Readability is a huge topic, something that I shall return to at a later date (soon, I hope). Today, however, I shall focus on the role that fonts and diacritical marks play in the readability of a work.

Layout important

Essentially, readability consists of two elements. Language and the other literary factors are the ones most often focused on by authors – and without doubt they are important. But almost equally important is the layout, especially the font used, characters per line and leading (line spacing), because readers are discouraged by something that confuses the eye or otherwise is difficult to read. Scholarship that is worn lightly combined with a reader-friendly layout can be crucial elements in the success of a book.

Fonts and readability

Fonts play an important role here. Some fonts are easier than others to read. Serif fonts (with ‘feet’) like Times are far easier to read in running text than sans-serif fonts (without ‘feet’) like Arial and Helvetica. Serif fonts are best for body text, while sans-serif are often used for headings because of the greater visual impact. As an author, you will have little control over the fonts chosen by your publisher (or their typesetter). But before you can get published, you have to ‘sell’ your manuscript to the publisher. Here its visual attractiveness is important, much more than you may think. Remember, then, that when preparing your manuscript, you choose font sizes that enhance its readability and acceptability. The standard is 12-point Times, boring perhaps but eminently usable.

Diacritical marks as ‘speed bumps’

A complication here is the need for (or use of) diacritical marks. Obviously, there are situations – many situations – where an author feels s/he must use diacritical marks (or non-Latin script, for that matter) to properly define a term or render an accurate description.

Unfortunately, like it or not, diacritical marks add clutter to a text (so too do italicized text and footnotes, while arguably end notes and cross-references – which draw the reader away to another page – are even worse). The heavy use of any or all of these slows down the reading speed (hence why I often call them ‘speed bumps’) and reduces the readability of a text.

Does it matter?

For a reference work, perhaps this doesn’t matter (as for example was the case with the Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts that we published a couple of years ago). But for a monograph reaching for a broader audience, readability is definitely an issue. By definition, not all of its readers will be specialists in the field(s) addressed by the book. They need to be encouraged to open the book and get absorbed by its contents. Encountering a thicket of italicized foreign terms garnished with diacriticals (often right from the beginning of the work) is no encouragement.

So what, you may ask, does it matter? Yes, it does, actually. Today, readability is not an issue that can be ignored. While it is true that some presses can – and still do – publish works solely for the 50 or so specialists in a field, such presses are in trouble today and besides actually they are not doing any favours to the author with such a limited approach.

But not the only issue

However, readability is not the only issue arising from the use of fonts and diacritical marks. In my next two posts I shall move on to explore the related issues of font compatibility and font licensing.


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