Friday, February 8, 2013

Font Choices

I forgot one critical piece of information when I posted last about Torn Armor. It's a minor thing -- niggling really -- but it's actually important. It's about your choice of fonts. And really, heeding my advice will save your life. 

Because if I open one more document and find it's been written in a sans-serif font, I will find you and force you to listen to Jim Nabor's albums until your ears bleed. Because that's the same effect your sans-serif font choice has on my eyes. 

Can I globally select all the text and simply change the font? Sure. Then again, I have no idea if that changes something important someplace in the document. And I suspect it does, because most of you don't know how to tag your headings, and come up with all kinds of ways to do it. Usually by changing the font. In the end, however, I shouldn't have to do this. You shouldn't be using a sans-serif font for anything. Other than signing your own deathwish. 

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, this is a serif font:


See the little feet at the bottom of the "A"? See how the right side of the letter is a little thicker than the left? This is what we mean by a "serif." The letter is thicker in some places, and thinner in others. It's also more readable. Especially when you're plowing through 50 pages of single-spaced text. In fact, publishing companies spend a lot of time selecting the right font. They'll even go so far as to tell you the font they used on the indicia page. This stuff is important. 

It means the difference between someone reading your work, and tossing it across the room in frustration. You don't want people doing the latter. It defeats the purpose of writing. 

This is a sans-serif font: 


See how the letter is uniform? No little feet? No area thicker than the other? Everything is the same. Sterile. Boring. That's why it's called a "sans-serif" font, because it lacks a serif (from the French sans, or without). Yes, I know it's sleek and futuristic-looking. It also sucks. Don't use it. 

A serif font mimics handwriting. It breaks things up a bit for the eye. It's more natural. A sans-serif makes reading difficult and a chore. 

One final word about font choices. Word automatically defaults to New Times Roman. Don't use it. The kerning is compressed on that thing, which squishes the letters and words really close together. It makes it harder to read, because Word also defaults to 12-point type. You've got to take it up to 14-points to make it comfortable to read. It's just better if you ignore New Times Roman altogether. 

Ok. I lied. This is really the final word about fonts in your magnum opus. Unless you hate your reader, do not set your point size to an odd number, like 11-point or 13-point type. Ditto for 10-point type. I want to be able to comfortably read your work. Odd or tiny type makes that difficult. Jesus weeps every time you do it. And Buddha loses his composure and wants to flying jump kick you into a bodhi tree. 

So do it for Jesus and Buddha. 


  1. Interesting - I'm wondering what font you saw when you opened our documents, because the newest Office software defaults to Cambria 12pt ... but if you do not have Cambria is it switching that for NTR 11 or something?

  2. I have Word X, and it does, indeed, default to Cambria. It used to default to NTR. However, whenever I've opened a document from you, it's always been in a sans-serif font. Arial?

    And, of course, I don't have your original documents. I over-wrote them. Bad Ross, bad!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Huh. I always thought that serifs were the feet. I didn't know that to those better versed in the concepts than I that it also had to do with the consistency of the width of the strokes. I get that making your font too small can make it unreadable, and that too tight kerning can do the same, but why does odd font size make a difference? If I show you a font that you're not intimately familiar with, can you really tell me the font size of it without checking? After all, it's not even as if a size 14 font is consistent across typefaces. Sure, they're close (mostly), but they're hardly uniform. So what's so special about an odd numbered size?

  5. You happen on part of the answer. I am intimately familiar with fonts. Even if I've never seen it before, I can spot kerning and point size. I may not know why something is "off," but I know that it is. I'll open up a document and immediately see that you're using Arial, 11 pt type. It looks "off." I may not even be able say "that's 14 point type," but I'll be able to tell you if it's "off."

    The odd size (and by that, I mean an odd-numbered font) makes it harder to read because it's "odd." That is to say, the font was designed for an even-numbered point size. If you put it in 13-points sure the computer can do that, but it looks weird. You're brain starts chewing on the subconscious idea that something is "wrong" or "off."

    Keep in mind also, most people don't even consider "kerning." That should tell you the level of understanding I have with this stuff. Lastly, you're correct. Serifs usually refer to the little feet, but it's more than that.

