Ten tips to make your text look better

Ten tips to make your text look better

Sending out a newsletter? Doing a poster? Formatting a thesis? Producing a leaflet? Thirty years ago, you would have been in a tiny minority, working with Letraset and/or a typewriter, with a ruler, T-square, Rotring pen and a cup of instant coffee (unless you were European). Today, everyone with a computer has at least experimented with the idea of doing one of these. Instead of Letraset, you have thirty fonts that came pre-installed, and thousands of others a Google away. Gone are the Rotring and ruler. If you’re drinking coffee, it may even be cappuccino.

And yet, somehow, most of the newsletters, posters, leaflets and theses produced today look inexpressibly ‘not right’. Compare them with a commercially produced magazine, advert or flyer, and there is something which is…

These ten tips will show you how to achieve the missing polish. Whether what you have to say is worth saying is an entirely different matter…

#1 Turn kerning on

The most basic reason why a page of text printed from Word looks less good than the same page printed by a designer from (say) QuarkXpress or InDesign, is because Word turns the kerning off by default.

Kerning? You say. What is kerning?

Kerning example shows the LY gap

In the unkerned letters (top), the gap between L and Y is too great

Typographic fonts (as opposed to typewriter fonts) have proportional letters, which means that the w and m are wider than i and l. Each letter is given the correct width and space around it in the font’s definition (i.e., the font file). By contrast, typewriter letters, which are monospaced, assign the same width to every letter, because that was, mechanically, how typewriters worked. You can use this to your advantage if you like: picking a monospaced font, such as Courier, gives a strong typewritten feel.

However, the standard spacing for the letters does not work for particular pairs of letters, such as L and Y (see illustration). A gap opens up which makes the text jolt as you read it, and gives a more amateurish impression. The kerning tables are built into the font files as well. However, in the early days of personal computers, many printers either could not print properly kerned fonts, or took much longer to do so. For this reason, kerning was not a feature of early word processors. For some inexplicable reason, Microsoft has chosen to keep kerning turned off by default in Word, even though every modern printer can print kerned text without problems, and every modern font comes with the correct kerning tables built in.


Dialogue in Word showing kerning

The Advanced font dialogue — turn kerning on for all text sizes


Here’s how to fix it:

In Format/Fonts (or whatever your version of Word does for this) go to Advanced and turn it on.

Ideally you should do this in your Normal template. Kerning should be on for all fonts, all of the time, for every size, so set a small size such as 6 for ‘Points and above’.

For some fonts, this won’t make much difference. For others, such as Calibri which Microsoft tries to make the default headings font on my version of Word, it will make a substantial difference, when looked at large. It’s not the substantial difference that makes the difference, though—rather, it’s the smoother, more regular, less gappy text which is consistent on every page.

There is no downside whatsoever to having kerning turned on: it isn’t a ‘type trick’, but something which is part of the font, ignored by Word for legacy reasons.



#2 Don’t pick the wrong font

Getting the fonts right is not so much a question of picking the right font, as not picking the wrong one. Essentially, any font which draws attention to itself is the wrong font for text, and is probably the wrong font for titles.

Again, Microsoft doesn’t really help here, because the standard font for Word always used to be Times Roman, which is silly for sending someone a letter (it was the newspaper font created for the Times to be legible at small sizes when printed on newsprint). These days, Microsoft seems to want to offer Arial 12 point, though that may be the result of something that happened to my Normal template years ago.

Arial is not necessarily a terrible choice, and even Times Roman will not let you down. Where things start to go horribly wrong is when you click the font menu, and you are offered a staggering choice of every font on your system. How many do you have? A hundred? Two hundred? My system has 6,000 fonts on it, though I use a font manager to ensure that only a few of them are installed at any one time. Most of these fonts appear to look very much like each other. You’ve got Helvetica, Arial, Franklin Gothic, Gill Sans, Univers, Myriad and Lucida Sans that all look like they went to school together, and you’ve got Palatino, Times, Garamond, Baskerville, New Century Schoolbook and Bookman that look like they all buy their clothes at the same department store. Actually, none of these fonts, used consistently, are bad choices. But those aren’t the fonts that look really interesting.

You probably already know that Comic Sans is a bad choice, and you may have heard that Helvetica is the ‘right’ choice, whatever the situation. So far so good. But what about all these nice curly, fat, extended, artistic, handwriting and other fonts. Surely they have some place on your page?

In the words penned by Meat Loaf, Stop Right There.

