Loose Nukes Because every debate can be improved with a little highly-enriched uranium.

11May/112

The Epic Formatting Post

I wasn't quite sure whether to make this an introduction for newbies, or a technical reference manual, so I decided to make it both. The resulting monstrosity is probably the only document in existence that includes both technical descriptions of font readability and a giant mecha.

Written by quasi-request of several people, who probably regret ever bringing up the subject.

Semi-related note: Factsmith 1.1 was just released, which is part of the reason this post is late. Easier collaboration, access dates, automatic updates, etc. Get it while it's hot.

PART ZERO: FOR THE NEWBIES

All of this is going to sound a lot more complicated than it really is (I really love technical details.) In fact, if you get Factsmith (see Part 2), you can pretty much ignore everything else in this post, but you might want to read it anyway to understand the reasoning behind what Factsmith does.

Otherwise, the most important sections are Parts 1 and 2, and the Extend-o-tron at the end.

PART 1: INTRODUCTION

Why format?

Answer: You format to win. Strange as it sounds, a well-formatted brief will help you win.

We format briefs for the same reason that we cut quotes instead of just printing the entire article out: It makes the evidence easier to handle. If your taglines and dates always look the same, and are always in the same place, you'll be able to find them much faster in-round than if you have to read through the whole document to find them.

Speed wins rounds. Formatting means speed. Ergo, formatting wins rounds.

Rule Number 1: Visual distinction

Taglines should look a certain way, citations should look a certain way, quotes should look a certain way. Basically, everything that serves a purpose should have a distinctive appearance.

Associating a specific look with a specific type of content allows your eyes to jump directly to where you want to go without having to read all the text. Taglines are a good example. If all the text looks the same, you have to read it all to find the taglines; if taglines have a specific appearance, you can just find the next piece of text that looks "like that" and read it.There are a number of properties that contribute to an element's visual style:

  • Font size - making text larger or smaller.
  • Text decoration - Bold, italic, and underlined text all looks different. Note that italic looks a lot closer to normal text than bold does, so making text italic may not be the only distinction needed (see the citation in the example above.)
  • Text location - placing text in different locations on the page, like centering it. In the case of items like page numbers that are always in the same place on the page, this may be the only distinction needed.
  • Spacing - separating a block of text by putting blank space on one or more of its sides (as in the citation shown above, which has a blank line below it.)
  • Font typeface - this is a weak effect, since most readable fonts look fairly similar, but it can be useful when combined with other properties.

Sub-elements should also be visually distinguished. For example, you could always put the article title in quotes, as above. It's a subtle difference, but if makes it easier to quickly find the title in the citation.

Rule Number 2: Consistency, consistency, consistency

Every element of the same type needs to have the same look - every time. Without consistency, most of the benefits of visual distinction are lost - your brain has a much harder time recognizing what an element is without reading it.

In Soviet Russia... consistency formats YOU. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

When I say "the same look", I mean "exactly the same look." It's easy to be lazy and settle for things looking "about right". Take a little time to make everything look perfect - it'll make things easier for you in-round. Plus, psychologically, potential traders won't think as highly of your briefs if they're sloppily formatted.

...and the rest is up to you

As long as your elements are visually distinct and consistent, what they look like is entirely a matter of personal preference. I'll cover some technical recommendations in Part 3, but basically, if you like the way it looks, go with it.

PART 2: HOW-TO

Pictured: Cheating.

Cheating with Factsmith

If you do any amount of research on a Windows computer, stop reading this post and go download a copy of Factsmith. I'll wait for you.

Back? Okay, now I'll explain what you just installed on your computer. Factsmith is a free research software package that basically does all your formatting for you. Instead of copying and pasting lots of text, you can just pull everything together with easy drag-and-drop and have Factsmith turn it into a beautiful document, ready for the printer.

Cheating? Probably. Worth it? Yes.

Factsmith isn't the only software designed for debate research - it's just the one I'm obligated to support, by virtue of, you know, writing it. 😛 I do think it's probably the best, though, and right now it's the only one being actively updated (albeit infrequently.)

