At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Little Things

It was this morning, and I was in the midst of gulping down one more cup of coffee before heading to church. As is my wont, I looked back over my Twitter feed. Perhaps there was one more thing that had occurred on the international or local scene that was worthy of prayer when I got to church. There was one thing that caught my eye. Yet it wasn't a global or nearby event. It was a tweet that had to do with writing.

Duh, you say. Of course it caught my eye.

One of my followers addressed me in the tweet: "Fonts might be the hardest thing in a book. It conveys so much. Am I right @LukeHDavis?"

Okay, so now everyone has my Twitter handle. Follow away at me.

But back to my friend's tweet.

Fonts. The hardest thing in a book? Conveying a lot? Maybe. Maybe he had something there. I thought about it, and the more I kicked it around and added a few things, I saw a blog post forming.

My friend had a point. The little things matter in a book. He meant fonts. I'd expand it to fonts and spacing.

All this coincided with something my wife shared with me today. Christy said that a number of doctors have reported that nearsightedness is on the rise, especially among teens and young adults, and it's mainly due to so much texting and keeping the noses buried up next to cell phone screens. It seemed to me that's a little nugget of critical information. If vision is becoming a more and more widespread issue, then how we format our stories and display them--while never a substitute for a great story--can do a lot for convincing people to stay with us as we tell our tales.

Years ago, during the brief season when I was a pastor and doing it very badly, I was speaking with a friend about projecting our church's brand and identity into the community. One thing Jeff said was very instructive: Whatever you write or communicate needs to be inviting. The fonts of your words, for example, need to have a minimum of sharp corners and hard angles but still look professional. This can explain, for a number of organizations, why some companies use Arial or Comic Sans MS for their fonts. Some opt for something more crisp and professional that still isn't off-putting to the human eye, like Times New Roman. Since I'm used to Times New Roman for writing papers and expecting it of my students, I chose it when I wrote the manuscript of my first novel, Litany of Secrets, and have used it in each successive novel (74K words through #5 as we speak!). I use it for several reasons, but two in particular are (1) it's relatively easy on the eyes and (2) the lack of funkiness displays publishing gravitas and professionalism. For the title page, I did deviate and "LITANY OF SECRETS" was displayed in Lithos Pro Regular, which has a Greek script aura about it; I did that to blend with the Orthodox church theme of the novel.

Questions to consider about fonts? They come down to the following: What makes it easy to read? What makes the reader believe you are a professional and take your work seriously? What might help in drawing the reader into the story?

And spacing is something to consider as well: I don't mind if I'm reading a single-spaced book (your garden-variety Bible is a fine example of single-spacing), but normally if I'm doing that I'd prefer it be set in large print. It's certainly unreasonable from a publisher's point of view to up the printing cost of a book with double-spaced typesetting. But there is certainly a happy medium. I'm presently working through L.B. Graham's The Darker Road, and his lines are set a shade more closely than mine. His are at what seem like 1.25 inches, barely closer together than my inch-and-a-half. But in some form or fashion, you need to give readers room to breathe, without the words piling on top of each other. When my mom read Litany of Secrets, one of the things she first mentioned was how the spaced lines were easy on her eyes.

Again, there's no magic formula; it's just a pragmatic measure to find what works best. And nothing will ever be more important than first and foremost telling a great story. But neither is there any excuse for doing the little things poorly. At the very least, it's a chance to show your readers you've put some conscientious planning into your final display.

As always, I'm interested in your thoughts and opinions. Fonts and spacing? Are they make or break? What do you prefer?

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