Writing a good book isn't just about strong characters, conflict, clear communication, a compelling storyline, and effective prose. While these factors are what you should focus on when you're writing, there are other factors that can help make or break the reader's enjoyment of your story (or the information you wish to convey). One of these critical factors is typesetting.
You can think of typesetting as the delivery of your story, because it has to do with the words themselves as they appear on the page. Good typesetting should be invisible to the reader, as it allows them to focus on the story instead of the mechanics.
On the other hand, when you have poor typesetting, you risk alienating the reader and pulling them out of the story.
So read on to learn all about what typesetting is, why it's important, and how to ensure your book gets it done right.
- What typesetting is
- Why typesetting is important
- The most common rules for typesetting
- Common typesetting mistakes to avoid
- Whether you should typeset with word processors
- The best tools for typesetting a beautiful book
Table of contents
- What Is Typesetting?
- Why Worry About Typesetting?
- Typesetting Factors and Rules
- Common Typesetting Mistakes
- Typesetting with Word Processors
- The Best Typesetting Programs Available
What Is Typesetting?
Typesetting is the mechanics of typeface, font size, margin size, line spacing, line length, headings, subheadings, and the size of section breaks. When done well, these factors come together to make for a pleasant reading experience.
Typesetting is just what it sounds like: setting the type. While this term dates back to Johannes Gutenberg and his early letterpress printing press, it's still an important factor in the reading experience. And it's not just about the words on the page. It also pertains to words on the phone, tablet, or Kindle device.
If you've ever opened a book (either physically or digitally) and started reading only to find that there was something wrong that you couldn't quite put your finger on, you’ve probably experienced bad typesetting. It can be hard to read a book with poor typesetting, and it can even give some people headaches.
Typesetting vs Typography
Both typesetting and typography are important factors in book formatting. However, they deal with different things. As mentioned above, typesetting deals mainly with the process of placing the text itself and its spacing to make for a pleasant reading experience while keeping things grammatically correct and consistent. It also deals with things like hyphenation and the consistent use of special characters.
Typography, on the other hand, is the stylistic side of the text and its presentation, dealing more with things like embossing, drop shadows, and other design factors that have little to do with where the text, headings, and subheadings are on the page.
Think of typesetting as the mechanics of a pleasant reading experience, whereas typography is the window dressing that adds a little style and flair to the experience.
Why Worry About Typesetting?
It's tempting to assume that, with the advances in technology that we enjoy today, typesetting isn't a thing to worry about. After all, a typesetter arranging metal type by hand is no longer the norm. But just because the typesetting process has been relatively streamlined doesn't mean that it's no longer relevant. It definitely is.
There are certain rules for typesetting that we need to follow (or at least stick close to) for a professional-looking book. Unfortunately, most word processors, such as Microsoft Word, don't have these rules set into their default settings.
These rules have been developed over many years to ensure that readers have a pleasant experience. It's a facet of graphic design that is still in practice today, although not in the way it used to be with manual typesetting.
Still, the fact remains that good typesetting is invisible. If you've done your job right, the reader will never consciously know. This is the same as advice many writing teachers give about using overly flowery language that will make the reader aware of the author's presence on the page.
Like prose that's designed to impress the reader, bad typesetting will make the reader aware of the mechanics of the text on the page, taking them out of the story or the information. And when you take the reader out of the story enough times, they're likely to put the book down and find one that offers a better reading experience.
Thankfully, there are programs that will automatically keep you from making most of these mistakes. See more on that below.
Typesetting Factors and Rules
Now that you know the importance of typesetting, let's discuss its factors and rules.
If you're not familiar, typeface refers to a set of features for letters, numbers, and other characters. Different fonts fall under an overall typeface. So determining the best typeface for your book is essential to the reading experience.
Serif typefaces, for instance, are used all the time for body text because they're easy on the eyes and they lead the reader along thanks to the characteristics of the letters. Picking a serif font for your book's body text is always a good idea.
Sans serif typefaces can be useful for headings and subheadings, but aren't so great for large blocks of text.
Spacing and White Space
Line and paragraph spacing are essential to a good reading experience. Cramming the lines of text close together can confuse the eyes. Spacing that's too big between lines can make the book overly long and also tire the eyes.
Graphic designers also take line height into account when determining spacing. Different line heights can require different spacing in various types of books.
Proper use of white space can enhance the reading experience and make things easier on the eyes. But white space also needs to be used strategically. For example, there shouldn't be a space between paragraphs most of the time, unless you're denoting a scene or POV change.