The two other research packages to look into are Evidence Scribe, which comes in two flavors (desktop and web-based), and the formatting tools built into Blue Book Report. You can see a comprehensive feature comparison here. Another tool to look into is Debate Synergy, a complex set of Word extensions designed for NFL/collegiate debate.

If you're new to Factsmith and want to take it for a spin, here's a link to the quickstart guide. In the meantime, I'll keep talking about formatting the manual way.

Necessary software

To process words... you need a word processor. (Even if you're using Factsmith or a similar tool. You'll still need one to view and print the resulting briefs.) You probably already have one.

'"Uncle Cosmo, why do they call it a word processor?"
"It's simple, Skyler. You've seen what a food processor does to food, right?"
- Shoe

I could offer a detailed comparison of the competing products, but I'll just say that if you don't already have Microsoft Word or Pages, snag a copy of OpenOffice.org. It's totally free, and does everything an ordinary debater would ever need their word processor to do. (It's popular, too - the latest version has been downloaded almost 100 million times.)

For the rest of this post I'll be assuming you're using either OpenOffice or Microsoft Word.

Side note: Google Docs is great for collaboration, but isn't so good for formatting because it lacks a lot of page layout features. For this reason, I recommend doing final formatting in another word processor, instead of printing directly off of Google Docs.

Basic formatting functions

(Experienced debaters can probably skip this section.)

Doing basic formatting in OpenOffice

Most of the common formatting tasks are done with the main formatting toolbar (at the top of the screen by default.) It looks like this:The options are, left to right: Select font, select text size, toggle bold, toggle italic, toggle underline, left-justify, center-justify, right-justify, full-justify, numbered list, bullet points, decrease indent, increase indent, select color, highlighter, select background color.

To change the formatting of some text, select it with the mouse (click and drag so the background behind it changes color.) Then click the button you want. For example, to change the font, select the text, click the font box on the left, and click the font you want. To make text bold, select the text, and click the "B" button. (Click it again to remove bold.)

The best way to figure out how everything works is just to play with it a bunch. There are also keyboard shortcuts for most of these, if you like that sort of thing.

More advanced formatting can be done by selecting the text you want, clicking the Format menu, and clicking "Character...". A window will pop up with several tabs and various options. Formatting that applies to the whole line of text (like spacing, indentation, etc.) can be done by clicking the Format menu and clicking "Paragraph..."; a similar window will appear. Again, playing with it is the best way to learn.

(Note: You can also access the Character and Paragraph windows by right-clicking the selected text and clicking Character or Paragraph on the popup menu.)

Doing basic formatting in Microsoft Word

Most of the common formatting tasks are done with the main formatting toolbar, on the Home tab of the ribbon at the top. It looks like this:The options are, from left to right, top to bottom: Select font, select text size, increase text size, decrease text size, remove formatting, bullet points, numbered list, multilevel numbered list, decrease indent, increase indent, sort, show/hide special formatting marks. Bold, italic, underline, strikeout, subscript, superscript, select case, select color, highlighter, left-justify, center-justify, right-justify, full-justify, change spacing, select background color, create table. (You can see what each button does by putting your mouse cursor over it and waiting for a moment.)

To change the formatting of some text, select it with the mouse (click and drag so the background behind it changes color.) Then click the button you want. For example, to change the font, select the text, click the font box on the left, and click the font you want. To make text bold, select the text, and click the "B" button. (Click it again to remove bold.)

The best way to figure out how everything works is just to play with it a bunch. There are also keyboard shortcuts for most of these, if you like that sort of thing.

More advanced formatting can be done by selecting the text you want, right-clicking it, and clicking "Font...". A window will pop up with several tabs and various options. Formatting that applies to the whole line of text (like spacing, indentation, etc.) can be done by right-clicking and clicking "Paragraph..."; a similar window will appear. Again, playing with it is the best way to learn.

