You’ve completed your manuscript and perhaps published it already as an e-book. Now it’s time to create your print edition, and you’ve got a few nagging questions: Can a writer typeset their own novel? What is the definition of typesetting? And how do you typeset a book, anyway?
In this article, we’ll explain the basics of DIY typesetting, give you some tips to achieve a professional look, and advise you when DIY is (and isn’t) a good idea.
Let’s get to it!
What Is Typesetting?
Typesetting a book is the process of transforming a manuscript—an abstract stream of words with no physical form—into a layout, a digital file with a specific dimensions and page count that will be exactly reproduced by a print or print-on-demand service.
Typesetting isn’t about converting file formats or adding aesthetic elements, though both of those things do happen. It’s primarily about readability—making careful design choices to ensure that your readers can enjoy your novel without eye strain, fatigue, distraction, or errors.
Typesetting at a professional level takes years of experience, but thanks to technology (and this article), you can achieve “good enough” typesetting for your novel with a little care and thoughtfulness.
The Difference Between Typesetting And Typography
You may have also heard the term “typography”. This refers to the broader craft and study of type – something graphic designers are much more interested in than self-published writers.
Typography includes not only the aesthetics involved with setting type, but also the design of the font itself, pairing fonts of different families, the arrangement of the font on the page and how they interact with other design elements including images, margins and white space.
As much as typography is fascinating and fun – for the purpose of typesetting your novel, all you need to focus on is getting your book looking as professional as possible!
How Does Typesetting Work?
The days of arranging metal sorts in a frame for printing are long past. In the digital era, professional typesetting is done using specialized software like Adobe InDesign (or any of several less-known, less-expensive alternatives).
Word processing software (such as Microsoft Word) has made basic typesetting available to everyone but lacks important professional-level features. Because of this, typesetting a complex layout in Word, such as a textbook or recipe book, would be asking for a serious headache—hire a professional for those books.
However, when it comes to novels, which are composed almost entirely of body paragraphs, the DIY option is viable.
How To Prepare Your Manuscript For Typesetting
You need a clean manuscript if you want to typeset your novel successfully. Use this checklist to get ready:
- If you have change tracking on, accept all changes and turn off change tracking now. (If you want to preserve those tracked changes, save a separate copy of your manuscript.)
- Resolve and delete all comments.
- Delete excess whitespace—search your manuscript for tab characters (often represented as \t in search-and-replace), double newlines (\n\n), and three or more spaces. If any matches are found, replace them with the appropriate layout option, such as page breaks, tables, or paragraph styles.
- Make sure all of your front matter and back matter is present and complete.
Save your clean manuscript before moving on. If you’re typesetting in the same program you wrote in, create a second copy to be the typeset version.
DIY Typesetting 101
You can use a word processor, specialised writing software, or professional layout software to typeset your novel. Regardless of which one you choose; the rules below apply just the same.
If your software comes with templates, feel free to try them—they might save you time. But make sure you review the results carefully. Many templates, especially those bundled with word processors, omit or violate some of the best practices of typesetting.
Ground Rules: Consistency And Simplicity
You want your reader focused on the story. To avoid distracting them, you want a layout that is consistent (does things the same way each time) and simple (doesn’t vary more than necessary).
To help you be consistent, use the paragraph styles feature of your software. This feature lets you define a certain look and rules for a paragraph: which font it should use, how much space should come before and after, whether it should allow hyphens, and so on. Every element in your book should be formatted by applying a paragraph style—never by hand.
As for simplicity, remember that the purpose of a change in appearance is to signal a change in meaning. Don’t vary the appearance of text any more than is necessary to accomplish this goal. One good rule of thumb is that you need only two fonts to typeset a novel: one for the body text, and one for the chapter headings. Everything else can be accomplished through italics, white space, and font size.
How To Typeset Your Page
Make sure you know your trim size (page dimensions) and set them correctly in your software.
Set your page margins before you begin and keep them consistent on every page. Make your bottom margin the same as the top, or a little larger. Make your inside margins larger than your outside margins—the binding process will “eat up” some of the page. If you’d like your body text to appear centred left-to-right, your inside margin may need to be as much as 0.5” larger than the outside margin.
Novels are not reference books, so page numbering should not be prominent. Use an unobtrusive font like a light sans-serif or a smaller size of the body font. Two styles are common: centred at the bottom of each page or aligned to the outside at the top of each page.
Running heads are optional and should be placed at the top of the page and centred. (Typically, the left page will show the book title and the right page the author’s name.)
Be sure to leave sufficient space between your running heads, page numbers, and the body text. The reader should never accidentally find themselves reading the running head.