If you are a designer, designing a page from the bottom up with a very clear vision in mind, and you are choosing a font that matches that, then, go right ahead, choose that font. Except, if you’re a designer, you’re probably using TypeKit and maybe Linotype’s library to choose absolutely the best font, even if it costs £250 (which is what fonts cost when you buy them). If you’re setting text to be read as text, than pretty much any font which says ‘look at me’ is wrong. This goes for Avant Garde Gothic, Avenir, Ad Pro, and thousands of others all the way to Zapfino and Zapf Chancery.

Stick with the basics, and it will be fine. Wander from the path (in the words of Gandalf) and you are lost.

By the way, if you are part of an organisation, there is probably an official corporate font. Use that, and never use anything else.

#3 Don’t pick many fonts

If the text itself should be in one plain, basic font, doesn’t that give us free rein to set the titles in something nice?

The old rule is: no more than four fonts on a page.

However, this rule is misleading, because ‘font’ referred originally to one weight at one size. What people call fonts these days are actually typefaces.


Lead letters at the Plantin Museum, Antwerp

Let me quickly explain. Between Caxton and the creation of typesetting machines, letters were made in lead at a type foundry, and racked onto the press with a collection of tools, before being locked into place. A typeface would be a family of different sizes and weights (literally, weights) of letters. A font or fount would be where all of the sorts of a particular size, weight and style were kept together. Provided no one had put them back in the wrong place, a printer could lift them out by feel and set them into the press.

The four font rule essentially allows you Regular and Bold of your body text size, a larger heading, and a title heading, or a larger heading and a footnote size.

The most common problem with home-made print is that the result contains many changes of size, bold, italics, headlines in different sizes and different fonts. Stick to the four per page rule. Also, if you are going to have the headers in a different font from the body text — for example, Palatino text and Helvetica Bold headers — make sure that they offer a significant contrast, and make sure that the styles go together. You don’t have to think too long about this: if they don’t ‘obviously’ go together, then they don’t go together.

#4 Use tracking (no, not that kind of tracking)

If you can only have four fonts to a page, and you now know that this doesn’t mean ‘four typefaces’, how do you make the titles really stand out? One of the most common reasons why people jump for fancy fonts for titles is because the titles somehow don’t stand out enough. The typeface Impact is a popular one to make things stand out. After all, it does create an impact. However, it also looks like you’re shouting, even when not in capital letters.

When tracking or letter spacing is reduced, the font appears bolder

Top: Impact
Middle: Helvetica Bold
Bottom: Helvetica Bold with reduced tracking

The answer is tracking. By this we don’t mean the tedious underlines and redlines of ‘turn document tracking on’.

Tracking is the space between the letters. In computer typefaces, the space is automatically set to the most pleasing, and this is defined in the font file. You don’t have to do anything about it, as long as you have kerning turned on. In lead type, spaces had to be inserted between each letter. These were very narrow, and putting none in created text which was hard to read at any length, but made a huge impression in titles.

In the example, you can see the impact that Impact makes. Underneath it is Helvetica Bold, which generally just doesn’t look bold enough for titles. Below that is Helvetica Bold with the letter spacing, aka tracking, reduced. You do this in the same dialogue as the kerning (above) if using Microsoft Word. It’s best to define this as a style, because you want all your titles to look the same. You have to experiment a bit on this, because Word asks you to enter it in ‘Points’, which means the correct amount will change depending on the point size in your text. If you were using QuarkXpress, you could enter it in 1/20 Ems, which would then change proportionately with the size of the font. To get it right, reduce the spacing to something that looks really good, and then halve what you’ve done: it’s easy to overdo things. When you check the page, if it looks wrong, go back and halve it again.

#5 Learn the space rule

Even if this has never bothered you, you are probably aware of the never-ending controversy between the ‘one space after a full stop’ people and the ‘two space after a full stop’ people. This is like the Android versus iPhone and Mac versus PC war, except everyone can play, even if they aren’t sure whether their device is an Android or an Etch-a-sketch.

For a little context, when I learned to type, which was from a proper typing course before the invention of the Personal Computer (I was nine), the rule was: two spaces after a full stop. However, if you look at any book on your shelves, you will see that there is one space after a full stop.

Which is correct?

Proportional fonts such as Times Roman take one space. Mono fonts take two spaces.

Proportional fonts such as Times Roman take one space. Mono fonts take two spaces.

