Typography: Becoming a Better Writer

I’ll admit it.

I judge based on looks.

I was given a book around Christmas time. After a quick flip through, I winced. The book was blatantly self-published.

Now, I’m not saying I’m a pro when it comes to book publishing—far from it. Everything I know, I’ve learned through self-study. But even to my untrained eye, some things stood out. The book, which I have yet to read, has a mix of serif and sanserif fonts within the body. That’s a bit jarring for a genre novel. I’m sure the writer/publisher had a reason for this, but my immediate reaction was distaste and rejection, along with an embarrassed thought of “this is why people snub self-published books.”

Yes, I am a snob.

I’ve spent this past week studying typography, and I’ve come across a wonderful resource. I pass on to you Butterick’s Practical Typography. It’s an online book and it’s given me some new perspective, which really shouldn’t have hit me as hard as it did.

Attention is the read­er’s gift to you. That gift is pre­cious. And finite. And should you fail to be a re­spect­ful stew­ard of that gift—most com­mon­ly, by bor­ing or ex­as­per­at­ing your read­er—it will be prompt­ly revoked.

Source: Matthew Butterick, http://practicaltypography.com/why-does-typography-matter.html

Okay, boring and exasperating my reader has to do with the writing, right? So how will typography make me a better writer?

Good ty­pog­ra­phy can help your read­er de­vote less at­ten­tion to the me­chan­ics of read­ing and more at­ten­tion to your mes­sage. Conversely, bad ty­pog­ra­phy can dis­tract your read­er and un­der­mine your message.

Which is exactly what my gifted book did to me. It distracted me.

If you’re going at self-publishing on your own, definitely read Butterick’s book before you do. Butterick compares typography to job interviews, where applying bad typography to your writing is like dressing inappropriately for a job interview.

What about you? Have you come across any books or articles where what you see is detrimental to what you’re trying to read?

Loni Townsend

About Loni Townsend

Wife. Mother. Writer. Ninja. Squirrel.

14 thoughts on “Typography: Becoming a Better Writer

  1. I’m so with you – I’m a big snob, too. I support self-publishing and will happily read self-published books, but they have to look and be polished and professional, or I’ll lose interest FAST. The quote you posted is absolutely spot on.

    • Exactly! I love to support self-published authors, but hope to see they respect my time enough to give me the best product they possibly can.

  2. Sans serif fonts are great for titles and maybe pieces of business communication. Serif fonts help full the eye through the text. I cringe when I download ebooks or self-published books that are formatted with sans serif fonts. Another biggie for me is the emerging tendency to not indent paragraphs in books and just leave extra spacing between paragraphs. Hello? I’m definitely a typography snob too.

    • I think the default styling in many of our word processors have added to the extra space trend. People might be putting together documents and not formatting them.

  3. I try hard not to be too much of a snob. Perhaps I’m too lenient, but if it doesn’t draw me out of the story, then I’m good. I mean you do find some really glaring errors in traditional bestsellers.
    But then, I haven’t been able to support, or read, as many self-publishers as I would like to and the few I have even glanced at seem to have gotten it right.

    If anything, I’m harder on myself than others. There’s always that constant “I can do better than this” ticking over in the back of my mind.

    • Ah, but glaring errors are usually grammatical, not typographical. I’m talking about looking at the page, not actually reading it.

      I’m pretty harsh when it comes to certain things—look and feel being among them—and I often end up being a hypocrite, since I know I had to start somewhere too. But I try to continually improve my skills, and I hope others aspire to do the same. That’s the beauty of the internet—free information!

      • Not talking about the grammar or typos (although I did stumble upon a glorious one that had the wrong name for the entire scene). But rather the spacing which, to use the dress code analogy, is like interview with rumpled suit.

        If I may use Thanmir War as the example, seeing I’m reading it at the moment and it’s fresh in my mind…
        There are occasionally unutilised lines on the bottom of some pages. Like the widow/orphan control was left on. Having such a page on it’s own makes it hard to spot, but when it’s snuggled up against with the opposite page … for me, it sticks out. Kind of like an overturned collar in an otherwise immaculate suit.
        Does it pull me from the story? Not really. It takes a lot to pull me from a story. But it does make me pause. Every time, I must flick back and forth to make sure the entire sentence is there before I read on.

        And then there’s also a couple of fully blank pages. But I’m sure you must know about them.

        • Drats. I didn’t know about the pages. I thought caught those. *sigh* I will go through again and track them down. Thanks for the heads up!

          Widows and orphans are one of those things that I wasn’t too sure on, mostly because I couldn’t find a definitive rule. This article didn’t help me any.

          For you, you prefer widow/orphan control turned off?

  4. I prefer turning off the widow/orphan control. It might be a personal preference detail, but it just seems neater to me to have as many lines as a page can comfortably hold.

    According to Butterick’s Practical Typography: “I only use it if wid­ows and or­phans are caus­ing a vis­i­ble prob­lem. Otherwise, I find that the blank lines at the bot­tom of the page are more an­noy­ing than the wid­ows and orphans.”

    So I guess if you’re finding lots of one-five word lines, then leave if on, if not, best to leave it off. That’s how I see it, anyway.

    • You are a faster reader than I am! I concede and will leave it off from now on.

  5. Fellow snob! Nothing makes me cringe faster than a poorly self-pubbed cover, too. If it looks bad, the description will get a quick scan and that’s usually it- unless it manages to catch my attention. Sometimes people can create great art w/their words…but just not visually. =)

    • Cover design is what sent me on this typographical mission—to improve my own!

  6. Awesome. I’m definitely less of a snob than I used to be, but my heart does break a little for some friends when I see their covers and don’t think they’ll sell as well because of them.

    • Those covers are difficult, because it may match what they envision, but it lacks the luster to incite other readers.

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