How To Typeset Paragraphs
Once your page layout is set, your next priority is getting your paragraph style right. Take a look at your favourite novels and note how they have been laid out. Here are a number of best practices you should use:
- Use a serif font, not a sans-serif or novelty font. Avoid any font labelled “display”. (These are designed for use at large sizes and will not read clearly as body text.)
- Use a font size of 10-12 points.
- Confirm that your lines are 45-90 characters wide. You can test this by typing the alphabet repeatedly until you fill up a line—anything between two and three alphabets per line is okay. If your line length is too long, increase the font size, or if you’re already at 12-point, increase your left and right margins. If your line length is too short, take the opposite steps.
- Paragraphs should be justified, not left-aligned. Don’t turn off hyphenation.
- The first sentence of each paragraph should be indented by the width of a few letters. Make the indent large enough that your eye naturally jumps to the start of each new paragraph, and not much larger than that.
- However, don’t indent the first paragraph in a chapter, the first paragraph after a scene break, and the first paragraph after any “block” element (such as a quoted letter or poem). To deal with these exceptions, you can set up a separate paragraph style. (Or, if your software supports it, use a conditional rule.)
- Don’t add any extra space before or after paragraphs. Every line on the page should be the same distance apart.
- Leading (called “line spacing” in word processors) is essential to readability. The common default of “single spacing”, which is often 115%, is too tight. “Double spacing” is much too loose. Set a value of around 130% but be aware that some word processors don’t display these values correctly. As a point of reference, you can compare your layout against a hardcover novel, which will usually have comfortable leading.
This might seem like a lot of typesetting rules just for a humble paragraph. But when you consider that 99% of your reader’s time is spent reading paragraphs, it’s easy to see why getting them right is important.
How To Typeset Scene Changes
Here there are two options: insert a blank line (and remember to not indent the following paragraph) or insert a small symbol or decorative design.
How To Typeset Chapter Headings
Chapter headings should stand out from body paragraphs. There are many ways to achieve this, all of which are equally valid.
The most elaborate chapter headings will begin a new page, take up as much as half the height, include some graphic design elements, and set the chapter number and/or title in a large font that may be ornate or stylised.
The most minimal chapter headings consist of nothing more than some vertical separation from the previous paragraph, with the heading itself in a bold or larger font.
If your book includes scene breaks, chapter headings should be more prominent than scene breaks.
How To Typeset Front Matter (Prelims)
Here your job is easy: copy another book. Front matter varies from book to book, so look through a few and pick one that contains the same elements as yours.
Copyright pages typically use a small font; dedications are centered on their own page, about a third of the way down; half-titles are usually understated and always less elaborate than the title page.
Your title page is special and deserves some extra attention. Again, you’ll do well to look at other books. One common approach is to use the same lettering as your front cover, but with any background scene removed. However, other books use an entirely different design for the title page.
How To Typeset Back Matter
Your goal here is simply to let the reader know the main story is over. Some simple options to try: eliminate running heads and/or page numbers in the back matter, use a smaller body font size, or use a different body font. As with the front matter, you can look at other books for inspiration.
Following the typesetting rules above will give you a “semi-professional” result. If you want to take things a step further (you masochist!), you’ll need to do some advanced wrangling.
This work can get finnicky very quickly, so save a copy of your layout before you proceed.
Starting at the front of your book, go page-by-page, finding and resolving any of the following problems:
- Word stacks: the same word appearing multiple times directly above/below itself.
- Widows and orphans: the first or last line of a paragraph appearing on a page by itself.
- Hyphens at the end of a page or the last line of a paragraph.
- Short words alone on the last line of a paragraph.
- Rivers: spaces between words that appear roughly above one another on several consecutive lines, forming a meandering white space.
- Scene breaks that appear as the very first or last thing on a page.
These are smaller distractions, but still noticeable to your reader. All of them are related to where words fall within a paragraph or on a page, and all of them are solved by adjusting the position of words, using tricks such as:
- Making a small edit (you’re the author, so you’re allowed)
- Joining or splitting paragraphs
- Adjusting the font width of a paragraph, but never more than a couple of percentage points
- Adjusting the line spacing of a spread (two facing pages)—again, never more than a few percentage points
If you choose to dive into advanced wrangling, always do this step last, and always work strictly front-to-back, because any change to your layout will disturb some or all of the pages that follow it.
Don’t force yourself to address every problem if it’s beyond your skill level, available time, or patience. Every correction is an improvement, so if you attempt this step at all, give yourself a pat on your back for your dedication to your readers. And if you want some help with your mansucript, try our copy-editing service.
We hope this guide has helped you gain a better understanding of how to typeset your novel. After all, it would be a shame to write a fantastic story and make it hard to read. So take your time, follow each step by step suggestion, and remember Jericho Writers is with you every word of the way!
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