Easier formatting with paragraph styles and templates

Case-by-case formatting, as described above, is simple and easy-to-understand, but there is a better way. Enter paragraph styles.

Paragraph styles allow you to pre-define sets of formatting options, and apply them to an element with a single click. Even better, if you decide you want to change the way (say) your citations look, you don't have to go through and manually reformat them all - you can just change the paragraph style, and everything set to it will change too. Magic!

Both Word and OpenOffice come with a number of pre-defined styles; I'll explain how to use them first, before explaining how to make your own.

Using paragraph styles

In OpenOffice, the fastest way to set the style of a paragraph is to click on it and select the style you want from the style dropdown to the left of the formatting bar (pictured, right.) The style dropdown doesn't display all available styles, just ones that you use in the document, plus some extra common ones. (To see the full list, click the button to the left, and the "Styles and Formatting" window will appear. You might have to set the dropdown at the bottom to "All Styles" to find what you're looking for.)

In Microsoft Word, the interface is a little more complicated. Word displays the top few styles in a panel on the Home tab of the ribbon:If the panel shows the style you want to apply, click the paragraph and click on the appropriate style in the panel. If not, click the small button on the lower left of "Change Styles" (the bottom one in the row of three.) More styles will appear. Click the one you want.

Creating paragraph styles

What if the default styles don't look the way you want? Change them, or make new ones.

In OpenOffice:

To modifying an existing style: The fastest way is to find a paragraph that's set to the style you want, right-click it, and click "Edit Paragraph Style..." from the popup menu. Alternatively, you can open the "Styles and Formatting" box by clicking the button to the left of the style selector, find the style you want, right-click it, and click Modify.

To create a new style: Open the "Styles and Formatting" box by clicking the button to the left of the style selector. Click on the button on the far right (the one with the little green plus sign.) Click "New Style from Selection" on the popup menu, type in a name for the style, and click "OK". (The new style will start off with the formatting of the current paragraph.)

In both cases, a window will appear with lots and lots of formatting options. Customize them to your liking, and click OK.

In Microsoft Word:

To modify an existing style: Find the style you want on the styles panel, like you were going to apply it. Right-click it, and click "Modify". A window will appear with lots of formatting options. Alternatively, you can find a paragraph that's set to the style you want and make formatting changes to it manually. Then right-click it, click "Styles" from the popup menu, and click "Update [stylename] to Match Selection".

To create a new style: Format a paragraph the way you want the style to look, right-click it, and click Styles from the popup menu. Then click "Save Selection as New Quick Style...". Type in a name for the new style, and click OK.

You'll want to create styles for section headers, taglines, citations, and evidence quotes, at minimum. You'll probably want your section headers and taglines to be modified versions of Heading 1 and Heading 2, respectively, to make tables of contents easier (see Part 3, Table of contents.)

Templates

Recreating your paragraph styles every time you create a new brief is annoying. Instead, create a template - basically, a blank brief with all the paragraph styles, headers, footers, tables of contents, etc. already added. Save this somewhere and make a copy of it when you want to create a new brief, instead of making everything from scratch.

Alternatively, you can add your document as an "official" template that appears on the list when you create a new document. The process is a little complicated, so I'll just link to instructions for OpenOffice and Microsoft Word.

Keyboard shortcuts

Here's a neat trick most people don't know about: You can assign keyboard shortcuts to paragraph styles, so when you press (for example) Alt+F9, the current paragraph is set to the "Citation" style. This is much faster than hunting around in the styles display.

Tip: In Microsoft Word, the preset Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3 styles are already set to Alt+Ctrl+1, Alt+Ctrl+2, and Alt+Ctrl+3, respectively. In OpenOffice, it's Ctrl+1, Ctrl+2, and Ctrl+3.

To set a keyboard shortcut in OpenOffice, click the Tools menu, and then Customize. A window will appear; click the Keyboard tab. Find the keyboard shortcut you want in the long list at the top, and click on it. Next, scroll down to the bottom of the "Category" list, and double-click "Styles". Click Paragraph. Find the style you want in the middle list (Function), and click on it. Finally, click the Modify button in the upper right part of the window, and click OK.