Both, as it happens. Typewriters use mono-spaced fonts, as noted under ‘kerning’ above. Starting in the 1890s, typewriters revolutionised offices, replacing the hundreds of clerks whose job it was to hand-copy (in copperplate handwriting) all records and correspondence with a few, highly skilled, typists who could rattle away all day at forty-five words per minute on a manual typewriter. A mechanical typewriter shifts the carriage along by exactly one space per letter, so every letter must occupy the same amount of space. This is why wide letters, such as M and W, look compressed on typewriter fonts, and narrow letters, such as i and l have heavy ‘slab’ serifs to broaden them. Typewriter

However, a full stop cannot be made broader (if it is, it becomes a dash). What’s more, the full stop has to be in the centre of the typewriter’s hammer, because otherwise it will skew the lever over time. The levers are very narrow on a traditional typewriter, and they take a considerable pounding, so, mechanically, it is essential that they balance correctly. Over many years, particular letters would wear on most typewriters, which is why true typewriter emulation fonts, often scanned from typescripts, generally have variation in the letter position or weight.

Returning to the full stop, the proportions do not look correct when a mono-spaced full stop is followed by a single space, because of where the dot is positioned, so the typist rule, taught in every secretarial college and typist course since the 1920s, is two spaces after a full stop.

Printers have numerous types of spaces.

Printers have numerous types of spaces.

Notwithstanding this, the typographer’s rule, taught to every apprentice since the 1440s, is one space after a full stop.

Okay, this is a slight oversimplification. Printers have a number of different kinds of spaces: en spaces, the width of a letter n, em spaces, the width of a letter m, thin spaces, hair spaces, figure spaces, and several others. QuarkXpress (dialogue pictured left) has twelve kinds of spaces, most derived from old-fashioned typesetting. The printer would insert just one space, equivalent to the punctuation space, after each full stop.

Electronic typefaces are designed so that the width of the ordinary space provides the correct spacing when one space is used after a full stop.

So, when using a proportional font, set with one space, not two.

This leaves the question: which fonts are proportional? The answer is, all of them, except ones deliberately designed to look like typewriter fonts, such as Courier. Even American Typewriter, despite the name, is a proportional font.

#6 Dispense with underline

Using underline? Just stop. Underline is another hangover from typewriter days. A mechanical typewriter can only have one style of type per letter, and even the capital letters are created by pressing down the SHIFT key, which, on a mechanical typewriter, actually shifts the keys physically downwards, so that the Capital hits the ribbon rather than the minuscule. I’m sure that someone, somewhere built at least one prototype typewriter that allowed you to second-shift for italic, but that wasn’t how ordinary typewriters were built. However, italics have been in use by printers for hundreds of years. Therefore, as a convention for informing the printer that something had to be in italics, the typist would back-space and go under the letters again with the underscore character, _. Some machines had a red and black selectable ribbon, and this was sometimes used instead of the more time consuming underline.

Underline should not appear on ‘printed’ documents. When it does, it looks scrappy. This is partly because our eyes are accustomed to seeing italics rather than underline in professional documents, and partly because underline interferes with the letter shapes p, q, y, g and j, making the words less legible and also creating visual awkwardness. When designers use underline as part of a design, they break the underlines so that they don’t conflict with the bottoms of the letters. For general typesetting, just don’t use them. Use italics instead, or, better, consider: is it really necessary to add extra emphasis here? Bold or bold with tracking may be better.

#7 Understand leading

Leading tight, 20%, 50% and 100% extra

Leading tight, 20%, 50% and 100% extra

The space between the lines is called leading. That’s ‘leading’ as in ‘ledding’, not as in ‘leeding’. It comes from the metal lead, from which printer’s letters were made, not from the present participle of the verb ‘to lead’. Technically speaking, the leading is the space from baseline to baseline, though the lead which was actually inserted was between the top of the letter blocks and the bottom of the next letter block. In Word and other consumer software, this is often described as ‘inter-line space’ or ‘ line spacing’.

On a typewriter, you could use single line spacing, double line spacing, and, on some machines one and a half line spacing. As with all things, a printer had more options.

Your word processor most likely defaults to a leading of 120% of the type size. The type size itself, given in ‘points’, is not ‘how big the font is’, but the distance from the baseline to the next baseline, taking into account the maximum height of the ascenders (l, L, etc) and maximum depth of the descenders (p, q, etc). This is why the size in points is not a good guide to legibility. Helvetica reads fine at 10 point, Zapfino is still almost illegible at 18 point: fonts with a high x-height (height of the letter x) compared to the t-height (height of the t) are generally more legible than fonts with a small x-height, such as Bodoni. This even varies within fonts that have the same name. ITC Garamond has a higher x-height than other Garamonds, making it more legible at the same point size.

