Editorial Style Guide

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(Laurie Smith-Frailey)

Formatting type for print

When should you fully justify? Is it acceptable to underline? Are there guidelines for choosing a font style? It's all (or mostly) here.


Kerning means adjusting the spacing between particular pairs of letters so that letter spacing is visually consistent. It is used to improve the overall appearance of the text. (Especially when the font size is large, unkerned letters can look unprofessional and, worse, interfere with communication of the message.) Be aware that kerning is an option, particularly if you are designing a document for publication directly from your desktop computer.

Microsoft Word X for Mac has a built-in kerning feature that can be accessed through Format – Font – Character spacing.

For more information about kerning, see pp. 35–36 of The Mac is Not a Typewriter.

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Justified text

Justified text refers to text that has been aligned on both margins (sometimes also known as full justification).

Note that there are very few circumstances in which justified text is called for. Generally, unless the font size is small enough and the line wide enough, words tend to space themselves awkwardly as the type tries to align to the margins. These days, it is most common to see left-aligned text with a jagged right margin.

That said, here’s a general guideline for determining if your line is long enough to justify text satisfactorily:The length of the line in picas should be roughly equal to twice the point size of the type. * For example, if you are using 12-point type, the line length must be at least 24 picas, or 4 inches (since there are about 6 picas per inch). Similarly, a type size of 9 points requires a line length of at least 3 inches (18 picas).

For more information about justified text, see pp. 59–60 of The Mac is Not a Typewriter.

* Williams, Robin, The Mac is Not a Typewriter:A Style Manual for Creating Professional-Level Type on Your Macintosh, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, Calif.:Peachpit Press, 2003), 60.

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One space between sentences

“Use only one space after periods, colons, exclamation points, question marks, quotation marks—any punctuation that separates two sentences.” *

Since most fonts available on computers these days use proportional spacing—with the letter l taking up far less space than the letter m, for example—that extra space between sentences is no longer necessary to signal a sentence ending. So don’t waste bytes on it. One space between sentences.

* Williams, 13.

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Paragraph spacing

There are three rules to remember where spacing between paragraphs is concerned.

  1. Don’t indent the first paragraph.
    An indent is meant to alert the reader that a new paragraph has begun. If it’s the first paragraph, this isn’t necessary. First paragraph includes the text that follows a headline or subhead.
  2. Separate subsequent paragraphs in running text with an indent—not with extra paragraph spacing, and not with both.
  3. Paragraph indents should be set at one em.

According to traditional typesetting standards, an indent should be the same width as the point size of the type being used—i.e., 12-point type means the indent should equal 12 points in width (roughly the size of the capital letter M). If your word processor doesn’t let you set indents in point sizes, approximate. (Incidentally, the “five spaces or half inch” rule for indents went out with the typewriter.)

For more information about paragraph spacing, see pp. 55–58 of The Mac is Not a Typewriter.

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Serif vs. sans serif fonts

“Serif type is more readable and is best for text; sans serif type is more legible and is best used for headlines and signage.” *

Research has shown that serifs—those tiny tags at the end of letter strokes—help to lead the eye along a line of text, and thus ease the job of reading. On the other hand, sans serif type has been shown to be more legible, i.e., characters are easier to recognize at a glance for “short bursts” of type. For these reasons, try to reserve sans serif fonts for headlines and use serif style for the main body of your text.

Examples of commonly used fonts of both types:

Serif fonts for the main body (all in 12-point type):

  • This is Palatino.
  • This is Bookman Old Style
  • This is Georgia.
  • This is Janson Text.
  • This is New York.
  • This is Times New Roman.

Sans serif fonts for headlines (all in 12-point type):

  • This is Arial.
  • This is Comic Sans MS.
  • This is Geneva.
  • This is Helvetica.
  • This is Univers 57 Condensed.
  • This is Verdana.

For more information about serif and sans serif fonts, see pp. 63–64 of The Mac is Not a Typewriter.

Please note: Usability experts generally agree, however, that sans serif fonts are easier to read online than serif fonts -- just the opposite!

* Williams, 63.

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Small caps

Small caps are capital letters that are the same size, or slightly larger than, lowercase letters. Always use small caps to format a.m. and p.m. One way to accomplish this is as follows:

Type a.m., then select it. From the menu bar, click on Format → Font. Under Effects, check Small caps. Click OK. Voilà!

You can also use the AutoCorrect function in your word processor to do this formatting for you automatically. From the menu bar, click Tools → AutoCorrect; refer to application documentation for instructions if necessary.

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Avoid underlining. Whether for emphasis or to follow proper convention where book titles and such are concerned, italicize instead.

There are other options for emphasizing a word or two beyond italicizing. For example, you can use bold type, larger type or a different font. But never underline.

In the rare case where you insist on using a line (typesetters call this a “rule”) with text, use your word processor to draw a line under the word. By drawing a line, you have control over its width, length and position relative to the word.

For more information about underlining, see pp. 31–32 of The Mac is Not a Typewriter.

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Widows and orphans

Avoid widows and orphans.

You have a widow when the last line of a paragraph is comprised of fewer than seven characters (that’s seven characters, not words). Example:

In September 1994, an MIT professor walked
into his dean’s office with a research idea so
out there—literally and figuratively—that no
standard funding organization would gamble
on it. [ ← widow ]

You have an orphan when the last line of a paragraph won’t fit at the bottom of a column and lands at the top of the next column. Example:

With that seed money, Professor Ting launched the alphamagnetic spectro-meter(AMS) project, now the premier science experiment aboard the International Space

Station. [ ← orphan ]

The $100 million project ….

There are several tactics for getting rid of widows and orphans. These include editing out a word or two, manually removing lines or spacing, using shift+return to force text onto the next line without creating a new paragraph, or adjusting margins slightly. Just be sure to do it.

For more information about widows and orphans, see pp. 45–46 of The Mac is Not a Typewriter.

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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E-mail comdor-editguide@mit.edu