Font neutral

I don’t care about fonts. I know this is a shocking revelation coming from a writer. But there it is. I am also not in love with stationery—spending more than ten seconds in a stationery shop is my idea of hell—and I actively hate paper.

Fonts, though, just have my indifference. This came up recently because Scott wanted to watch a documentary about Helvetica and I, um, did not express sufficient enthusiasm. I may have mentioned the words “boring” and “paint” and “drying”. Possibly.

I’m not even sure I could recognise Helvetica. Truly, it was only pretty recently that I learned the difference between serif and san serif. And I still don’t much care. I have never had a favourite font. I tend to write in whatever font I’m told I should write in. For years I wrote in courier because everyone said I should. Then a friend insisted I switch to Times New Roman so I did.

I am writing the current novel in Optima because that’s Scrivener’s default font. Scott was shocked when he found out and delivered me a long lecture on how you can’t write a novel in Optima. “But I just did!” I protested.1

Obviously there are some fonts I wouldn’t write in. Heavy gothic fonts. Any font that resembles handwriting. Especially my handwriting. Basically if I notice the font then I can’t write in it. But run-of-the-mill fonts are fine. And, frankly, I can’t really tell the difference between them. Once I’m writing and deep in the story I don’t see the font anymore.

Am I alone? Am I the only writer in the world with font indifference? I fear I am. Or is it like coffee and chocolate hating. We are a rare breed but we exist.

  1. Well, almost. Novel is very nearly almost practically finished. []


  1. Criss on #

    Egads! This borders on blasphemy!!!

    I refuse to use Times New Roman. Whenever I sit down to write anything, I have to spend 20 minutes picking the right font. I learned how to use CutePDF just so I could use my pretty, pretty fonts in documents I emailed to other people.

    All my fiction writing has to be in Courier. Because it looks like a typewriter. And it makes me feel special.

    (I have a problem, I know… I’m convinced the real reason I became a teacher is because I’m addicted to stationery and office supplies.)

    The irony is this post comes mere hours after I read another blog, sharing this creative endeavour: (*sigh* I think I’ve found my soulmate…)

  2. Lizabelle on #

    So why can’t you write a novel in Optima? Not that I have any idea what that is.

    I am indifferent to fonts as long as there are words that are readable. Words are the important bit!

  3. hereandnow on #

    I used to be font-neutral, but a couple of years ago I had to start learning about them in a hurry for work! (It’s possible that I now hang out on typography forums from time to time . . .) Apart from that I really don’t care about fonts as long as they’re readable.

  4. carsonbeck on #

    i completely disagree. fonts are important. Typefaces make the world go round. Of course this is coming from someone who saw a bumper sticker and instead of commenting on its humor said, “huh, that’s helvetica extra bold”. I have even paid for a few typefaces that i liked. This love comes from university and lots of classes on type. Now that i’m out of school i care less but still have my standards. Optima is a great font, but using Comic Sans should be a capital offense

  5. robin on #

    Not that I agree with you (have developed a particular fondness for Optima and have been wanting to see that documentary for months), but I see where you’re coming from — for years I really tried to nurture some kind of opinion on the pen issue, figuring that as a writer, I should have some deep-seated attachment to ball-points or fountain pens or something.

    But it turns out I don’t.

  6. David Moles on #

    See, I put down Scrivener when I couldn’t get it out of Optima. Which might explain why my book’s still not done.

    (Even if you can’t tell one font from another, by the way, you should still see Helvetica: The Movie.)

  7. Sir Tessa on #

    I must admit to not being particularly fussed. Times New Roman, Courier, anything that’s easy to read.

    I got used to the weird fixed-width font on the database at work, and that’s bright green on a black background.

  8. Kenneth on #

    I change fonts depending on my mood when writing. I leave Scrivener at Optima, but via Google Docs, Nisus, or Buzzword (when I don’t have my own machine), it’s Arial, Sans Serif, sometimes even Comic font. But before submission all manuscripts are changed to good old Times New Roman. Sometimes, I miss my old typewriter (yes, I’m that old. Fewer decisions.

  9. Sherwood on #

    You are not alone. I keep changing fonts all the time to one) try to see on my ancient, tiny monitor and 2) try to fool my dyslexic eyes so I can better see what I wrote instead of what I think I wrote.

  10. Mindy Klasky on #

    Count me among the font-blind (I can’t recognize them, and I only notice them when they’re really, really unreadable…)

    But I really enjoyed HELVETICA: THE MOVIE. It’s fascinating to watch fanatics, and the comments about what fonts *can* mean to people were intriguing, in a social studies sort of way….