To set a keyboard shortcut in Microsoft Word, follow this guide.

PART 3: ELEMENTS & CONCEPTS

Table of contents

In an ideal world, every brief would come pre-packaged with a genie to float above your head and tell you where everything is. Unfortunately, most briefs do not have genies, so you need a table of contents.

To add a table of contents in OpenOffice: Put the cursor where you want the table to go, click the Insert menu, and select Indexes and Tables. Then click Indexes and Tables again from the popout menu. A new window will appear. If you want, you can customize the table in this window, but it's not very intuitive, so you probably just want to click OK.

To add a table of contents in Microsoft Word: Put the cursor where you want the table to go, click the References tab in the ribbon, and click Table of Contents. Then click your desired style.

But how does the word processor know what to include in the table of contents? It uses paragraph styles. Text set to Heading 1 will be first-level entries, text set to Heading 2 will be second-level, and so on. To include an evidence card on the table of contents, just set its tagline to Heading 1 or Heading 2. (You can redefine the heading styles to match whatever you want your taglines to look like, as described in "Easier formatting with paragraph styles and templates" in the previous part.)

Note that the table of contents may not update automatically when you change taglines, but it should always update when you save or print. If this bothers you, you can force it to update manually (in Word: Click "Update table" on the References tab; in OpenOffice: Right-click the table and click "Update Index/Table".)

A related trick from Joseph Clarkson: The table of contents is an excellent place to mark your favorite arguments. Just mark them with a highlighter - you'll save a lot of time in-round.

Headers and footers

This picture actually exists.

Headers and footers are text and information that's automatically added to the top or bottom of every page - for example, if you wanted to have the phrase "WEASEL TUXEDO" at the bottom of every page.

To add headers or footers in OpenOffice: Click the Insert menu, then Header or Footer, and then Default. This will get you a blank field to put whatever you want in. To edit a header/footer later on, just click it.

To add headers or footers in Microsoft Word: Click on the Insert tab in the ribbon, click Header or Footer, and select the style of header you want. To edit a header/footer later-on, double-click it on the page.

There are two things that really need to go in the header/footer.

First, page numbers. Page numbers are pretty much a must - unless you are particularly fond of spending thirty minutes painstakingly resorting all your evidence after a round, of course. Even if you staple all your briefs, you still need page numbers to navigate off of the table of contents.

To add page numbers in OpenOffice: Put the cursor where you want to have the number and click the Insert menu, then Fields, then Page Number.

To add page numbers in Microsoft Word: Click on the Insert tab in the ribbon, click Page Number, and select where you want them to go from the dropdown menu.

Second, the brief title. If you don't staple your briefs, this is essential for after-round resorting. If you do staple your briefs, it's still nice to have the brief title on every page so you can riffle through a stack of briefs and find it without stopping to check the title pages. The brief title should always go in the header, since nine times out of ten you'll be looking at the top of briefs when you flip through them.There are a couple of other things you may also want to put in the header, primarily your team name and club name. This way, if you lose your evidence, other teams can get it back to you - or, if they can't find you, they can get it back to a clubmate. Since you almost certainly have space, go ahead and add them.

Card splitting

Card splitting is when a piece of evidence crosses more than one page. This is bad, for reasons that will become obvious the first time you're reading a killer card and suddenly realize that the most important part of it is still back at the table.

There are two ways to ensure that cards stay on the same page:

Manual way: Page breaks

Basically, manually start a new page whenever a card would run over. There are two ways of starting a new page: inserting a page break, or pressing Enter a bunch of times to create blank space. I recommend page breaks, for several reasons.

To insert a page break: Hold down the Ctrl key and press Enter.

First, compatibility. Briefs will sometimes display slightly differently on different computers and word processors; for example, if the font is slightly different, the brief may require five blank lines instead of four to reach the next page. There are few things more annoying than frantically trying to print a brief on a hotel computer, only to discover that all your taglines are separated from the evidence. With page breaks, the computer automatically calculates how much space is necessary, so the worst you can get is an extra blank page.

