The Art of Font Setting


Every time I pass this sign, I read it as "pointless dent removal". And even after I realize my mistake, the damage is done: I can't take it seriously anymore.

Presentation matters. I know not everyone will agree with me, but it's one of those small things I obsess about. It's surprisingly selective, too. I don't preen in the mirror when it comes to my own looks; half the time, when someone points out something humorous about the t-shirt I'm wearing that day, I'm as surprised as they are. But when it comes to presenting my work professionally, I will noodle the tiniest bits right up until the deadline.

It makes it particularly challenging as a supervisor. Logistically speaking, I can't possibly force everyone who works on my team to adhere to my personal submission guidelines. Whether someone creates pretty bold headers or simply drafts a monolithic email body, it's their work that matters at the end of the day, not how pretty they make the packaging. And while I wince every time I see a miscapitalized letter or a common typo, I know I'm in the minority. As long as the message is clear, it's not something worth calling out.

But while that may be true in the visual effects industry, where all that matters are the final images on the screen, writing is a different creature. Here, words are the only thing that matter. Words on the page are what spark your imagination; words are what paints the images in your mind. One glimpse is all it takes to form an opinion. And as a writer, it is my job to make that glimpse as effective and effortless on your part as possible.

I recently spent at least half a dozen long evenings wrangling my novel into a Word template. The whole of that journey is probably the subject of another blog, but suffice to say, no matter how many times I reviewed the final copy, there was always some wrinkle to be ironed out. As far as the content goes, it makes sense: there's only so many times in a row I can re-read an 80k novel before my eyes glaze over. Tolkien continued submitting corrections to "Lord of the Rings" for every new publication; I'm sure most authors can relate to that feeling of opening their masterpiece and finding that there's still one more mistake to be fixed! Without enforced deadlines, us creative types would never get anything out the door. 

But even with perfect content, you can't omit the technicalities. Like font size, or spacing, or how much white space your page has to breathe. If, instead of being absorbed in the world of your novel, your reader suddenly notices the space between the header and the top line, then the formatting has failed. If you're writing a light-hearted fantasy but the font you choose conveys gothic dread, your reader will be haunted by a sense of unease they won't be able to explain - and the light-hearted banter between your beloved protagonists will come across as a sinister conspiracy. 

So yes, I obsess about these things. Even when I'm submitting something informal for my writers' group review, I'll devote an irrational amount of time to picking the right font ("Spectral" in Google Docs is a personal favorite) and resizing the pages so it feels like a novel paperback you might pick up at the book store. Any small touch that can help dunk my reader into the world I intend them to inhabit is another step toward a favorable reception. A given reader has only so much energy and time to spare, and I would rather they spend it on plot points and story arc clarity, not stumbling over typos or wondering whether they're suddenly in a new section.

And you can be sure that if I had been in charge of that particular dent removal specialist sign, I would have insisted on a different font.