Fonts Can be Tricksy, says The New Scientist | Magazine | News for Writers

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

‘Fonts are not just about aesthetics – they affect the way we digest information and can even sway our opinions‘ The New Scientist Issue 2896

Recently RTE Radio 1’s Aine Lawlor interviewed writers John Boyne, Carlo Gebler and MJ Hyland about writing and their tips for anyone starting out. MJ Hyland, who an ex-lawyer and the author of three multi-award-winning novels is also a lecturer in Creative Writing in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, and she made a very interesting point about editing and reading back your work, suggesting that printing it off in an ugly font will make mistakes show up more clearly. Anyone who has had a manuscript professionally proof read will know exactly how many mistakes can slip through even the keenest author’s re-read – it’s a truth universally acknowledged that we are blind to our own mistakes, that the brain supplies missing words, corrects typos subconsciously. We think the correct words should be there, so that’s what we see.

While we were filming the National Emerging Writer Programme, Carlo Gebler too, made the point that changing the font on your page helps you see what is really there. If you are writing dialogue particularly, counsels The Big Smoke Writing Factory’s Claire Hennessy, try writing it in different fonts for different characters so you can see better the balance between narrative and dialogue, so that you can visually hear the differences in your character’s voices. She also says, “When you’re actually writing, fonts can be a really useful visual way of distinguishing between different works or even sections of the same piece – sometimes if I’m moving between two projects (if I’ve just finished a first draft of something and am moving back to a previous project to edit, or if I’m taking a break from a novel to work on a short story) I put the two projects in different fonts so that as soon as I look at the screen I get a sense of which ‘voice’ I’m in.”

The New Scientist have a particularly interesting article about fonts, that is useful to writers on several levels – first they concur with our writers on editing your work, explaning, “When reading is easy, we skip the individual letters and instead turn the task over to the section of the brain devoted to pattern recognition. But when we trip over a word, it forces the brain to engage a different processing area: the dorsal parietal cortex, where the letter-by-letter reading mechanism is based,” says Stanislas Dehaene [Collège de France, Paris]

And when you present your work to an editor or agent, it is worth considering font seriously. Some stipulate Times New Roman or Arial for many of the reasons mentioned above, but if they don’t suggest a font, should you try and stamp your personality on the manuscript with a clever font?

Perhaps not.

When physicist Fabiola Gianotti announced the possible discovery of the Higgs boson in July, her presentation slides were dominated by the Comic Sans typeface. Reactions ranged from outrage to calls for it to be renamed Comic Cerns. As The New Scientist puts it, “The fuss illustrates a home truth: that there’s a lot more to typography than meets the eye. In fact, certain fonts can elicit surprising effects on readers – they influence memory, attention and even political views.”

The New Scientist say of the Higgs boson presentation, ‘choosing a font with less baggage might have been prudent. “Comic Sans, like any other font design, has a personality. This design is friendly and a bit childish-looking,” says Mark Solsburg at FontHaus, an online font store based in Ann Arbor. “It’s appropriate for children’s books and fast-food menus.”‘

Indeed, Comic Sans, developed for Microsoft in 1995, is so reviled by creatives that there is a website dedicated to it’s demise,

For anyone self publishing, font is also a serious consideration. Joel Freidlander, the Book Designer has a very useful post on that here. Joel says “by picking the right typeface at the beginning, you’ll ensure that your book can be readable and conform to long-standing book publishing practices. And that’s no small thing.”

Danny Oppenheimer from Princeton University, who has made a study of the effects of font on perception has the last word on the Higgs presentation: “This was a massive scientific discovery,” he says. “Many people think it deserved gravitas. Using Comic Sans was like showing up to a funeral in a Hawaiian shirt.”

Make sure your manuscript isn’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt when it hits that editor’s desk!

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books