My daughters were creating posters on their computers for their upcoming gymnastics recital. I was doing the usual technical support and acting as a human dictionary. Then I got a look at the poster my youngest daughter was making. At the same time, her big sister S screeched, “R! That looks horrible! You can’t use that many fonts!”
R had chosen to use a different font for every line of her 10 line poster. Script, serif, sans-serif, they were all represented. She also managed a healthy sprinkling of bold face, italics, and different font sizes in her poster.
“R, you can’t mix up so many typographical styles,” I stated.
Blank look from R (a 3rd grader).
“The rules for good design state you shouldn’t use more than 2 to 3 font variations on a page”, I tried to explain.
More blank looks.
S saved the day. “R, that’s just plain UGLY and hard to read”.
That, R, understood. The sisters worked together to fix the poster layout and font choices, leaving their mama to wonder why I decided to spout technical jargon at an elementary school-aged kid.
Truth was, I couldn’t tell R the truth. It was ugly. It was easier for me to hide behind words and not really tell her what was wrong in her words. Her sister had to deliver the truth, because it was hard for me to tell R it was ugly. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
How much ugly writing or layout do we allow to see the light of day, because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the creator. Or we’re afraid of the reaction of the creator. S’s blunt proclamation of the ugliness of R’s poster could have easily slipped into a standard big sister-little sister yelling match. By the grace of whatever, it didn’t happen. It probably helped that R was in a receptive mood.
Sometimes it can be very hard to approach someone with editing or design advice. As in all things writing, know your audience. Or as I call it, The Gambler Approach: know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run (thank you, Kenny Rogers). Will the audience be receptive to what you have to say? Are they more receptive at a certain time of day or certain day of the week? Or do you know it won’t make any difference at all what you have to say — the creator will want to do it their way and that’s it.
If you will have someone who will listen to what you have to say, make sure you have a plan for what you will say, state it clearly in their language and/or terms understandable to them, and describe the type of corrections that could be made to improve the document. If you’re worried about hurt feelings or hurting a gentle soul, use a gentle touch. Examples are helpful, showing how such-and-so change results in a better document. Use it as teaching moment.
If you face a lot of resistance, that’s when you need to walk away. It’s a hard thing to do, but in the end, you’re not the document’s owner. It’s out of your control. There’s something else that needs your time and attention; focus on that instead.
*with apologies to Jonathan Franzen