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Teach Yourself Typography

Self-publishing = Word-processing + Desktop publishing…well, almost.

Writing a novel is hard enough; I can’t worry about what it looks like when it’s self-published.

Yes, you can, and you should! At some point, you will need to apply some design to the words on the pages, in order to present your work in the best possible light. This is where typography comes in.

Simply put, typography is the style and appearance of printed matter. Typographic design is an art, and has a language all of its own.

Users of word-processing software will already be familiar with some aspects of typography, but may not realise it. There are features and functions that allow text to be manipulated and arranged on the page; indeed, the software does a lot of it automatically, without the user knowing, or having to think about it.

If you have experience of desktop publishing software, then you will be more familiar with typography, as these programs are specifically designed for that purpose, and are comparable to traditional typography and printing methods.

Typesetters who work in publishing companies may use software such as InDesign. However, a professional, typeset appearance can be achieved with word-processing software.  All it takes is a couple of hours, familiarising yourself with the basic elements of typography, and how it is applied to a print-published fiction novel.

Below is a list of typographical hints and tips. Use them, along with your word-processing software, to make your self-published novel look like a mainstream-published one:

  • For long passages of continuous text, use a serif font (the ones with ‘curly bits’, such as Times New Roman). A serif font is easier to read than a sans serif font (the ones without ‘curly bits’, such as Arial), as these slow down reading.
  • Experiment with typeface size, but remember: the height and width of a specific point size can vary between typefaces. For example, 10 pt in Times New Roman is not the same size as 1o pt in Garamond. You don’t have to stick with the standard 10 and 12 point size. Try anything from 9 to 14 point size, and you can use half sizes: just type them in to the font size box.
  • Fully justify text. A full line of justified text should ideally contain an average of 66 to 72 characters (including word spaces) – approximately 9 to 11 words.
  • Keep white space to a minimum. Make good use of kerning (the process by which the space between two characters is adjusted), and leading (line spacing).  Bear in mind that your word-processing software may not refer to them by their typographical names. (In Word 2010, these features can be found under the Advanced tab from the Font menu.) Do not leave a blank line between paragraphs, but indent them instead.
  • As a rule, have between 32 and 38 lines of text per page. Turn off widows and orphans (but try to keep one word carried over with the previous  page).
  • Be aware of page proportions for different book sizes, as this will have an effect on all of the above. The margins will need to be different to accommodate the right amount of text on the page.
  • Lastly, to avoid your self-published novel having that word-processed look, include the occasional end-of-line hyphenation, in order to remove any additional white space.

With a bit of experimentation, it is not too difficult to produce a professional-looking typeset document that will make your published novel look attractive and uniform.

I have only covered a tiny amount about typography, here. It’s worth investing in a book or two, but shop around, as they can be quite expensive.  I can recommend Book Typography: A Designer’s Manual, by Mitchell & Wightman (Libanus Press, 2005), and The Complete Manual of Typography, Second Edition, by James Felici (Peachpit, 2012).

Happy experimenting! 🙂

3 thoughts on “Teach Yourself Typography

  1. Thank you, Sue.

    This post is very informative and should help a lot of people get more familiar with typography.

    Let me just point out a few details that self-publishing authors also need to be aware of:

    While the article mentions Times New Roman (TNR) multiple time, and it is the preferred font for most manuscripts, this font is virtually non-existent when it comes to any traditionally published (fiction) books. TNR was designed for narrow newspaper columns and book typesetters would more likely go for one of the following: Garamond, Baskerville, Caslon, or Palatino.

    When it comes to font sizes and spacing, it is worth exploring books published in the chosen genre. Some YA novels, for example, will have wider line-spacing and bigger font sizes than some long-running formats, e.g. compare the print book interior of The Hunger Games and 1Q84.

    And lastly, although this is not exactly part of typography: Always use creme paper, rather than white!

    PS: Of course, my formatting went all wrong while talking about typography. Let’s try again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Martin, that’s really interesting about Times New Roman. I’m using Palatino for my latest project. I think I agree with you about the cream colour pages too, at least for fiction books. There’s a lot about the way books are typeset that self-publishers don’t realise. I am no expert, but I do find it fascinating.


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