Book Design: What Does Typesetting Entail?

What is the purpose of typesetting? At it’s most basic, typesetting is simply taking raw text and formatting it so that it can become a print book. Good typesetting create a book which is both readable and aesthetically pleasing to its intended audience.

So how do you go about doing that?

Firstly, you need to choose your typesetting software and get familiar with it. Lots of programs will suffice — Microsoft Word, Scribus, InDesign — but I’ll go over the pros and cons of each in a later article. The final printed or digitalized form of your text may look and function differently than it does in your typesetting software, so take that into account when designing.

Before you format a text at all, make sure it has been properly cleaned up. This means having the text finalized and edited, but it also means cleaning the text of anything that will make the book look unprofessional. For instance, does the text have extra enter spaces between paragraphs? Do you have proper em dashes (—) or are you substituting them with en dashes (- or –)? Are you using smart quotation marks (“…”) or do straight quotation marks (“…”) appear where they shouldn’t?

Next, you need to work out what font you’ll be using, because you cannot properly format a text without first choosing a font. Different fonts can be sized and spaced very differently. This means that if you change fonts, the text is going to shift. Pages may need to be added or removed, and any work you may have done to remove widows and orphans (explained a few paragraphs down) will be all for naught.

When choosing a font, also make sure that it accommodates every characters contained in your text. Does it have numbers, is the EM dash the right length, and do you need an ampersand? So on and so forth.

(Fonts should also support the mood and genre of the text without distracting from the text itself, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Now, what are widows and orphans? A widow is when the last line of a paragraph is separated from the rest of a paragraph on a new page or column, and an orphan is when the first line of a paragraph is “left behind” on the prior page or column.

It can be near-impossible to remove the text of all widows and orphans if you are not allowed to edit the text itself. If you are an author formatting your own books, then this shouldn’t bother you at all, because you have full control over your text. As a designer formatting for someone else though, you’ll need to ask them about what kinds of changes they’re comfortable with you making.

If you don’t have control over the text, there’s not very much you can do but ignore them. If you do have control over the text, it’s best practice to remove widows and orphans where you can, because they make a book look less aesthetically pleasing, and less professional.

Other skills that a typesetter will want to learn to make their texts more pleasing to read may include kerning, leading, setting dropcaps, and making sure that all text is aligned correctly.

Finally, ebooks are an exception to many typesetting fundamentals. You can’t prevent orphans and widows when you can’t account for and predict the size of your reader’s screen, and many ebook readers allow readers to change fonts and font sizes to suit their needs.

But this does not mean that typesetting isn’t important for ebooks; instead, it means that the fundamental principles of ebook design are simplicity and flexibility. Once I gain more experience with them, I’ll go over how to typeset ebooks too.

For a more in-depth introduction into typesetting and typography, I recommend picking up is The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst.

And that’s it for typesetting today. I’m going to be revisiting this topic a lot in the coming months! If you find my advice helpful, then you can support my journey as a creator by buying me a Ko-fi. Thank you, and have a lovely day.

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