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Archive for April, 2010

Font Wars

If you’ve ever entered a writing contest, you’ve probably seen remnants of the great font controversy. Some contests nowadays allow writers the choice of Times or Courier, but I’d guess the majority still go with Courier. And writers who choose to use Times run the risk of encountering judges like the ones I ran into on a judges loop a couple of years ago. They claimed that entries written in Times always turned them off because they felt like the writers were “cheating” by using a font that allowed them to squeeze in more text. Now as somebody who vastly prefers Times to Courier, I’ve gotta say I’ve never understood this fanatical loyalty to a font whose only advantage seems to be its resemblance to a typewriter. So let’s examine some of the claims made in its favor.

1. Courier is the most readable (i.e., legible) font. Research on font readability is notoriously shaky because it’s always influenced by things like favorite fonts and font familiarity. Courier is, in fact, a larger font than Times (more about this below), but there’s no clear indication that it’s more readable. In fact, there’s some good evidence that it’s less readable at smaller sizes.

2. Courier is a more honest font. Really? Honest? I’m not even sure what that means. In reality, Courier is what’s called a monospaced font. That is, every letter in Courier takes up the same amount of space: an “i” is as wide as an “m”. This means text written in Courier takes up more space on the page and allows fewer characters per inch. Times was originally designed by Stanley Morison for the Times of London back in the 1930s. It’s a proportional font, meaning the width of the letters depends on their shape. But like most newspaper fonts, it was designed to be legible at any size so that the Times could use it for a variety of applications. Because it’s proportional, it takes up less space on the page with more characters per inch. That, in turn, means it looks somewhat more dense than Courier. But it’s not evil to be dense.

3. Publishers demand that manuscripts be submitted in Courier. Not that I’ve seen! These days publishers want manuscripts to be in digital form so that they can go directly to computer type setting. But you can submit them in Times just as easily as in Courier. Given that a manuscript done in Times is going to be less hefty than one done in Courier, it might even be an advantage to do so.

The bottom line, so far as I’ve been able to determine, is this: Courier is a holdover from the “good old days” when people typed up their manuscripts. It looks like a typewriter. Times, on the other hand, is a clear contribution of desktop publishing. It’s digital, baby! If contests and critique groups are concerned about the amount of text that judges and critique partners have to read (and, of course, they should be), it seems to me the way to deal with that is to limit the number of words that an entry can contain rather than to count pages and limit fonts. These days every word processing program includes a word count function, and in my experience publishers are more interested in the word count than the page count anyway.

So, dear contest judges and critique group moderators, give yourselves a break and try reading Times for a change. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

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When I was just starting out in fiction writing, I took a short story workshop at a venerable San Antonio writers cooperative. I wrote a story I thought was okay and brought it to class for critiquing. Most of my classmates liked it, and some liked it a lot. One man, though, sat through the discussion with a look of utter disdain. When things finally died down, he gave me his critique. He’d recently taken a workshop with a well-known writer, he said, and she’d told him that using adverbs was the mark of poor writing. He handed me back my MS, and sure enough he’d marked every single word ending in –ly and told me to delete them all. Now some of the words he’d marked were actually adjectives (leisurely, for example), but never mind. I’d heard that advice before. Get rid of all adverbs before you send your MS off to an editor.

Adverbs Bad!

Frankly, that’s crap. It’s also a great example of a half-remembered rule. What the well-known writer had probably told my critiquer was that it’s usually better if you can find a strong verb rather than a weak verb plus adverb. She could also have said it’s better to find a strong noun rather than a weak noun plus adjective. That’s a good principle, but it’s a long way from saying never use adverbs.

Overuse of adverbs is bad, but saying you can never use them, in effect eliminating an entire class of words from your vocabulary, is overkill. I understand why people embrace these ideas, though. It’s a lot easier to say “Never use them” than to try to figure out what constitutes effective and ineffective use. But let’s face it—sometimes that strong verb doesn’t exist. Or sometimes you like the rhythm of the adverb in your voice. Or sometimes you just feel like using “said slowly” rather than “drawled” (and if you think about it, those two aren’t exact synonyms).

In general, I’d suggest caution whenever somebody gives you a hard-and-fast dogmatic writing principle to live by, particularly if it involves style. I once worked for a magazine where the General Editor refused to consider the word dove as a past tense for dive (it was an underwater photography magazine, so this came up a lot). Now I could show her countless entries in usage guides indicating that dove was, in fact, perfectly acceptable. She didn’t care—she knew the difference between right and wrong. She had her principles.

Personally, I’ve always loved what Groucho Marx once said: “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them…I have others.” In this case, the principle should be If it works, do it.

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