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The Pedant 4: how to make your editor happy. Spoilt for choice: formats and fonts


Spoilt for choice: formats and fonts

Since the advent of home computing and the easy availability of word processing and publishing software (is it really only a generation ago?), the budding writer has been faced with a wonderland of possibilities; or a tyranny of choices, depending on your point of view. In this article we'll look at the vast range of formats and fonts available and suggest a few tips for negotiating the minefield and avoiding elephant traps.

Page design used to be the preserve of the professionals; now, at least in theory, anyone can have a go at setting pages in an interesting way. However, and quite importantly, designing your own book is not compulsory; and in some circumstances, I'd suggest it's actually counter-productive, if not irrelevant and distracting. And, let's face it, not everyone is a design maven.

If you are planning to send your book to a publisher or agent, there is absolutely no need to present them with an innovatively designed product. In fact, most publishers would prefer that you didn't. This may sound counter-intuitive at first, but think about it; publishers employ specialists to design their books, and these people are experts. Plus, many publishers have a well-defined house style when it comes to book design.

So think of it from the publisher's perspective; they want to see a manuscript that is tidy, free of errors, and above all legible. Anything else is icing on a cake they may not want to eat. In fact, some publishers (perhaps the majority, at least in the world of commercial publishing) will be minded to ignore or reject a manuscript that comes with bells, whistles and a cherry on top.

If you think about it, this makes sense, in terms of marketing psychology; a heavily packaged product is a signal that style is trumping substance. A publisher's reader, faced with a manuscript that's offered in a biblical split-page format, with the body text in Comic Sans and the titles in Forte, may not get as far as reading your opening line. Why should they, when they are already inundated with submissions that satisfy the company's criteria for manuscripts?

The simple message here is that if you want a publisher to treat you seriously, you should afford them the same courtesy. Submit your manuscript in a plain format, and in a font that is legible and clear; that way, you are signalling that your text is the important element in the transaction. And the publisher will at least be minded to read what you have sent rather than rejecting it out of hand.

If you are planning to self-publish, the situation is slightly different, but there are some rules of thumb here too. The software currently available for self-publishing is good but not infallible; there are limitations to your design choices. For instance, the Kindle software that a lot of self-published books use has features such as hard page breaks and is quite fiddly to use even for plain formats; so if you start with a complex page design and an obscure font you may have difficulty in setting the document for upload in a satisfactory form.

When it comes to fonts, the range of possibilities is practically infinite. This is great if you're looking for a wacky way to present the invitations to a fancy dress party for your child's birthday; but for a serious attempt at getting a book published, not so much. That endless parade of fonts on your drop-down menu, apart from being thoroughly confusing, is a bit of a red herring; very few of the typefaces on offer will make your work more legible - or interesting - than the tried and tested (and, okay, a bit boring) fonts that are in common use.

The single most important feature of a font, as far as a writer of books is concerned, is legibility; and not just for a page or so on screen. The font should be comfortable on the reader's eye for the long haul; in a sense, as a design element, it should be tantamount to invisible, or more properly speaking transparent. If I'm settling down to read a hundred thousand words, the last thing I need is a text doing exciting visual cartwheels before my eyes.

If you look online, you will find a lot of advice, of somewhat variable quality, on choosing fonts. Even posts that offer to prune the excess foliage, and reduce the chaos of possibilities to a more manageable amount, often end up offering a dozen or more choices, some of them so similar that only an experienced typographer can tell the difference.
So what is a writer to do? The answer is - as is often the case - keep it simple.

Think about it this way; you have a book to write. You have characters to draw and develop; a plot to flesh out; dialogue to write; you need to keep an eye on continuity, and the balance between action and reportage - the list goes on. That is a lot of work; so don't waste your time and energy sweating the small stuff.

Publishers have preferences when it comes to fonts and formats. On the whole, they prefer a standard, commonly used font, such as Times New Roman (in general, this is the font I and most editors would recommend), a page that is justified left, one and a half or double line spacing, clearly defined titles and headings; no bells, no whistles, and no fuss. So it makes sense to go along with these preferences; keep your energy for the thing that matters most - the text - and leave the fancy stuff to the designers.

I'd suggest this maxim goes for self-publishing too. Choose a simple page format and a legible, recognisable font. If you are simply allergic to Times New Roman, don't stray too far for an alternative. A lot of books are set in Garamond, for instance, a font that is in many respects a lighter, slightly more elegant version of TNR, and also a font that lends itself well to large type; Book Antiqua is also relatively popular for book text, particularly if you want a classic feel.

But first and foremost bear in mind that book and page design are completely irrelevant until you have a finished manuscript that you are happy with, and which will pass muster with an editor or publisher, or is ready to self-publish. If a publisher accepts your work (and that is the real bottom line here) they will take care of the design issues. So focus on what's most important, and leave the bells and whistles to others. It will pay dividends in the end.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

The Pedant 1: how to make your editor happy: Accents

The Pedant 2: how to make your editor happy: Dialogue tags