Typefaces, fonts and leading

Which typeface should I use?

If you ask ten designers which typeface to use you will probably get at least nine different answers. If there was a definitive answer all books would look the same. So you need to choose a typeface (Times, Garamond etc), a font (the point size) and the leading (the space between the lines of type).

As an example, a designer’s specification might be 11/13pt Times
11pt – is the font
13pt – indicates 2 points of extra space or leading (more explanation later)
Times – is the typeface

Microsoft uses a percentage value for the leading which can be misleading. But they also have an option for a specific point value.

The origin of these archaic terms might help you understand them better.

The font, or size of the typeface
This was governed by the block that each letter was carved from (wooden type), or cast from (metal type). The blocks for every letter had to be the same overall size and this is the point size – not the actual size of the bit you see.

You can see in this illustration that we have a ‘cap height’, an ‘x height’ and the block size, or point size of the typeface. But not all typefaces appear to be the same size even though they may all be 12pt.

type slug or block

In this illustration you can see the difference in what is called ‘appearing size’ between three classic typefaces which are all chosen as the same point size.

typeface appearing size
Different type faces

The leading, or space between each line of type
The distance between each line of type is called the ‘leading’ because originally thin strips of lead were inserted between slugs of type (a whole line of type) to add space between them and make the text more legible.

leading in metal type

Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, decided that this was too much for their users so they offer as default 1, 1.5, 2 etc as their spacing options between lines of type. But Microsofts default of no extra space (i.e. 1) puts somewhere between 1.17% and 1.25% of space depending on your version of Word and the operating system you use. You can over-ride this by setting a specific leading and I have explained this here.

Basics terms of typography for text pages

Almost the most important task in preparing your text pages is to make them user-friendly. There are of course no absolute rules concerning typography, but there is ‘good practice’. Unless you have a specific reason to be different, why would you experiment?

Basic typographic terms in a book

Chapter Headings
The font is going to be larger than the text, but how much larger? This really is one area where you can exercise your own aesthetic judgement, you can even change the typeface and nobody is going to throw up their hands in disbelief. I’m rathger conservative. The chapter head is a signal to the reader that a new scene is starting, it’s not the announcement of a revolution. I’ve used the same typeface as the text (in my example Caslon) and only bumped the size to 12pt (the text is in 10.5pt).

Full-out paragraphs
The first paragraph of a chapter shouldn’t be indented. If you have a line break anywhere, the following paragraph should also be ‘full out’. (a line break is what you see here between sections – a blank line)

Indented paragraphs
Most paragraphs in your book will have an indent. I habitually used a 4mm indent.

There should be no extra space between paragraphs unless you are making a point ie a scene change. In this cases use a full line space.

Text must be justified
This means you get a straight line both sides of every paragraph (also known as justified left and right). Only break this rule in very special cases – maybe if you have a letter than is supposed to have been hand written, or a poem. In which case you can increase the indent and set it ranged left, unjustified right (sometimes also called ‘ragged right’).

Orphans and widows
These are, strictly speaking, words or short lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left isolated at the top or bottom of a page. If this single word was the only one at the top of a page it would need to be dealt with (there is lots of advice on the web describing the various methods of dealing with this). If the single word is at the foot of the page it isn’t quite such a problem, but will visually give you more white space at the bottom than on the adjacent page.

Page numbers or folios
Always centre of a page in a novel, usually the same face and font as the text. Don’t get clever with them, they are functional not decorative.

Style sheets
These make formatting your text so much easier and it’s less likely you’ll get a rogue font or typeface creeping in. If you are not familiar with style sheets in MS Word it’s time to address that. On Google you will find many videos and blogs on this issue, but I have added guidance on this site.