What typefaces writers compose in, and why

Daisy Wheel

Slate presents “My Favorite Font: Anne Fadiman, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Posner, and others reveal what font they compose in and why.” Some bits I appreciated:

I like Courier because it seems provisional—I can still change my mind—whereas Times New Roman and its analogues look like book faces, meaning that they feel nailed down and immovable. —Luc Sante

Most of my books have been set in Walbaum, which sounds like a chain store but is in fact an early-19th-century font designed by Justus Erich Walbaum, a German punchcutter whose luscious serifs may have been influenced by his early apprenticeship to a confectioner. —Anne Fadiman

Obsessing about fonts is a form of procrastination, so of course I have indulged in it ever since I graduated from a TRS-80 Model III to a Macintosh. —Caleb Crain

There’s a strong preference for Courier, which I happen to think is a good idea. Keeps the writer from getting to hung up on presentation. When I worked on the PEN literary journal, I’d format files in Courier for the staff, but in Times New Roman for the editor in chief. The book was then set in very small Adobe Caslon, and we’d find another round of typos on that version—you see different kinds of errors every time you change the typeface.

The default fonts in most of my non-layout applications are set to Georgia, Verdana, and Andale Mono. Yours?

(P.S. Man, remember daisy-wheel printers? I used to take mininaps between pages when I printed out my papers for school; each page took, like, five minutes, and I found the tat-tat-tat-tat-tat soothing.)

Photo: APL 10 by Paul Downey; some rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “What typefaces writers compose in, and why

  1. Everyday stuff for me is the venerable Verdana…. In particular with Mail. An email is so much friendlier in Verdana as opposed to Helvetica! Other reliable friends are Myriad and Minion.

  2. I write my blog posts and email in Helvetica. At work, I wrote emails and weekly progress reports in Courier and Courier Bold. Never ital. Courier Italic just looks wrong to me. I’d underscore it, in the tradition of typewritten text, before I’d set it italic.

    Courier is a fave for me because of the connection to typewriting that some of the authors cite in the Slate piece. I suspect I would groove on Andale Mono for the same reason. I was always the kid who had to play with the typewriters at Sears or my dad’s office. On my previous computer, I had the Schmutz family of typewriter-emulator typefaces, but now only Schmutz Cleaned really grabs my eye. I picked up a Smith-Corona portable from our town flea market in case I really want to get retro.

    Another reason why I like Courier is that it made for very accurate page-count estimates when I was a journal production editor. At the time, we still got a pile of paper MSS along with the floppy disks for each issue, so it was faster to do quick character/line counts on three representative pages and take an average than to virus-scan all the disks, load the articles onto the network, run the cleanup macro, reprint them in one typeface etc., etc. When the MSS were all submitted in Courier, my typeset proofs often came out within a page of my estimate. Not as often with the various real and bastard versions of Helvetica or Times. Monospacing was the key.

    At school I had an ImageWriter II for my Mac SE. The high-pitched grinding whine of a 20-page term paper laboriously being spit out is etched into my college memories. When the school library instituted a LaserWriter queue in the computer lab, I mothballed the dot matrix and never looked back.

  3. Oh, yes—italicized Courier is painful to look at. I had it changed to underlining in PEN’s proofing template.

    In general, when I’m marking up pre-typeset hard copy, I prefer underlining to italics. It’s easier to cross an underline out than to circle the word and write “rom” in the margin, and you’re not forever squinting at commas trying to tell if they’re italicized or not.

  4. When I’m writing in Word my default is Bembo Book, the newish Monotype version of Bembo (which is not as light and spindly as the Adobe version), although I do modify it to default to old style figs, since Word’s a little backward with respect to extended characters. (Or is it better now with Vista? I’ve been afraid to upgrade). Bembo is fairly “invisible” to the average person but it doesn’t hurt my eyes. A case could be made for Sabon, I suppose. Courier is too hard for me to read, and I can’t use it except for plays and screenplays, where it still seems right for some reason.

  5. Well, I guess it’s “a sort of Courier” in that it’s ubiquitous. But it lacks the benefits of a monospaced typeface—that hard-to-read quality that Tom (xensen) mentions is what I like about it. Monospaced type slows you down, so your attention stays on the text, rather than on the meaning of the text. You notice every space and piece of punctuation, because they all look . . . a bit . . . off. That’s the goal.

  6. that makes sense. I think I use TNR so I don’t get the ‘this text is finished’ feeling. it lets me think of what I’m working on / editing / revising as a work in progress. when it’s finished, then I start setting in the font I want it to be printed in and then, yes, as you mention, India, you start seeing all sorts of things you didn’t notice with the old font.

  7. Well, for an editor I’m a pretty crappy proofreader, and it’s largely because I do focus on the meaning of the text rather than on the text itself. So I suppose Courier would do me a world of good.

  8. Yeah, see, and I’m a fairly inept big-picture editor, because I get so engrossed in the sentence-by-sentence syntax and punctuation that I rarely consider a whole paragraph, much less a chapter.

    On the bright side, this means that whenever I reread a book—even if it’s one I’ve read several times before—I notice so many new big-picture things, and I am reminded of so many details that I’d forgotten, that I might as well be reading it for the first time. The surprises never stop coming.

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