It’s not as bad as many a politician’s rationale but the more the computer technology gets ‘justified’ the more it might prove detrimental to the professional appearance of a writer’s work. This has to do, of course, with the way a writer shows his or her final work.

Especially in fiction, there’s much talk about how you don’t say some character is a ‘bad guy’. You have him kick the dog. The emphasis is on ‘Show it, don’t tell it.’  And as the reader grows increasingly dubious about the printed word, the idea is that the story must speak for itself, the justification coming not merely from surface words but emerging out of some deeper credibility.

Thus the professional appearance of your work finds credibility not merely if inked on heavy bond paper with a high rag content and a special watermark, not necessarily with a readable font or laser printed lines or even a dash of color. And least of all, especially when submitting a query or proposal or sample chapters, does one justify oneself to an editor when the lines are flush right as though this had already been ‘published’ or, well, worthy of being published. On a popularity scale it must rank with a writer distinguishing himself in a manuscript on colored paper.

Many of the ‘big timers’ nowadays, of course, don’t even bother to justify themselves. But some of us little guys, it seems, show a desperate need to justify ourselves—as if such ‘recognition’ could be accomplished easily with the click of a keystroke.

The copy is bad enough when it’s peppered with ‘dirty dashes’, using hyphens (that pull words together) instead of dashes (used to separate words). But at least that’s a problem of oversight. Given the billions of taxpayer dollars spent without much oversight—the latest for decades old weaponry and ammunition overseen by a masseur— a misplaced hyphen might seem a dash in the pan. But this unjustifiable justification suggests a different kind of oversight, in which an editor can recognize from five or ten feet away what looks to be yet another piece of amateur writing.   

Even for final submission to an editor, such a presentation reminds us of that perennial straight man not fully aware of the real meaning and impact of his or her own communication.  So you may feel for the innocence of the straight man, but his formal flush right line—a kind of imitation print job uncalled for and as out of place as a tuxedo at a barbecue—may still come across as somewhat laughable.

Of course with the wonders of the computer and the ease of shifting styles, colors, sizes and the like, curious things are undoubtedly being justified all the time. One would think that the least little ‘justified’ memo these days had suddenly popped up as some grand opus that had already been edited with colored pens, approved by an attorney and publisher, and—justified—was now instantly ready for library, book reviewer, foreign translation and posterity.

Probably it’s to be expected. The style of our own computer-aided letters has clearly turned more impersonal—helped along by flush right lines not to mention words printed in bold face, italic, underlined or even laser-beamed in with oversized headlines shaped in anything from current Times Roman to Old English. Meanwhile the once impersonal junk mail has turned highly personal, with each resident receiving a first name printed greeting heading up his or her latest junk mail.

Perhaps you spend a few dollars and become a “personal member” of something in which you’ll never meet any other “personal member.” And the most professional (money-making)  junk mail (such as the accident or life insurance pitch sent out simultaneously by the thousands, or tens of thousands, reaches you with those less formal, down-home friendly ‘unjustified’ or ‘ragged right’ lines. Talk about a personal touch!  And in this way the public gets ‘touched’ for millions. Far from offering ‘justified’ copy, this junk mail is capped off with an even more intimate, spontaneous note; one that appears miraculously jotted in somehow as if with pen or crayon and don’t forget the broad-stroked black or red circle never quite completed.

By contrast, ‘justified’ copy by a writer may come as a welcome relief. And printed flush right justification might conceivably—but don’t bet on it—make our words appear more official, more published, more important. But such a line is hard to sell when everything and anything nowadays can come out justified.  So turn off the justification, I say, and not only for a submitted manuscript but also, when fitting, for published work.

With more genuine credibility and the confidence that comes from honest labor, we’d do better to present ourselves simply, allowing our own particular talents to speak for themselves without all of the surface justifications. The irony is that most times there’s simply no need for such a line, and small justification.

By Ron Kenner — Unjustifiable Justification