The margin sizes in a book serve a few purposes. The outside margin needs to be wide enough for the reader to hold the book open without covering the text.
Top and bottom margins act as cushions for the body text and also contain some combination of author name, book title, and page number. The inner margin is called the gutter, and needs to be big enough so the text doesn't end up too close to the binding.
Between 0.25” and 0.5” is usually best for the outside margins. The size of the inside margin (the gutter) depends on the number of pages in the book, as this will affect the size of the spine.
Book Blocks and Alignment
Book blocks are the blocks of text on two adjacent pages. Standard book design rules dictate that the blocks end on the same lines on each page. Alignment refers to the text lining up on the same page. Both are important factors of typesetting.
Page layout is how all these factors come together on the page, along with headers, subheads, and images. Graphic designers work hard on page layout to ensure a pleasant reading journey.
Luckily, quality formatting tools offer templates with ideal page layout, alignment, book blocks, and typeface settings.
Common Typesetting Mistakes
Now that we've covered the rules and factors for setting type, let's take a look at some common mistakes to avoid to ensure a professionally typeset book.
A word stack is when two or more of the same word are “stacked” on two or more consecutive lines of text. You can fix this by changing the spacing or using a different word to avoid repetition.
Widows and Orphans
Widows and orphans are lines of text that are left all by their lonesome. A widow in typesetting terminology is the end line of a paragraph winding up at the very top of a new page. Orphans are the opposite: the first line of a new paragraph starting at the very bottom of a page.
While this terminology may be a little dramatic for my taste, it does make these two typesetting mistakes easy to learn, helping you avoid widows and orphans whenever possible.
If you're writing a nonfiction book, you probably have lots of subheadings throughout. The typesetting rule of thumb for subheads is that you need to have at least two lines of text underneath on the same page. So if your subhead shows up near the bottom of the page, make sure there are at least two lines following!
Typesetting with Word Processors
While typesetting today falls under the blanket term of graphic design, you may be tempted to try this yourself. After all, we self-publishers need to wear many hats, so typesetting is an excellent skill to learn. However, doing this in word processors like Microsoft Word or Google Docs is more of a headache than it's worth.
If you want to avoid paying a graphic designer to tackle your book's typesetting, you've got some easy options that can save you both time and money...
The Best Typesetting Programs Available
While you can certainly find a professional typesetter to help you with your book, you don't really need to these days. There is one caveat that I must mention, though. If you have an image-heavy book like a cookbook or photography book, you may want to invest in a graphic designer to help you out. But if you have a text-heavy book, you can choose one of the options below.
Atticus is the ultimate self-publishing tool that helps you with writing, formatting, typesetting, collaborating, and even design elements like drop caps. This software is our baby, and has been in the works for a long time.
At the time of this writing, Atticus offers 17 different themes, any one of which takes care of the vast majority of typesetting rules and guidelines we outlined above. All you have to do is pick a theme that you like and Atticus does the rest.
But if you want to get a little more hands-on, you can adjust spacing, margins, font styles, paragraph settings, chapter headings, and even running headers and footers.
You'll want to double-check for issues like word stacks, widows, and orphans just to be sure. But Atticus takes care of everything else for you. Plus, you get lifetime access and free updates for one single payment. Check out Atticus here.
2. Adobe InDesign
If you want to have full control of your book's design, you'll probably want to go with the Adobe InDesign desktop publishing software. This is what the vast majority of graphic designers use for a multitude of design projects, not just books. If you're interested in learning the skills of a graphic designer, this is a good place to start.
This software definitely takes some time to learn, but it may be worth it if you foresee wanting to do your own design and typesetting for all your future books. Adobe has a suite of other tools that you can use, too. With Adobe Illustrator, for instance, you can create your own font, customizing your book down to the letter, allowing you full control over each design element.
While you don't need to learn all the skills of a typesetter, it's important to know the basics of typesetting so you can tell whether your book is following the rules or not. Being a successful self-published author is all about keeping your readers happy so they'll support you by buying your books. But if you provide a poor reading experience with bad typesetting, you're likely to lose readers before they have a chance to finish even one book.
Luckily, writing tools like Atticus make things easier on you by providing you with professionally typeset books without the painstaking process of making all the tedious decisions yourself — or paying a pretty penny for a graphic designer to do it.
Once you have the broad typesetting factors and rules down, and you've found a tool you trust to produce a beautiful book, you don't have to worry about it again!