Writers have a lot of creative freedom in what and how to write, but as tempting as it is, lay-out is not one of those freedoms. Here’s why!
When it comes to the creation of a book, the author’s voice is the most formative to the story, but how the book ends up looking is almost entirely in the hands of other professionals. Some authors wear several hats, myself included, but this only works if you know the rules of the game. I frequent quite a few online writer’s groups and I hear a lot of advice about making text bold, or putting it in a box for emphasis. I’m here to tell you, as a DTP professional: don’t. Your publisher (or Amazon) will hate you for it.
“DTP” stands for “Desktop publishing.” It’s the creation of documents using page layout skills on a personal computer primarily for print. DTP is a job. It’s something you can make a living off. Anything you can make a living off, in my book, requires further study before you attempt it yourself.
“I hear a lot of advice about making
text bold, or putting it in a box
for emphasis. I’m here to tell you,
as a DTP professional: don’t.”
In Ye Olden Days, when printing was still done through typesetting, DTP work and print work was always combined. Every cast metal sort—a piece of type representing a particular letter or symbol—was hand-placed onto a sorting stick to form words, then lines, then paragraphs, then pages of text. These sorts were then tightly bound together to make up a form, that form was placed into a frame that corresponded with the paper size, and then the print work passed through one or more print runs, each with a different color where needed. Here is a video of the process, sadly lacking the noise that these machines produce.
Back in Ye Olden Days (easily up to the 1970’s and over), the only variations you could make in text was through the choice of font and font size. Headings were done up in impressive, often decorative fonts to make them stand out. Italics existed, but only through the use of cursive fonts, and regular serif typeface was used for standard text. There was no such thing as bold text and if you wanted a border around something, someone painstakingly composed it around the text onto the sorting stick with specially crafted sorts, which was time consuming and thus expensive. Because it was expensive, many people opted not to do it.
Our expectations of what books look like were built upon the limitations of printing presses: a bold heading, easy to read text, no bold formatting in the actual text and no embellishments, save for when they have a purpose. An example of the latter are symbols to denote scene breaks. When text is presented to us like this, it’s universally understood, soothes us, and helps us sink into the story.
“Our expectations of what books
look like were built upon the limitations
of printing presses.“
Every single person in the publishing chain should have the same goal: to make the reading experience as enjoyable as possible for the reader. The writer does this by creating a gripping story, the editor by making sure there aren’t any errors in the text and that it flows well. The (cover) artist makes sure the outside of the book and any images on the inside look inviting. The DTP professional makes sure nothing on the inside of the book distracts from the words, and the printer (in case of a print book) makes sure the book is pleasant to hold and will hold together many read-throughs later.
When you break the subconscious expectations of the audience by introducing embellishments outside of the norm, you remind them that they are holding a book and the story they are reading is fictional. It diminishes the experience of the reader and it should be avoided at all costs.
Bold formatting has another issue: depending on the chosen font, letter can already appear quite thick. Especially with small lettering on low-quality paper, letters can blend together when printed in bold. This hampers legibility and that, of course, is something you never want to happen for your readers—especially when you consider not everyone has 20/20 vision.
“When you break the subconscious
expectations of the audience,
you remind them that they
are holding a book.”
As a writer, your job is to write a story that is gripping and understandable. If you cannot do that with standard font alone, you need to figure out a way to make things clear without breaking reader expectations. The only standard decoration allowed in book texts (the heading can and should be bold) are italics. They are almost always used to denote thoughts or, when the story calls for it, conversations that take place telepathically. An example from The Kincaid Chronicles: Origins:
“Talk to me, asshole!” Talk to me!
Something rustled in her head, as if tickling the back of her forehead with a feather duster.
Rayha focused on the feeling and tried to grab it, link with it somehow. Another shiver ran down her spine. Speak!
Rayhana Kunza Kincaid, we shall speak.
If you print the text above without italics, it’s impossible to distinguish what’s said to whom and through what medium—mouth or thoughts. You can also use italics in text conversations, for example:
Alex picked up her phone when it buzzed. She tried to keep her gaze mostly on mom and still read Evan’s message.
Please talk to me. I fucked up, I know! Just call me!
“Alex, are you even listening to me?” Mom squinted.
“Sorry.” Alex slid the phone into her pocket. “I have to go.”
“The only standard decoration
allowed in book texts are italics.”
If you have solely accepted the task to write, let the formatter handle the formatting. Send them plain text, let them do to it what needs to be done, and leave the decorations to them. You can make suggestions, but don’t be surprised when they either refuse to execute them or warn you against their use. If you do your own formatting, always keep your reader in mind. Do they really need various fonts, bold text, boxes, or any of the other options available to you? If not, leave them out. They’ll only lessen the experience for the reader.