An image highlighting the rivers of white between the badly spaced words

Seven steps to more professional typesetting

Friday 22 May 2015

Help your reader to read and navigate around your documents with ease.

In this blog post I am sharing seven steps to more professional typesetting, covering text alignment, typeface, type size, line length & margins, line spacing, paragraph spacing, and headings. In combination these simple adjustments will make the text in your word processing documents look more professional.

The aspects of typographic design covered here are generally known as ‘macro-typography’. Watch out for my post on micro-typography later in the year!

The starting point

The text in the image below is set in 14pt Courier, filling the full width of the page, with the lines of type justified, and set close together. It is unattractive, unprofessional, and difficult to read.

The original text

Once we have completed all the steps below we should have something that looks a lot more professional, and is easier for your user to read.

Step one – Text alignment

An image highlighting the rivers of white between the badly spaced words

Our text is currently justified, meaning both the right and left-hand edges are aligned. If you are using a word processing programme, the chances are this is being achieved by varying (often massively increasing) the word spacing.

In the image you can see that the pale blue spaces between the words are all different sizes, and are often aligning with those in the lines above and below, creating an effect known as ‘rivers of white’ – shown in darker blue.

Variation in the size of word spaces is a hindrance to easy reading, and ‘rivers of white’ are both unattractive and distracting in a block of text, which should have a uniform grey appearance when squinted at.

The easiest way to avoid both these problems is to align your text to the left, which will result in uniform word spaces, and less chance of those spaces merging into one another.

Step two – Typeface

An image showing the change of typeface

The text is currently set in Courier, which is a monospaced typeface – one where all the characters are allowed the same amount of space. This makes wide characters, like m, look squashed, and narrow characters, like i, look swamped in space.

I am using Georgia for this example. The most important thing when choosing a typeface is that it is appropriate for the job. Think about the situation the document will be used in, and by whom. An invitation to a child’s birthday party is likely to need a very different typeface to a document presenting year-end figures to the chairman of the board. Always make sure that what you select is clear and easy to read.

Step three – Type size

Different typefaces appear to be different sizes (see my blog post about typesize), so the size you need will depend upon the typeface you have chosen.

Start with 12pt and consider whether your intended audience will be able to read it comfortably. If your document is going to be printed out, print a section of it and see how it looks. Don’t forget, your target audience may be older than you, or may have visual impairments. If so, they may find a slightly larger type size easier to read. For this example I have set my text in 12pt.

Step four – Line length & margins

Now you have your typeface and typesize you can set the line length (or measure) to a comfortable length for reading. For a longish document, with just one column of text a good guideline is to aim for 66 characters per line, including punctuation and spaces.

An image showing where the end of the line should ideally be

In a word processing programme you will achieve this by increasing the margins on either side of the page. You can choose to have more white space on one side than the other if you want to. Think about whether you will be hole-punching or otherwise binding your document. I have left my text block in the centre of the page for this demonstration.

Step five – Line spacing

The aim with line spacing, or leading, is to make a word group more strongly with the words before and after it than it does with text above and below. This helps words resolve into lines of text and makes reading easier since your eye is able to move along the line without skipping from one line to another accidentally.

An image showing the improved line spacing

Generally, setting your leading to 120% of your type size is a good place to start. On 12pt type, as I have here, that means 14.4pt leading. Some word processing programmes will let you choose 120% line spacing, so you won’t have to get your calculator out!

Step six – Paragraph spacing

An image showing improved paragraph spacing

The penultimate step is to add some space in between your paragraphs.

A blank line or carriage return tends to result in more space than is really needed. Instead, try adding in slightly less space by using the ‘space after’ function in your word processing software.

In this example I have added in just 3mm after, and it’s enough for the lines to clearly separate into paragraphs.

Step seven – Headings

An image showing improved placement of headings

In order to make your headings associate more with the paragraph after the heading than the one before, move the heading down slightly within the same space. For this heading, I have two of the three millimetres above the text, and one below.

I have also helped the text to stand out further by making it bold. This is the simplest way of emphasising your headings. Alternative options include using a larger type size, or a different typeface. Experiment and see what works best for you.

The end result

Once you have completed all seven steps you should have something that is much improved. The choice of typeface gives a much more professional feel to the document. The shorter line length, combined with wider line spacing will help your reader to read it comfortably, and the clearly identifiable headings will help them to navigate around a longer document with ease.

The final typesetting

Of course, there are many alternative, and equally valid, ways to typeset a passage of text like this one. And text can be a lot more complex than the simple heading and paragraph combination that I have demonstrated here.

How did you get on?

I’d love to see how you get on with improving the typesetting in your documents. If you would like to share your successes, or if you’d like any help setting text just get in touch.

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Hello! I’m Sarah, an independent typographic designer, helping businesses to communicate their unique selling points through printed marketing and communications.

I’ve been sharing my knowledge about design, typography, marketing, branding and printing since 2014. I hope you enjoy reading my blog.

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Sarah Cowan