  6. I'm just having a hard time understanding because if I make a document with the phrase "this is text" in 12 different fonts, all in 14 point, every line is a different length. While I believe you 100% that if I were to show you text in some common font you could probably ID the size, but if I were to use something a little less common, How do you know if it's unknown serif font 1 at 14 pt, unknown serif font 2 at 16 point or unknown serif font 3 at 12 point?

    I also don't buy the "odd sizes look off" line of thought because most fonts are no longer "designed" at a certain point size and then resized as needed. Raster fonts were, but modern common font types: true type, vector, and open type are not. Being a collection of relative points that are actively rendered at any size, there's no "native" point size from which they deviate.

    If we further take into account that every computer is set to different resolutions, default zooms and the like, then a document using the exact same font at the exact same settings on my computer and yours will be different sizes (for example, viewing your blog, I had to zoom in my browser window to read your tiny tiny font) meaning that what looks right to you is dependent on where you're sitting. This is especially important because it means that if we set up our computers carefully, I can make my "off" 13 pt TNR pixel for pixel identical to your "correct" 14 pt TNR.

  7. Yes, you can do that. But we'd have to set our computers carefully.

    I don't know what else to say. I fire up Word. I open a document. I can immediately tell the writer has used 11 point type. Granted, that's for a standard font, like Ariel or TNR. Something ridiculous like Bauhaus 93, probably not so much.

    The reason your same type size, different fonts are all different lengths is a function of the kerning.

    Not sure why this matters. You're not writing your Pathfinder adventure in Futura, 9 pt type are you? You may be putting too much thought into this. Don't use odd-number point sizes. I don't care if you've got your computer set to maximum resolution and magnify Word up to 1000%. When I open it on my computer, it's not going to be that way because my computer isn't set to the same settings as yours. This isn't some kind of science experiment where we're talking about microscope resolution to make a speck of dust look like a boulder.

    Yes, I'm sure you could fool me if you did something like making your 13-point TNR look identical to 14-point TNR. What's the point? When I open your Pathfinder adventure, and it's in comic sans 11-point type, I'll notice. And I'll want to punch something.

    But hey, if you're committed to 13-point TNR, that's great.

  8. The reason it matters is because of this:
    "You're not writing your Pathfinder adventure in Futura, 9 pt type are you?"

    There are fontophiles out there who will readily stick their nose up at any font that comes default installed with Windows and will tell you that some TNR clone with no discernible difference from TNR is vastly superior. I have, as a matter of fact, set up plenty of letters in Futura, because some creative design wonk thinks that it's vastly superior to some more pedestrian sans serif font with a nearly identical character set. Luckily unless it was fine print, little of that Futura was 9pt.

    After decades of dealing with typeface prima donnas, blanket statements like "odd point fonts are bad" irritate me because no one can give me any objective reasoning behind them and sometimes they just make no sense. So perhaps I have given you too much unnecessary grief over it in the attempt to either discover your objective reasoning or make you consider the rule a bit more.

    The thing is, I agree that TNR is NOT Bauhaus or Futura, or Comic Sans, But I have a hard time seeing how TNR 13 is different from TNR 14 just like I have a hard time seeing how Helvetica differs from Triumvirate. Heck, I don't even think most professional design people could tell Helvetica from ARIAL if you asked them in a control experimental situation without prior notice.

    But I've probably beaten this horse enough for one night. I'll leave it be for now. :p

  9. Yeah. But that doesn't matter. You're not putting professional design people in a controlled experiment situation. That's what you're not getting. You keep saying "PROVE IT!" and I keep telling you my answers. Because you want some kind of objective, scientific reasoning. This isn't scientific.

    TNR 13-point looks squished. It looks unnatural. There is a reason your word processor goes 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, and not 11, 13, 15, 17.... Don't get mad at me about it. Odd numbered point sizes look strange. The brain doesn't like it. That's why the fine people who program these things used EVEN numbers. Sorry if that doesn't satisfy your scientific rationality.

    I don't have to give you objective reasoning. It's really that simple. Don't use odd-numbered point sizes. That's the standard used in publishing. If you want to publish, follow the standard. If you don't, then keep on using Triumvirate 13-point to your heart's content. I'm just telling you how it works.

    If you keep sending editors your work in 11-point type, eventually they will ask you to stop. If you don't, they will stop hiring you because you can't follow directions. We don't have to give you objective reasoning. It's subjective. This isn't science.