Daily Archives: January 13, 2010

Finding a font for our words

The New Yorker online recently excerpted a passage from Jonathan Lethem’s new novel Chronic City concerning a man who believes his mind to be controlled by the magazine’s font. This mention allowed The New Yorker to reveal:

“Fiction editor Deborah Treisman expounded a bit on the font (it’s ACaslon Regular), and how it factors into the story selection process: Often when we’re reading stories, and thinking about them and editing them, we’ll say, ‘Let’s go ahead and put it in the font.’ It’s a sort of test marker. It makes things much more official. You get it in there and suddenly it looks much better, or sometimes it looks much worse.”

I had Big Caslon in my font menu but not Adobe’s ACaslon Regular, and I love the New Yorker’s elegant font so I bought it and downloaded it. I wrote this post in it, in hopes of increasing my eloquence. So far, I’ve wasted twenty-five bucks. It is a gorgeous font even on screen, though boldface is hardly distinguishable in it.

People are funny about fonts. An editor once changed my typeface from Times to Times New Roman and seemed fairly self-righteous about it, as if every professional knows the latter is the only acceptable font. He’s published a lot and for all I know he’s right, but somewhere along the line I got the idea that good old Times was that gold standard. The two fonts are very similar but Times New Roman is slightly larger. His font was his talisman, as if a publisher would snarl at work submitted in mere Times (and flee from something as crass as Helvetica). Publishers are going to pick their own fonts in the end.

I think the font we usually write in is the one that we get used to and that feels right to us. Or just long use itself makes it feel correct. Often I feel uncomfortable and vaguely disloyal with fonts other than the Times family. I like serifs, their elegance and ease on the eye, plus their widespread use in periodical and book publishing.  But I sometimes put an essay in a sans serif script to see it in a new way.

I usually draft blog posts in Gill Sans, a sans serif font that feels right for my changeup to the blog. Its lines are beautiful to me and its bold type is wonderfully thick and meaty. I’ve used it for a few essays since a friend sent me something she wrote in it. Of course when I paste Gill Sans copy into the blog’s setup it converts it to WordPress’s choice of font, which is a decent serif, Times-ish or in that family.

Anne Rice recently told The Wall Street Journal she writes in 14 point Courier, which is the font that approximates typewritten copy; it’s a large serif font, even in standard 12 point, because each letter gets the same spacing—an “i” allowed the space same as an “M,” as a typewriter would—and so it’s also airy. Her widescreen Apple monitor is just filled with her words.

I have enlarged my Times to 14 on occasion, and once to 16, for printing out; seeing the words so large helps pick out and cut the useless ones. But while composing usually I just use Word’s zoom function under View and enlarge the document to 175 percent—that’s what works on my new MacBook and at the distance I sit when I write.

Last week a freelancer friend sent me a draft of a magazine article of his to read; I was surprised when I opened it to see it was thirty pages long. Then I noticed the type seemed awfully large, and it had opened at only 100 percent. I checked the font and found that he’d used a sans serif called Lucinda Grande, which was enlarged to 18 point. I asked why he picked that font (“At random,” he replied) and size (“Because it’s easy to see”). “I still don’t know how to use Word,” he added, “and, in fact, write in Text/Edit so Bill Gates isn’t trying to outguess my spelling, grammar and formatting.”

Most of us are locked into Word for various reasons, though, so picking our font is our degree of freedom. As I’ve said, font choice seems very personal and most writers may have emotional connections to their chosen one, my friend apparently excepted (I’ll bet he would have rejected a font that didn’t feel right to him, though). Let’s face it: every writer wants to be a font, of words, of wisdom, of beauty, of pity.

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Filed under aesthetics, design, working method