Constructing Text: Textbooks can be interesting?


No matter who you are, the word “textbook” brings to mind images of lengthy passages, torturous studying, and droll information. So why haven’t publishers tried to give textbooks a better rep? The truth is, not all textbooks are the same, just like not all books are the same. In our culture, time is of the essence. There have been studies done on our shortening attention spans, so it would seem that publishers and authors need to consider new ways to keep students and casual readers reading.

Recently our class looked at The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson, which discusses in great detail how writing has evolved over time, and how different cultures and languages use writing in different ways. The material is heavy. At times, it can drag on. But what makes this textbook readable are the design details Robinson and his publishers use to create mental breaks.

First, there are over 200 pictures. The pictures are placed alongside text largely as an aid in explaining the detail of writing as it evolved over time. The pictures are a necessity because many of the forms of writing Robinson mentions are unknown to common readers, so the pictures help illustrate his points and foster a better understanding. But the pictures do more than just that. The pictures create a break from the heavy text. They allow readers to engage in more than one way, and give audiences’ brains a chance to catch up with what is being said. This is a wonderful tactic to help enrich a textbook and improve understanding. Unlike other textbooks, this is accessible to more people because it employs different modes of communication. While the alphabetic text is still the most dominant, the pictures also pull their weight.

Page breaks, sub-headers, chapters, and sections also provide readers with a chance to recollect thoughts and make meaning. The text is broken into smaller and smaller chunks to allow for a seamless collection of ideas to flow. There are a lot of sub-headers, which help focus readers on different time periods and writings as Robinson moves through history. Each new topic begins on its own page and tends to stick to around 1-2 pages in length. This stops readers from being bogged down with too much information. Likewise, the chapters help organize ideas into an even broader area, and the sections help move readers through history. The above techniques are all successful ways to organize ideas and information, especially thousands of years of history, into readable chunks.

These design choices are not an accident of the author or the publisher–they were made to allow for better readability. By creating a more functional page layout, they were able to design a textbook that didn’t really read like a traditional textbook. The choices reflect the intent of the author. The design develops a deeper understanding and is intuitive, providing answers and examples just when the text becomes too overwhelming.

After reading through this book, I feel as though I have a better grasp of how design can improve audience interaction with a given text. I think the decisions people make in writing and publishing are often overlooked, so breaking down the different elements are a helpful way to understand how different strategies work to afford more accessibility. I am interested in digging deeper into the choices from an authorial perspective because I hope to become a successful writer one day, and I think having an understanding of the best ways to inform readers will be truly valuable to my writing. The choices made by writers are definitely something to keep in mind as our society progresses further into the technological era. If our attention spans continue to shrink, I am not sure what we writers will do! Hopefully as we continue to learn more about the ways information and writing are structured, we will be able to answer that question!

Categories: Alphabetic Text Analysis | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Post navigation

4 thoughts on “Constructing Text: Textbooks can be interesting?

  1. When looking at The Story of Writing, it’s almost impossible to image this book without pictures alongside. With the way our culture thrives off of technology, writing is no longer defined as simply text. However, Robinson would argue that our cultures have used images (hieroglyphics, for example) in the past to communicate. I’m wondering if we could argue that there is difference between the past communication using images and the current (and future) usage of pictures and photographs. While I agree that the sub-headers help readers focus, I think all chances of the audience focusing on the different ideas depends on the amount of different sub-headers. For instance, Robinson has at least five per chapter, equaling too many sub-headers to focus. It’s interesting that just as buildings are built for specific reasons, and advertisements are created with certain reasons, that books too are put together in a fashion for maximum enhancement.

  2. This also related to some ideas taught in Publication Layout and Design. For example, newspapers are printed in columns with breaks because it is easier on the eyes than endless rows of text. Sub-headings are also an attention-grabbing technique: they catch the eye, give the reader a glimpse of what will be discussed, and attempt to draw them in for a more detailed reading. In a text book this can be especially helpful for studying; during a review session a student can skim for the sub-headings and focus their reading on those sections they feel gave them the most trouble.

    I’m also reminded of Scott McCloud’s ideas about comics. The pictures in this book supplement the story, much in the way McCloud said that part of a comic’s story can be told through pictures. There are multiple levels that the text/picture relationship can exist on. This book clearly has more of a focus on the text, with the pictures serving to supplement it.

  3. After reading this, I had to think about the importance of photos as an aid combating the supposed shortening attention spans. While very well illustrated, The Story of Writing isn’t simplified or made more palatable for shortened attention spans by it’s illustrations. Quite the opposite is true. However, the complex and multimedia display does appeal to shortened attention spans by showing connections easier to understand by being able to see items in relation with each other.
    Personally, I have never felt that photographs and illustrations should not be in text books, and lack of pictures-to me-presented a bias in the teaching community and only appealed to one style of learner. I would love to see a blending of modes of information in texts in the future.

  4. This post makes a good case for composition as design, and in a broad sense, how people see relationships and connections within an overall structure and informational hierarchy. Therefore, in terms of information architecture and multimodal composition, I think this discussion could extend to that of the web as well.

    In terms of digital technology, I’ve experienced even within the past five years how the communication landscape has evolved. Specifically, writing for the web (which often incorporates images as well as text among other modes) has really come to the forefront. Contemporary culture gravitates toward employing multiple modes of expression; text, graphics, images, audio, video, and animation–because it’s a progressive, visually engaging, and attention-grabbing way to communicate. Embracing a style of communication that allows for a more nuanced, dynamic expression definitely has its benefits; but we need to remember too, as writers, how important it is that the mode should always be a means to an end and never the end in and of itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: