Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Readability Versus Legibility

Thoughts on type choices for authors and small/self-publishers, by Stephen Brooke

One might think readable text is the equivalent of legible text, but they are two different typographic goals. Readability brings quick, effortless reading, without tiring the eye, each letter and word flowing into the next. This is what we desire in a printed book of fiction. The drawback of highly readable text is that we are less likely to note typos and other mistakes, and also that comprehension might not be as good as with a text that gives us a slower read.

Legible text lets us see everything. This is obviously desirable for headlines, advertising, and so on, but not so desirable for print fiction. For books where we might wish to slow things down a bit and increase comprehension, as in poetry or textbooks, a slightly less readable font might be the way to go. Legibility over readability is also the preference in books for small children. Perhaps magazine articles should sometimes slow down the reader a tad, as well. Still, all these do need reasonably readable text.

Now, when I write drafts of my fiction I use a highly legible typeface. Century Schoolbook has been a favorite for this—and also for such applications as textbooks, children’s literature, and legal documents. Recently, I have gone to Sitka which has the advantage of coming installed on every Windows PC as a system font. That certainly simplifies moving documents from one computer to another (yes, I know some use Macs or Linux—as have I in the past—but I do not expect to ever work on anything but Windows in the future). Sitka also displays well on-screen, and (like Schoolbook) has large, easily recognizable punctuation. Punctuation is one of the major problems with many readable typefaces; it sometimes becomes difficult to recognize just what punctuation is being used. Quotation marks can particularly be a problem.

At times, I have gone to monospaced fonts for drafting (and still prefer them for poetry and songwriting). These make spotting mistakes even easier. A personal favorite is Bitstream’s Prestige 12, but there are other perfectly good choices.

I use the typical readable typefaces in my published fiction (all this holds true for self-publishers and indies in general). Garamond and its many variants and descendants is generally a good choice (but not always, mind you—there are some strange, spiky Garamond derivatives out there that are better avoided). Caslons are usually good. The many versions of Palatino? Maybe not quite so readable, though certainly acceptable. They are my default for printing poetry. Incidentally, Palatino was never intended for text, being designed by Herman Zapf as a titling font to go with his Aldus typeface. If you can get hold of Aldus, consider using it instead in prose books.

Plantin has been a safe choice for a century. Crimson Pro might be seen as an open license alternative for today (available free from Google Fonts). Keep in mind that the bulk of the free, open license type available is not particular intended for nor suited to use in your novel. Some that look promising are really better suited to legible text on a web site. Libre Caslon, for example; one could get away with using it in a print book but there are certainly better choices.

And by all means avoid Times New Roman. Its tight spacing works well in narrow columns but it is neither readable nor particularly legible spread across a wider page. There are loads of choices, really, some free, some economically priced (like Softmaker’s Megafont collection). Just make sure the license allows commercial use if you are going to use them in print or embedded in a PDF ebook (embedding in an EPUB is an whole other matter—I only specify ‘serif’ as the typeface in mine and avoid all that).

Of course, none of that matters for the typeface you use to write your drafts. Pick one you like, one that lets you see what you need to see. It needn’t be anything like what will be used in the final product; indeed, it’s better if it is quite different, so you don’t get used to seeing the same type all the way through the editing process. In other words, start legible and move to readable when the work is ready.

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