With the rise of self publishing, many writers now find themselves responsible for the final look of their manuscript but without an education in what fonts will work best, and often settle on Times New Roman.
The golden rule of body text fonts is that the choice should be invisible. As a writer you are trying to make your words the important thing. A bad font will put people off but a good font will become invisible. Unlike a submitted manuscript, a proportionally spaced font is better as this has a tendency to “flow” better between words.
In a published work, it’s best to use a serif font. A serif font is one with flourishes on it’s letters, while a sans serif is one without. This is likely appearing in a Times New Roman font, in which case have a look at the end of every letter to see what I’m talking about. American audiences are uncomfortable with passages of text being written in sans-serif fonts, such as Arial, but European audiences accept sans-serif body text more readily.
Many fonts are near duplicates of others and it may seem like there’s little difference between them. To properly test a font, I advise reading 500-600 words in a particular font before deciding to use it. This will allow to assess the potential for eyestrain. Printing this out will also give you an idea about line thickness, as many fonts may look too thin in places when on paper and away from the variable zoom of word-processors.
You may also notice that the spacing of some fonts leads to confusion when two letters are placed next to each other. Examples include “Ill” appearing as three l’s and “cl” being read as a lowercase d.
It’s tempting to use Times New Roman for the body of your text. It’s widely used and easily legible to most readers however, as it’s the default font for many word-processors, using it can make your work seem amateurish. Times New Roman was designed for use in the narrow columns of newspapers, meaning it sets a little too dense for many readers liking. In a book, you have much more ample space than a newspaper so it makes sense not to use a newspaper font.
Garamond has become one of the most popular fonts for body text. This is owing to it’s lighter strokes than Times New Roman and it’s more open negative space. This makes it easier to read while retaining the same character as Times New Roman. It also has a few touches, such as the capital Q and G spurs appearing more elegant.
Palatino is another font with it’s proponents but I have a few personal issues with the font. Firstly, the rounded bows of the capital P and R do not fully join to the main stem. Secondly, there are a number of flourished serifs that lean towards the left. Both of these issues arise from the font’s nature, they are traits taken from handwriting. The Capital X has uneven strokes to mimic the thickness of a quill on diagonal lines. While some may like this sense of character, I personally find those features to be distracting. For a long while, Palatino was the most commonly used font for books and it still enjoys widespread, familiar usage. Book Antiqua is practically a clone of Palatino that also enjoys high status amongst typographers.
Minion remains my favourite font for novel text. I initially began using it as a compromise. It features a heavier weight like that of Times New Roman but it’s better spaced and features a number of ligatures, characters that join up, giving it a sense of character. Robert Bringhurst used it for “Elements of Typographic Style”, considered the bible of typography, which may be the highest honour a font could receive. This has led to it becoming the font of choice for many publishers though there has been a recent call to arms to experiment with font choices more. Minion has simplay become a very comfortable choice.
When using these fonts on a computer screen, I would advise looking at the more basic fonts. These have been designed with the pixel nature of screens in mind. With fonts such as Garamond, the curvature of letters can result in them becoming blocky on the screen. Georgia, Times New Roman and Arial are all worth considering for digital text and e-books.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg. For every font there are pros and cons, fans and critics. Above everything, don’t be afraid to experiment and stray from the familiarity of Times New Roman.