Second, and related, ease of modification. All sorts of minor tweaks can change the amount of blank space necessary: changing a tagline, trimming a quote, decreasing the font size, etc. If you have to fill the space manually with blank lines, you have to do a lot more work, and you're more likely to mess up.

Automatic way: Paragraph locking

This is the best way if you're using paragraph styles. You can tell your word processor to keep specific paragraphs together, and it will automatically handle all the page breaks. To do this, edit your paragraph styles for taglines, citations, and quote text to set the following attributes:

In OpenOffice: On the Text Flow tab of the paragraph settings window, check "Do not split paragraph" and "Keep with next paragraph".

In Microsoft Word: On the Line and Page Breaks tab of the paragraph settings window, check "Keep lines together" and "Keep with next".

Each card will now lock together on one page.

Note that you need to have a gap between the evidence that does not have these attributes set, or the word processor will unsuccessfully try to keep the entire brief together on one page. (You could not set the "keep with next" option for the quote itself, but then multi-paragraph quotes will spill over pages. The best way is to simply have a blank line of Default style between each card.)

Fonts

There are two different types of fonts: Serif and sans-serif. Serif fonts have little extra strokes at the end of certain lines, like Times New Roman. Sans-serif fonts do not, like Arial. There is evidence that, on paper (not on a screen), serif fonts are easier to read than sans-serif fonts, so I recommend using a serif font for your quotes. Other elements are less important.

Examples of a few good, readable fonts:I recommend using Times New Roman for most text, and whatever you prefer for "special" elements like sections and taglines, to taste. Go for whatever is most readable, and whatever you do, don't use Comic Sans. (I once saw a 1AC printed entirely in Comic Sans. I am not making this up. My eyes have only recently recovered.)

Congratulations, you have successfully spent precious seconds of your life making this text readable, only to discover that it contains a random scene from Hamlet. HAMLET: Sir, I lack advancement. ROSENCRANTZ: How can that be, when you have the voice of the king himself for your succession in Denmark? HAMLET: Ay, but sir, 'While the grass grows,' -- the proverb is something musty. (Re-enter Players with recorders) O, the recorders! let me see one. To withdraw with you: -- why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil? GUILDENSTERN: O, my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly. HAMLET: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe? GUILDENSTERN: My lord, I cannot.

Text size

There is a lot of conflicting evidence about what size font is the most readable. It depends a lot on what font is used, who is reading it, and whether it's on paper or on a screen. Generally, however, there's a "sweet spot" between 10 and 14 points. I recommend 12-point font, for three reasons.

First, 14-point is not ideal for younger eyes. You won't notice much difference reading aloud, but when scanning a brief at the table, your eyes have to cover more ground. Since you won't have any trouble reading smaller text, there's no real advantage. Plus, it's not very space efficient.

Second, 10-point fonts don't work well in standard brief format. This is because of something called horizontal retrace, which is what your eyes do when they reach the end of a line and jump down to the next one. It gets harder to do this the longer the line is. With a 12-point font, each line has about 85 characters; with a 10-point font, you'll get up to 110. Thus, while small fonts can be easier to read in narrow columns, 12-point is a bit easier across a whole page.

Third, 12-point font is standard for almost all briefs and sourcebooks (except the Blue Book line). When trading briefs, the other party will probably be expecting 12-point font, so if you use something else, you may be giving them more or less than they expected.

Note: 12-point size may look a little different for different fonts. For example, Tahoma 10-point is only marginally smaller than Times New Roman 12-point.

Added material

OK, time for my personal crusade.

It's normal to add explanatory material (like full versions of acronyms) to quotes, in square brackets. For example:

"Researchers at USCN [University of South Central Nowhere] announced the shocking discovery yesterday."

