A Fount of Fonts

Catriona Tippin

With self-publishing in mind this month, here are some thoughts on fonts.

Typeface design has a rich history; when you’re surfing the web, instead of finishing your work in progress, have a look at the history of the fonts you use. All those surnames are used for a variety of reasons, all interesting. And from that history, a variety of conventions have evolved, with the best aimed at ensuring readability and good design.

Here’s the handiest hint or topical tip for a printed end result: use a font with serifs for the main text and a sans-serif font for chapter headings, captions, titles, etc.

Here are some tried and tested serif fonts:
(Click examples to enlarge.)

And sans-serif fonts include:

For reading text online a sans-serif font may be preferable, so try Tahoma or Verdana from the list above. Book publishing is evolving so fast that your choices may be changed not only by an editor (if involved) but by the reader (if e-reading). You may be constrained by your printing/publishing company’s demands. Confidence in your original font choices is worth having though, so… serif body text, sans-serif headings, and well-established fonts for both.

Some random facts on fonts:

The decorative flick at the end of the main horizontal and vertical strokes of a letter, known as a serif, originated in Roman inscriptional carving.

For a top ten of serif fonts there are the six above plus Baskerville, Caslon, Georgia, and… 

Bodoni – despite being described by William Morris as having “Preposterous thicks and thins.”

Literally ‘without serif’. Spelling? I use ‘sans-serif’ in its hyphenated form but there’s ‘sans serif’ and ‘sanserif’ too. The short form may take over as the conventional spelling.

For a top ten of sans-serif fonts there are the three above plus Calibri, Frutiger, Helvetica, Johnston, Trebuchet, Univers and…

Gill Sans – here’s a graphic designer’s in-joke: “How do you do British post-war design?” “Set it in Gill Sans and print it in British Racing Green.” Think of the original Penguin books, the BBC and the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. Based on Edward Johnston’s eponymous London Underground typeface, both are classics.

Finally, here are three terms it’s worth knowing about, though the proportional fonts in use now mean most of this is done for you -


An illustration of kerning

Kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between letters so the blank spaces between each pair of letters have a visually similar area. This is automatically done if using a proportional font.


Tracking is the process of increasing or decreasing the space between letters to affect overall density in a line of text. It’s used to correct a split word or a ‘widow’ (single word at the end of a paragraph).


Leading (pronounced like the metal) is line-spacing, and with some fonts it improves legibility. The word comes from the era of hand-typesetting, when thin strips of lead were inserted into the forms of text to increase the distance between lines of type. Text set ‘solid’ appears cramped, with ascenders (as on b d f h k l) almost touching descenders (as on g j p q y). Line-spacing also avoids the phenomena of ‘rivers’ appearing. These are the gaps between words which seem to create white lines flowing through the text due to the coincidental alignment of spaces.

Further font facts will feature in the future. 

Catriona Tippin aka @ProofReadingTip will be back next month with more proofreading tips. To see previous tips, click on this proofreading link.

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for two national educational charities, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary). 


  1. Thanks so much, Catriona. Fonts are such a useful way of altering the tone of a story - when writing, I find, as well as reading. I'm using Bookman Old Style for my current 11+ story, but Garamond for the YA m/s. For submissions, however, it's Times New Roman every time: professional looking on screen, and prints well on A4. There was an interesting New Scientist article last year about the way we read serif and sans-serif fonts. Apparently, the twirls of serif force us to pay closer attention. They take longer to read, but as a result we retain more of the information.

    1. Hi Rowena - I like Georgia for its chunky legibility with short ascenders and descenders but, you're right, you can't beat TNR. I'll track down the New Scientist article - thanks for that.

    2. I'd give you a reference if I hadn't accidently recycled that issue. It was sparked by the hoots of derision when CERN announced the finding of the Higgs particle in Comic Sans! Honest, apparently they did.

    3. A local chiropractor has a big billboard with a quote from Hippocrates "Look well to the spine for the cause of disease" and it's robbed of all dignity as it's in Comic Sans. Pathetic really, as well as noticing greengrocers' apostrophes I wince at the sight of inappropriate fonts.

    4. A follow up on Comic Sans and scientific announcements - European Space Agency promised "no Comic Sans" at press conference today for comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft's arrival in orbit - "We've learnt that lesson"

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