Practical Typography: Volume One

I started thinking about this concept over a year ago, writing disjointed thoughts on typography in my notebook instead of taking notes in my “Services Marketing” summer class. My realization was that since high school I’d been using Courier New for every academic paper I’d written (and after spending two years as an English major this was quite a lot indeed). The advice came from an insightful high school English teacher, and I’ll explain his reasoning a little later. What’s important to know is that despite constant skepticism from classmates when I tried to give them the same advice, I never received any negative feedback from a professor. Sure, there are those who state outright, often in the syllabus, that students are to use a certain font, usually Times New Roman, at a certain size. But these were generally the exception, not the rule. In probably 90% of my college classes, across several majors, professors had no objection to size 12 Courier (on a Mac I’d be Talking about American Typewriter Std). But why is this important? Well if you’re an upstanding, rule-abiding student who enjoys writing as many pages as possible in response to your required reading of Babbit in Business school, it might not be. If, like me, you’re always looking to do the most good with the least effort, then read on.

The fonts I’m talking about here were designed, essentially, to emulate typewriters. In this respect they are perfectly acceptable for the purposes of academic, or for that matter any serious, writing. The term monospaced refers to the uniform spacing of letters, numbers and punctuation. This is unique among monospaced fonts. Your standard serif such as Times New Roman has varying amounts of spacing dependent on the letter in question; for instance, the letter “i” gets less space in the horizontal direction than, say, a “w”. In this respect there is a sense of unpredictability with these fonts, as a word with more slender letters will take up less than a word with a lot of wider letters. But why does this matter? Because monospaced fonts are both consistent…and take up more space. Consider the following example:


Courier New on the left, Times New Roman on the right. Both examples use the same 50-word sample set in 12pt type leaded at 15pt. Note the difference in length. And this is simply over the course of one (very short) paragraph. So we can see right away that using a monospaced font has serious advantages in situations where a certain page-length is required. Is it cheating? Maybe, but I don’t think so. But just in case, after using this method for more years than I care to divulge here, I formulated a succinct justification should the need arise (it never did). Essentially, and this is the bit I gleaned from that insightful high school teacher, this format (double-spaced, of course) is considered standard “Manuscript Format” when submitting any piece of writing for publication. This has a lot to do with cleanliness: If a publisher sees identical manuscripts, the emphasis is on the words rather than the fonts. You can say a lot with a font, but one could argue that with a typewriter font you’re simply saying “I’m writing something”. Additionally, the wide spacing allows for easy markup and proofreading.

This whole length-manipulation technique played well into a style of writing which served me quite well for the entirety of my college experience: say a lot with a little. “Trim the fat” as it were. So you need a ten page paper? Write a ten page paper with Times New Roman. Then set it to a monospaced font…suddenly you’re going to have fifteen. What now? Start trimming. What you’re left with afterward, in theory, is nicely distilled. Whoever reads it isn’t going to get the feeling you were drawing things out to take up space, they’re going to get the feeling you’re getting right to the point.

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