Basic Typography For Maximizing Readability

by Renée Layberry

During Manuscript Submission, it’s common to think of the text document (i.e. .doc. .docx) as the working file that your designer will be using as the actual layout. This is not the case: the text file is actually the raw material. The designer uses this raw material to transplant your text into a separate design program, where your book will be put together.

It’s important to feel confident that, in the final result, your text will look the way you envisioned. Understanding a little bit about typography will give you a framework to recognize industry standards and to articulate any concerns about your digital proof (the PDF file that shows you what your book will look like when printed).


In black and white book blocks (both fiction and non-fiction), we most often use justified alignment. This means that the spaces between words are evenly distributed across the page causing the text to align equally with both the left and right margins.

At first glance, you may feel uncomfortable with white space and consider it to be “empty space”. However, white space is an important element in design as it helps to balance positive and negative space. The spaces between letters are just as important as the actual letters themselves. In a sense, they are considered an invisible form of typography, just as the silence between the beats of a drum are important in music.


From the Chicago Manual of Style:


  • A paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page/column, thus separated from the rest of the text.


  • A paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page/column.

  • A word, part of a word, or very short line that appears by itself at the end of a paragraph. Orphans result in too much white space between paragraphs or at the bottom of a page.

“Writing guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, generally suggest that a manuscript should have no widows and orphans even when avoiding them results in additional space at the bottom of a page or column.”

Font Size/Typeface

Size: Depending on the typeface, the size of the fonts that our designers choose will usually will be a 10 or 11 point. Often, authors want a larger size, so it’s important to consider how increasing the font size will impact the overall look of the book block, as well as the outcome of the Suggested Retail Price (which is based on the trim size and page count).

For a Fiction or Non-Fiction book block, avoid going larger than a 13 or 14 point size, (depending on the kind of font being used) because the increased page count will make your book more expensive.

If you feel that the book block is simply not as readable as you’d like, and if increasing the font size will significantly increase the page count, the designer may consider increasing the font by one size only, and/or playing with the leading or even tracking.

Leading is the space between lines and can be carefully increased/adjusted to create more white space without increasing font size.

Tracking is the space on a line (between letters). The designer may consider adjusting the tracking to create more white space if needed.

Serif vs. Sans Serif

Serif fonts are far easier to read in blocks of text than Sans Serif. Serif fonts are characterized by their little “hands and feet”, which are the serifs themselves. The serifs are considered to be subtle visual guides that ease the eye along through the text. Examples are Georgia, Times New Roman, Courier.

Sans Serifs have no serifs (“sans” is French for “without”), and are better for titles, headers, footers, or chapter headings. The eye tends to slip off the edges of sans serif fonts, which creates a bit more effort to follow through longer blocks of text. Examples are Arial, Helvetica.

Decorative and Script Fonts

Decorative and Script fonts should not be used for the book block. Examples of decorative fonts are Copperplate or Papyrus, and examples of script fonts are Brush Script or Kaufmann.

Occasionally authors will request these fonts because they want to impart an ancient, organic, or handwritten appearance, but it absolutely kills readability in a block of text and should be avoided.

Decorative and Script fonts, however, are good for titles, especially on the cover, and should be contrasted with a very simple font (like Helvetica or Times New Roman).

Other points to remember:

  • Don’t use more than two different font styles in one design – it creates a busy effect.

  • Don’t use two different serif fonts together, two different sans serif fonts together, or two different decorative fonts in the same design, as it overwhelms and clashes.