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The Typewriter is Extinct. Learn to typeset Like a Pro.

by Michael Waite, Bonefrog Creative

The age of the typewriter is past. The typewriting machine is extinct and the world of the printed word is ruled by desktop computers with word processing and page layout software. No longer do we simply type. We TYPESET—a cleaner, more elegant way to display the written word.

Typesetters (you and me) orchestrate a powerful symphony of kerning, leading, point size, fonts families, ligatures, drop caps, italics, em dashes and more. So what's my problem? Too many typewriter conventions—conventions dictated by the limitations of the typewriting machinery—are still being practiced, making the typeset page poorer for it.

The reason old typing conventions are now unnecessary lies in the typefaces themselves. Word processing software (including powerful page layout applications) can use a variety of carefully designed typefaces that, in the typewriter dark ages, were exclusive to the high-end phototypesetting houses who set the type for corporate and media-printed communications. Those shops are gone, shoved aside by desktop publishing.

Here's the point: the majority of fonts (typefaces) are designed for proportional spacing—that is, each character is spaced more tightly or loosely depending on its own shape and the shape of the adjacent characters in the word. A lowercase w and m take up more real estate than an i or a l, and are spaced within a word (by the software) accordingly. Fixed-width or mono-spaced fonts, like the common Courier used by most typewriters, give equal blocks of space for each letter. Effective and necessary for mechanical typing machines, but not necessary or desirable for software-driven typesetting.

Here are four of the most common typing conventions and holdovers that must be weeded out.

No more double spaces between sentences. Period. Space. Capitalize next word. That's all. Break the habit of the double thumb-tap on the space bar. Those double spaces between sentences look especially huge next to caps like W's and A's and T's. And in type confined in narrower columns, those double taps form an ugly river that worms down through the column, disrupting the form and appeal.

Learn and use the proper key-combinations for EM dashes and EN dashes. No more double hyphens to signify em dashes. Em dashes are the long dashes—those used to pause and set off a phrase. Depending on which style manual you read, em dashes should or should not have a space on each side. My personal preference is no spaces. The em dash creates plenty of space by its very nature.

En dashes are longer than hyphens and shorter than ems. En dashes should be used where you would use the word "to." Like this: Orientation from 7pm – 7:30pm; Tuesday – Friday. Use a space on either side of an en dash.

Avoid the underline. The emphasis work of the ugly underline is unnecessary with the superior options available to a typesetter—options like italics and bold type, or even a different font. For those rare times you may want the underline feel, use a carefully placed rule.

Use real-deal curly or smart quotation marks and apostrophes, not inch and foot marks. Learn the key combinations for your software, than typeset the proper curly kind. Some software will allow you to turn curlies on as a general preference. In that case, turn them on and learn the key combinations to use inch marks and foot marks in those rare instances you need them.

An exception, at least currently, is on webpages. Because browsers used by net surfers vary widely in their age and abilities to display type and symbols, a lot of site content is still loaded with fool-proof conventions borrowed from the typewriters—stuff like inch marks for quotes and double hypens or dashes for em dashes.

Is it a big huge deal? Nope. But why not step it up? Maybe few will notice or care that you've a barely-there stain on your tie or blouse cuff, but you'll get it cleaned anyway, right? And if a few tweaks can make your corporate communications that much more streamlined and professional feeling, you'd learn those too.

—Download Typesetting Dos & Don'ts Tipsheet
phone: (208) 776-5210

© Michael Waite • (May be reprinted as long as contact information is included)