  11. Serafina Zane on #

    I dislike coffee but am completely obsessed with fonts. Different stories are often in different fonts. I like or dislike books on the font they’re printed in, which is incredibly shallow and a bad habit.

    These days most of my stories are in the Word 07 default font though, because it doesn’t hurt my brain the way Times New Roman does.

    One of the justifications for my insanity is that this way I can instantly recognize different manuscripts or stories with just a glance at the file/printout.
    The real justification is because I think they’re pretty and like to use new fonts.

  12. Patrick on #

    What’s a font?

  13. Maree on #

    I’m not fussed about fonts, but I generally use Calibri on my computer cos it’s the default, or Arial because it’s pretty much universal. Also like them cos they’re so simple. But that’s as far as it goes.
    My cousin likes stuffing around with fonts tho.
    Question: Why are fonts so important?

  14. Amber on #

    An article I read about this very thing recently:

    Douglas Coupland says those sensitive to fonts are ‘visual thinkers’ and those who are not are DEAD INSIDE (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the impression I get); he says for non-visual thinkers (those who don’t care about fonts) words are merely:

    “little freight containers of meaning, devoid of any importance on their own.”

    Coupland calls this ‘dogma’ ‘depressing and sad’.

    DEAD INSIDE, I tell you.

  15. coe booth on #

    Oh, Justine. You and I are sooo different.

    I love fonts! (Not enough to watch Helvetica: The Movie, but still!) When I go into a stationery store, I get dizzy. Gleeful. It’s disturbing how much I love paper and pens and notebooks and journals. Just thinking about it has my heart racing.

    It’s sad, really, how much I love all those things!

    Oh yeah, I also love coffee and chocolate…

  16. Kelly McCullough on #

    I couldn’t care less about fonts.* Nor do I care about paper, nor even (and I know this is writer heresy) very much about pens.

    *Well, I probably could, but it would take real work and that seems counterproductive to the whole not caring thing. I just put things in whatever font the guidelines or my editor asks for and ignore it after that.

  17. veejane on #

    Douglas Coupland needs to work in publishing for a while. I don’t generally give all that much of a care about fonts, but they can matter a lot where readability at a given size is concerned. Like, serifs are not just for fun and games, you know?

    For that matter, most proofreaders I know can’t function without Courier or some other fixed-width font; they need that sameness of width to supplement their ability to visually recognize the rightness or wrongness of a word on the page. (So that you can tell, just at a glance, that “the” is three chars long, not two and not four, because all the chars are the same width.)

    I also ran across one proofreader who holds ms. pages up to the light, one version on top of another, to tell what changes have been made. That’s much harder to do with a variable-width font; one additional capital M and you won’t be able to lay the two pages over each other comprehensibly.

  18. Ted Lemon on #

    I find a good font relaxing to the eye. And a bad font (e.g., Helvetica) actively disturbing. I particularly don’t like monospace fonts, which is tragic since they’re so common in the geek world.

    Beyond that, though, I have to admit that I don’t really care. I suspect this isn’t that different from your position. You actually do care about fonts – it’s just that the set of fonts that do not annoy you is larger than the set that doesn’t annoy me.

    Having said that, though, I have to say that I can waste a _lot_ of time trying to get a good-looking font in whatever text editor I’m using. So maybe I’m a little more high-strung about it than you are… :’)

  19. Brittany on #

    I’m font blind. For all my years of school writing, we were required to write in Times New Roman, so I just stick with that for sheer familiarity and comfort. But I’m beginning to hear through the grapevine that Courier, double spaced is the industry, preferred, standard. *shrug*

    I’ll still write how I prefer, but format before I submit. I think it’s a nice compromise. 🙂

  20. Eugene on #

    I really like Garamond, but I tend to write in Courier because it gives me a better idea of pacing since it’s already in manuscript format. Plus, it’s easier to read on my tiny tiny laptop screen.

    I think you made the right choice, though. Even for people who like fonts, Helvetica was supposed to be dreadfully boring.

  21. Gwenda on #

    I’m not overly particular — I usually do the first couple of drafts in Courier, and it’s a subtle cue to myself that nothing is set in stone. But, and this cracks me up, when I’m getting close to being done I switch it to Palatino, largely because you sent me a manuscript for one of your books once that was in it and I thought, what a pretty and easy to read font, I likes it.

