Having worked with and studied type for half a century, I have seen fads come and go. I have seen a lot of badly designed experiments by psychology undergraduates passed off as “research” into type readability. And I have seen a lot of opinion on the part of graphic design instructors passed off as fact.
But in the Dark Ages of my youth, type was set by compositors. Since the advent of desktop publishing thirty-odd years ago, people with no training in typography have been putting themselves out as experts. And that has caused the sewers to overflow, releasing all sorts of stuff into the mainstream. With the more recent advent of digital book printing, all sorts of people are typesetting their own books—or trying to. And when they dip their nets into that mainstream looking for tips on how to do the job right, they often come up with—well, you get the idea.
Naturally, I’d much rather see self-publishing authors avail themselves of my services or those of another professional compositor than do it themselves. But if you are a diehard DIYer, here are a few suggestions from a grumpy old typesetter on Internet myths you should ignore:
- Don’t hyphenate; it slows reading and reduces comprehension.
FALSE. If you are publishing an edition specifically for groups with impaired reading ability, you should avoid hyphenation. For normal readers (the large majority of the reading public for trade fiction and nonfiction alike), a moderate amount of hyphenation improves readability when compared with the alternative of having letters and words badly and unevenly spaced. You do want to avoid having more than two consecutive hyphens or, in narrow columns, three consecutive hyphens, but there is no reason to turn hyphenation off altogether.
- Don’t justify text; it forces uneven word spacing.
FALSE. Using modern page layout software such as InDesign, you can keep word spacing within an acceptable range, minimize (but not necessarily eliminate) hyphenation, and retain conventional justified text. Readability research confirms that normal readers continue reading longer and retain more of what they read when text is justified normally than when it is set ragged right.
But note: Hyphenation is not available in HTML, so justified text looks terrible on the Web. For online use, such as here, stick with ragged right.
- Tight type looks better than loose type.
FALSE. Tight type increases reader fatigue and slows reading. If you look at books set on Linotype (hot metal) machines from half a century ago, you’ll see that the standard setting (governed by the mechanical limitations of the technology) was considerably more open than the default kerning values for modern digital fonts. Stay with the default or, if you want to be kind to your readers (especially at smaller point sizes), open the type up by a fraction. This is a good trick for situations where an old-fashioned appearance is desirable too.
- You can typeset a perfectly fine book using Microsoft Word.
FALSE. You can reproduce the Sistine Chapel using a paint-by-numbers kit, but it’s going to take a long time and you’re not going to fool anyone. Word is a word processing program, not a typesetting program.
- All you have to do is import your Word document into InDesign and you’re done.
FALSE. Composition remains an art that requires human intervention to produce good results. Learn to look at a page critically and to apply adjustments that improve the reader’s experience. Watch for ladders, rivers, pigeonholes, tight and loose lines, bad breaks, widows, orphans, and unbalanced spreads. Eliminating all of those at the same time is what separates the pros from the wannabes.