The problem is, some quotes will contain text in brackets already. The normal solution to this is to add a note indicating which brackets were added. But there's a much better way: Italicize all added brackets; leave all original brackets unchanged. For example:

"Researchers [see 156] at USCN [University of South Central Nowhere] announced the shocking discovery yesterday."

The first set of brackets was in the original; the second was added. By using this system, you can see what was added at a glance, instead of hunting around in the citation.

Miscellanea

Tagline case

There Are Two Different Ways Of Capitalizing Your Taglines: Title Case (This Style) Or Sentence Case, Like Ordinary Written Sentences. Some People Prefer Title Case Because It Looks More Official, but I recommend writing taglines in sentence case like this. It's a lot easier to read.

TITLE CASE IS NOT THE HARDEST TO READ, OF COURSE; THAT WOULD PROBABLY BE ALL-CAPS, LIKE THIS. Interestingly, early computers and teletypes only used capital letters, to cut down on the storage and processing power required. Nerd folklore has it that lowercase letters were initially favored for their readability, but were rejected when an executive pointed out that "it would be impossible to spell the name of the Deity correctly." (There is, alas, no evidence that this ever happened.)

Quote emphasis

It is normal to "highlight down" long quotes, and only read the most important parts of them. The normal way of doing this this simply to underline the parts you want to read. A few other ways you might want to experiment with:

  • Bold instead of underline, bold with underline, or a thick underline.
  • Shrinking the font size of everything that isn't underlined.
  • Actual highlighting.

In my opinion, simple underlining gets you the best bang for your buck, with occasional font-shrinking if the quote is really long, but this is mostly just preference.

PART 4: EXTEND-O-TRON 5000

Template time! Yay!

For your enjoyment, I've attached several brief templates that you can use, peruse, modify, and mangle however you want. I recommend that newbies start with one of these, instead of trying to start from scratch.

I've included a few "dummy" cards in each to show how they're used. Click to download.

Snapdragon I (OpenOffice)
A basic, utilitarian 12-pt Times New Roman style with a focus on simplicity and readability. Official style of the COG sourcebook, and Factsmith's default style.

Snapdragon I (Microsoft Word)
A basic, utilitarian 12-pt Times New Roman style with a focus on simplicity and readability. Official style of the COG sourcebook, and Factsmith's default style.

Blue Book (OpenOffice)
Designed after the style used by the Blue Book, Monument Publishing's flagship sourcebook - with a table of contents and a few other improvements added.

Blue Book (Microsoft Word)
Designed after the style used by the Blue Book, Monument Publishing's flagship sourcebook - with a table of contents and a few other improvements added. (Note: the Word version doesn't look quite as good as the OpenOffice version.)

Evidence Scribe (OpenOffice)
Designed after Evidence Scribe's standard export style, with shaded citations, boxed headings, and a variety of fonts and sizes.

Evidence Scribe (Microsoft Word)
Designed after Evidence Scribe's standard export style, with shaded citations, boxed headings, and a variety of fonts and sizes.

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Very nice. This covers just about all the important points. I’m SO glad you mention paragraph locking; manual page breaks give me headaches whenever I see them.

    The next step is character styles. Many debaters (especially me) shrink the size of text that they don’t read out-loud, most importantly to improve the readability of the underlined text, but also to save toner and paper. However, it’s a huge pain to shrink every card and then go back through it and increase the size of all underlined text. For that reason, I use three character styles: “read”, “don’t read”, and “bracketed”. “read” is underlined and 12-point; “don’t read” is non-underlined and 8-point; “bracketed” is underlined, italicized, and 12-point. In fact, I never press Ctrl+U or Ctrl+I when formatting a debate file.

    Another thing that annoys me is extra line breaks. Seriously, there should only be one “Enter” between paragraphs. But obviously, the text shouldn’t be all bunched together, which is why all or most paragraph styles in the document should specify spacing after paragraphs (6-point spacing is good).

    • Agreed, character styles are the best way to do shrink underlining. (Debate Synergy can do this automatically, I believe.)

      Speaking of which, shrink underlining support is on the list for a future Factsmith release. Need to get around to that…


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