  22. Jessica on #

    I’m font sensitive. In fact, i’m really weird about font and font sizing. I’m more productive in courier new and i cant stand writing in arial, verdana (except when it’s small) or trebuchet ms (except when it’s small.)

    Reading is another story though. I don’t much care for one font over another. I actually think i prefer reading verdana or trebuchet ms.


    And guess what. As i type this i’m drinking coffee and it’s FOUL and i feel miserable (i ran out of chai.) I’m so close to quitting i swear.

  23. Stefan Hayden on #

    For the most part any font you can read will do. But a lot of authors do talk lot about the experience of writing. Some find writing in certain places make it more enjoyable or even helps them produce a different quality of work.

    Lot of authors yearn to write a novel on an old typewriter to get the feel of how those old timey writers did it.

    I posit that the font you chose can have a similar effect. Perhaps if you like listening to music to set your mood you might want to chose a font that better reflect the type of mood you are trying to give. Some fonts are contemporary and some classic. Some are airy and light while some are dark and foreboding.

    I’m not saying it will get you any different results but enough authors seem to talk about setting up the experience of writing that it must have some effect for some people.

  24. Ken McConnell on #

    You can write your novel in any font you want with Scrivener, including Optima. When you go to compile your output, you can specify a font that editors and agents prefer, like courier.

    That’s what I do anyway.

  25. Justine on #

    Serafina Zane & Robin W: Yup. I have zero interest in pens either. Though, like you, Robin, I really tried. But the fact that I hate writing by hand got in the way.

  26. Brent on #

    I’m particular about my fonts when I’m self-pulbishing something (a flyer, brochure, letter to students, etc.). When I’m writing, I actively choose a neutral font so I can concentrate on the content, not its appearance.

    There was an interesting article in the early-90s that contrasted the writing of Mac-users vs. PC-users (pre Windows). Basically Mac users were more concerned with sentence length and paragraph appearance, while PC users concentrated on the actual content they were writing. At the time, PC users and those submitting typewritten papers had 10-15% higher marks than the Mac users, though their papers weren’t as pretty.

  27. Cat Sparks on #

    Fonts occupy a major space in my life. I would gladly watch that Helvetica documentary (I even know exactly which doco you’re referring to), and I consider the ban Comic Sans movement one of the most significant movements of our time.

  28. Desdemona on #

    I hate Times New Roman with a passion. I prefer Arial. I also love notebooks, stationary, pens, etc. I also love writing by hand. I don’t know why- it just makes me more in to writing than if I was on my laptop. Plus its less distracting than being on a computer.

  29. lotti on #

    Times New Roman is my worst enemy. I only ever work in Shruti.

  30. Elodie on #

    I’m no author, but I LOVE fonts. That said I won’t care what font a book is written in or a text–I just can’t write in it myself. I always write in verdana, size 10 or 11, 1.5 spacing when given the choice. Once I found a paper someone else had written in the same style and was like “I never wrote this, why is it in my writing?” XD But as you are an author I’m very glad you focus more on what you’re writing than what you’re writing with! 😀

  31. Steve Buchheit on #

    Heresy, I say. Okay, well, maybe not so much. Most people couldn’t care about fonts, and our current state of design reflects that (Arial, ew! ::shudder::). However, I’m a trained and professional graphic designer, not only can I get excited about fonts and specify the exact fonts used (or at least the general uber-family), I can tell you the differences between Adobe’s Garamond and Stemple Garamond. I use the word “grotesk” when referring to sans serif and know what an Eqyptian serif is and why it’s different. Don’t even get me going on stroke errors in some modern design. Oh yes, we are freaks we are.

    For the end user, if they see the font, the designer hasn’t done their job. But for us designers, oh yes, the font is the thing (well, actually the use of the font, that the color is correct, that it balances and reads well). A well designed page with an excellent use of fonts and type can get us very excited indeed.

  32. Steve Buchheit on #

    And in my haste to post I forgot the most import part of typography, psychology. Different fonts will affect the viewer differently and leave implied relationships in their heads. This is so subtle an effect that most viewers won’t even know they’re being manipulated. You can think of this like a movie soundtrack. Would the light saber dual between Qui-gon Jinn and Darth Maul be nearly as exciting if John Williams wasn’t doing his best interpretation of Wagner in the background? Probably not. Typeface or font selection can have the same effect. Choosing poorly can lead someone to put down a book because they either don’t want to read it, or find it painful (make someone in the US read pages of san-serif, or someone in Europe pages of serif type and you’ll see what I mean – although this is changing thanks to on-screen reading). Also, by just changing fonts a 300 page book could become a 250 page book. So from a point of sale concern there are issues. For all of this, font selection is highly important.

