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.


Filed under aesthetics, design, working method

6 responses to “Finding a font for our words

  1. A nicely turned essay, Richard, a real pleasure, one of your best. and I wondered last week why you were so suddenly curious about fonts. And, yes, I’m a little ashamed at having practically no interest in fonts unless they bother or distract me. Oddly, I’m much more interested in, say, the sort of salt that’s offered in a restaurant or the kind of pepper than the font of a story or article, but you’ve heightened my awareness. My daughter is obsessed with fonts and envies the number I have loaded up.

  2. theexile

    Editors must really think alike. What is the piece going to look like if we publish it? It is an interesting trick of mind to see how a piece of writing changes by merely changing font. Or even arranged in columns. I loved editing my newspaper stories on a 70 percent page proof. Seeing the story in columns with art often changed my perspective of the story.

    I still like to play around with font and margins — I set one Word template to the size of a book page. And recently completed a draft of a freelance piece using the columns function to get a sense of what it might look like in print. It certainly made me refocus the size of my paragraphs, and I made sentence and word changes as well.

  3. Scribbly Jane

    I’m a Palatino girl.

  4. AB

    I’m a Palatino girl, too!

    But why was ACaslon Regular a waste of money, exactly? Because boldface doesn’t show? Or because WordPress converts your blog to its font?

    • Oh, that was mostly a lame joke: the elegant font didn’t make my writing more elegant.

      I am disappointed that the boldface doesn’t show up much in ACaslon Regular. I had Big Caslon anyway and it’s very similar—as I indicated, my eye can’t really tell the difference between Times and Times New Roman, so I’m not super sensitive to tiny differences.

  5. Scribbly and AB: Thanks for reminding me of Palatino! I just put a passage in it and it’s a beautiful serif font—elegant but kind of bold. Just don’t try to get it past my old editor who’d chastise you for not using Times New Roman.