on the page, the author and publisher have only limited control of page layout.  Page layout depends in part on the device used to display the text.  For example, when I read the Amazon Kindle version of Farewell Rio on my cell phone, the line length is shorter than when I read the Kindle version on my computer screen.  On my cell phone, the line length also depends on how I hold the phone.  Some e-readers do not support accented characters with diacritical marks.

The following example illustrates some of these problems:

Pied Beauty
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd, (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:
Práise hím.


The first illustration shows this poem displayed on the Mobipocket (Kindle) reader on my cell phone in normal (portrait) orientation with the normal text size.

Because the screen is so small, it isn’t wide enough to display an entire line of the poem on a single line of the screen.  Each line of the poem wraps onto the following line of text, and the visual impression of the poem is lost.  Furthermore, the screen is too small to display the entire poem.

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The next illustration shows this poem on the Kindle reader on my cell phone in normal (portrait) orientation, but with the text size reduced to the smallest available.

Although the text is so small that it is difficult to read, the visual impression of the poem is much better preserved.  Only the two longest lines of the poem wrap onto the succeeding text lines.

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.

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Now see what happens when the phone is turned on its side into landscape orientation, keeping the text size small, but not quite as small as in the preceding illustration.

Although the text is a bit larger, the entire poem can be seen without any line wrapping, and the visual impression of the poem is largely preserved.

On the printed page, the author and publisher can completely control the layout of a poem.  Once the poem is made available to e-readers, the author and publisher lose much, but not all, of their control of layout.  The author or publisher can advise the reader on suitable settings for an e-reader, but there can be no guarantee that the reader will follow such advice.   In this case, I would advise someone who wanted to read Pied Beauty on a cell phone to turn the cell phone on its side into landscape orientation and use small print.

EVEN WHEN THE USER COOPERATES IN SETTING UP AN OPTIMAL DISPLAY, E-READER TECHNOLOGY PRESENTS PROBLEMS FOR THE PROPER DISPLAY OF A POEM.

The designers of software for e-readers are well aware of the problems that arise from the fact that the author of a text is not in control of page layout.  Accordingly, they design the software to do a reasonably good job of presenting text on screens of any size and orientation, in varying typefaces, and with varying text sizes.  Many e-readers are designed to make each paragraph of text flow to fit the available line length, which can change depending on the dimensions of the screen on which the text is displayed.

I was surprised to find that it took a considerable effort to display Pied Beauty correctly on this blog page.  If one simply copies a Microsoft Word document into a web page, one typically gets a fairly good result, as shown here at the Poetry Test page of the Corcovado Press website.  To create the Corcovado Press Poetry Test page, I copied an MSWord document into the page without modification, using the editor provided by the Verizon web site hosting service.   The editor automatically converted the MSWord source document into appropriate HTML code to  display in a web page, preserving both the indents and the diacritical marks.  However, when I attempt to copy the same MSWord source document into this blog posting using the editor provided by the WordPress hosting service, I get the result you see below between the faint horizontal rulings.   The indentations have been lost, and blank lines have been added between the lines of the poem.


Pied Beauty

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;

Whatever is fickle, frecklèd, (who knows how?)

With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

Práise hím.


What is responsible for the difference between the results of copying an MSWord document into this blog and copying it into a page at the Corcovado Press site?  I presume the different results reflect differences in the editors provided for entering text into the two sites.   The Farewell Rio blog is set up according to a theme that specifies a cascading style sheet (CSS) for each web page at the blog.  The CSS defines how text will be displayed, and presumably is reponsable for the unfortunate display of the text of the poem copied from an MSWord document.

The following examples show web pages whose authors have either not attempted to solve these problems or have not succeeded.  At the Poet’s Corner, Pied Beauty is displayed with no indents and with no accents.  At Poem Hunter, Pied Beauty is displayed without indents; accents are indicated clumsily by symbols that look like computer code rather than poetry.

In order to display the poem properly at the top of this posting, I had to intervene directly in the HTML code underlying the posting.  Instead of showing each line of the poem as a separate paragraph as I did in the MSWord source, I ended each line with a carriage return [Shift + Enter] character, and gave each line a style like <span style=”color: #000000; position: relative; left: 30px;”>  In the style, the coding “position: relative; left: 30px” directly specifies an indentation for that line of 30 pixels.

There are a variety of technologies for converting an MSWord document into a document that can be displayed as a web page or in an e-reader.  The preceding discussion concerns the results obtained by using the COPY function in an editor such as the one used to prepare this blog posting.  Some other technologies will be discussed in a subsequent posting.  One, which I recommend, is available at the www.smashwords.com web site.  Like other technologies for preparing text for an e-reader, it requires careful attention to the formatting of the MSWord source document from which the e-reader document is prepared.  The Poetry Test document, available free in a variety of e-reader formats on the Smashwords web site, illustrates the fact that versions of poems that look exactly the same when displayed in MSWord may display quite differently after conversion to e-reader format.  To see what the document looked like when it was originally prepared on MSWord, download the PDF version.  Compare that, for example, to the HTML version, in which some of the indents in the original document have been lost.

There are several different ways to instruct MSWord to indent a line of verse, including (1) represent each line of verse as a paragraph and use the paragraph indent parameter in MSWord to control the indentation; (2) represent each line of verse as a paragraph and insert initial spaces to control the indentation; (3) represent each line of verse as a paragraph and insert tab characters to control the indentation.  As illustrated in the Poetry Test document at Smashwords, only the first of these three methods produces acceptable results with the Smashwords technology, and even this method does not produce good results for all e-readers.  When method (2) or method (3) is used, several e-reader versions prepared by Smashwords fail to show any indentation.

In the Smashwords Poetry Test experiment, all conversions to e-readers did a good job of representing the diacritical marks except one: the conversion to the PDB format.  The PDB version mangled the diacritical marks.

Different e-readers make different trade-offs to accommodate the variety of devices on which they are displayed.  When a source manuscript is prepared in MSWord, it requires a different conversion for each e-reader format.  The various conversion technologies are not equally faithful in representing line indents, line spacing and diacritical marks, and they offer different levels of control.  It is a challenge to authors and publishers to find ways of formatting source documents and converting them that will produce reasonably good results on a variety of e-readers.

CONCLUSIONS:  E-readers are designed to adapt their displays to varying screen sizes and to allow the user to control some aspects of the display, such as text size and screen orientation.  To the extent that the e-reader and its user take control of the display, the author and publisher lose control.  Furthermore, the editors and conversion routines that adapt text to e-readers may also take control of some aspects of the display and thereby make it difficult for authors and publishers to display their poetry as they wish.   Some editors and some conversion routines faithfully reproduce the format of a well-crafted source document; others do not.  Some e-readers may not properly display accented characters or other special characters.  Careful attention must be given to the formatting of the source document from which an e-reader document is prepared.   Differently formatted source documents may look identical in a WYSIWYG [What You See Is What You Get] editor like MSWord, but they may produce radically different results after having been converted to e-reader format.

The next posting in this series will describe editors for entering and formatting poetry for e-reader displays.

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About corcovadopress

I am the manager of Corcovado Press, which publishes works in English on Brazilian themes. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
This entry was posted in E-readers, Poetry and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On formatting poems for e-readers — Part I. The nature of the problem.

  1. Pingback: A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FOR POETS « Nuptial Vowels

  2. Heather M. says:

    Thank you for this — I have been wondering about the reason for many poetry books getting bad reviews on Amazon.com because of Kindle formatting issues, and your post explains a lot.

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