    As a point of contention though, I don’t like Helvetica that much and prefer to use Univers as my default sans-serif. Although I can’t debate the historical significance of Helvetica.

  33. Eric Honaker on #

    I’m pretty much with you. I am a bit more conscious of fonts, in that I have a few basic preferences for something I will be staring at for that long. But for the most part, I don’t care.

    The extent of my caring is that I prefer sans serif fonts to serif fonts. Other than that, it’s more about software freedom than aesthetics for me.

  34. rebecca on #

    i think you’ve sorta pointed out why fonts are important. the fact that you don’t notice optima or times new roman means that they’re doing their jobs. the fonts you do notice (b/c they’re hideous, intricate, showy, etc.) means they’re also doing their jobs. when you’re writing a book, you don’t need to pay attention to font (and if you are, it probably means you’re procrastinating–not that i would know anything about that). when you’re designing a book, you most definitely do need to pay attention to fonts, just like you would if you were designing a website or an ad or a company logo or a restaurant sign. but if you don’t need to do any of that, it’s probably an advantage that you don’t care about fonts. 😉

    as long as we’re all talking about good/bad fonts: i really don’t like courier and am not terribly fond of helvetica either. (boring!) my favorite font so far is century gothic. love! for writing, i like optima and times new roman. unless i’m writing an essay, in which case ARIAL IS YOUR FRIEND. mwahahahaha.

  35. sylvia_rachel on #

    I know a fair bit about fonts and type design, having worked in publishing for a dozen years or so, but I don’t particularly see why you can’t write a book in Optima if you want to. After all, it’s your book. I’m fond of fonts, in fact, and recently spent a delightful afternoon listening to a talk by a New York type designer. But because I work with scholarly journals, not art books or any of those sorts of things, my main interests are readability, economy (i.e., fitting in more words per page while maintaining good readability) and invisibility of design (i.e., readers don’t notice the design, just say “Gosh, what a nice clear easy-to-read page this is!”), rather than, say, cutting-edge innovativeness (which in my experience often = obtrusive design that elbows its way in front of the content).

    Which is interesting because I am of all things not a “visual thinker” — I am incapable of picturing things in my head at all.

    I am also into paper and pens (specifically, Staedtler Tri-plus fineliners), though less so than in my younger, pre-computer days…

  36. Caryn Caldwell on #

    Wow. An entire documentary about Helvetica. I have to agree that it doesn’t sound very scintillating to me either. As for fonts to write in, sometimes if I’m stuck I’ll play around and find something new. That can help me see things differently. There are more effective tricks, though.

  37. Cameron on #

    If you care about what you write, you should care about typefaces. (By the way, font is a specific set of a typeface, i.e, Helvetica is a typeface, Helvetica Bold is a font.)

    I care about typefaces not only because I’m a visual person, but because every single person who reads what I write has to digest that information visually (excepting screen readers or reading aloud).

    It wouldn’t take an enormous amount of time to research basic typography. I would have thought writers would be interested in typography since your work depends on it.

    In fact, there is probably no more important human innovation that contributes to writing than typography. A good typeface is legible, and without typography, your book would be pages upon pages of hard-to-read gibberish.

    Also, Optima is a fine humanist typeface designed by Hermann Zapf in the 50s. It was meant to be a compromise between rigid modern san-serifs like Futura and serifs like Times. I imagine a book set in Optima would be pleasant to read.

  38. Criss on #

    (excepting screen readers or reading aloud).

    I think this is precisely Justine’s point. What I took from this post is that when she writes on her computer screen, which will be read primarily by her, she doesn’t care what font she uses. Some of us waste time picking a pretty (yet still readable) font, instead of using that time to actually write in the font.

    When the work is published, of course the font is important. That’s why professionals who work at the publisher’s make those decisions. (Actually, I don’t know for sure, since I haven’t sold any books yet, but I doubt they tell the author, “Hey, here, pick a font!”)

  39. Justine on #

    Criss: Absolutely. I have never been asked to pick a font. The design of my books is handled by the design department. I don’t design the covers either. Though I sometimes get asked what I think. All the writer has control over at the big presses is the words they write. Often they don’t even get to pick the title.

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