If you want to increase legibility, you can increase the leading. Normally 12 point text will have a leading of 14 or 15 points (+20% on the base-line height), but if you give it 18 points (+50%), it will be much easier to read, though, of course, it takes up more space. Setting it ‘tight’, where the leading is the same as the font size, will make extended reading more difficult. However, like reducing the tracking (see above), it can make two line titles really jump out.

Once again, you can use the Advanced dialogue in Word’s Font function to make these changes.

Something that’s also worth thinking about is that you don’t need a full new line between each paragraph. In the Paragraph dialogue in Word, you can set the inter-paragraph spacing to be, say, two-thirds of the point size. This makes new paragraphs less abrupt, and also wins you back some space, which you can then use for increasing the leading and thereby improving the legibility (but don’t change the leading from page to page, or, if you do, not by anything noticeable).

#8 Respect the typographer’s art

Every font on your computer (apart from the free ones you downloaded from that site) is the fruit of thousands of hours of a designer’s experience and hundreds spent just on that one font. Creating a font can take as much as three years, and often the exact spacing of the letters will then be sent out to an external agency. In ‘book’ fonts — those such as Palatino and Garamond designed to be used in ordinary body text — every curve of every letter has been balanced with the negative space to create the optimum combination of legibility with personality.

And then someone uses WordArt to skew, bend, twist or reshape this work of art to make something more eye-catching.

The result is always awful.

Most fonts used in logos have been subtly reshaped to match exactly the needs of that logo word. However, this is done with as much care as the original designer took over the font itself. People go for years without noticing that Gillette has the dot over the i revised to create a razor (and the e reshaped as well). However, this subtle reshaping is not done by applying a ‘Create Logo’ function to a font.

The only effect that should ever be applied to a font is dropped shadow, and even that should be used judiciously, and never in body text. If you have the time and expertise to carefully reshape the letters to meet an exact design vision, then by all means go ahead (but, in that case, why do you need to read this article?). If you’re just looking for a way of freshening up an otherwise dull page, then consider rewriting the headlines, improving the layout (generally by including more white-space), copy-editing the text by deleting verbiage, or re-shooting the photographs. Putting an effect, especially a WordArt effect, just makes it look sloppy.

#9 Stick to one colour for text

Got a colour printer? Why not put the text in different colours? Well, simply, because it looks confusing. The most legible colour combination is black text on a yellow background. Actually, that is over-legible, and should only be used for warning signs on dangerous equipment. For most applications, black on white is best. Black on red is the least legible, though any colour combination that reduces contrast creates a problem. Some visual impairments make it easier to read white on black. For most readers, black on white is easier (and for some visual impairments, white on black is illegible). If you absolutely have to set text in any other colour than black, then check two things: first, is there enough contrast for this to be genuinely legible when you print it out (what’s on your screen is an entirely different thing) and, is it still legible when it’s been reproduced on CMYK print (from a commercial printer), Flexo (a packaging printer), Risograph (a political printer), black and white photocopying (someone’s idea of saving money) or whatever means you are actually going to use. Particular colours separate badly, giving text that looks out of focus when printed on particular processes. Whatever you might have gained by setting it in Plum, has now been lost by the fact that it looks like you got it printed in the 1930s.

Stick to one colour for headings, one colour for text, and leave it at that.

#10 Check it by eye

By far the best advice I can give anyone is the advice that was given to me in 1988: check everything by eye. What is on your computer screen is not necessarily what comes out of your printer, and absolutely not necessarily what your eventual readers will get. Screen technology, by definition, is different from print technology. Light is coming through the screen, whereas it only reflects from the paper.

When you actually have something in your hand, and start putting it near other things, the fancy ideas you thought would spruce it up often start to look humdrum. What’s more, many faults will begin to emerge: a line of text with lots of capitals in it will look too close to the line above it. The same goes for numbers. Hyphenation which looked fine on screen may suddenly be disturbing. Things look like they aren’t quite in the right place.

All this is normal: the computer sets things according to the instructions that the software gave it, based on whatever styles and fonts you’ve chosen. None of these things actually understand the way that the letters, words, lines and shapes fit together on your page.

Again, in the advanced dialogue in Word, you can move lines fractionally up or down which look like they are in the wrong place. You can extend or contract spacing, modify where a letter starts, and do many other things. You shouldn’t play with these if you don’t have to, but, if it looks wrong when you print it out, it will look wrong to everyone who picks it up.

One Comment

  1. Traxy
    Sep 03, 2015 @ 16:54:00

    Excellent tips. Thank you for sharing!

    Had to re-open the page in Chrome, because this is what the content looks like in Firefox:

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