The Truth about Typesetting & Why it Matters

Make your typesetting look as professional as your writing!

We work with self-published authors so we know the importance of great writing, solid editing, and a good cover. Your book looks incredible – or does it? What’s with that typsetting?

Now, we have professional book formatters so we’ve got a few tips on typesetting your manuscript yourself.

What is typography? What it’s got to do with typesetting?

Typography is the art of making the printed word legible and appealing. Typography is a pretty big deal for ebook, paperback, and hardback.

As for why it matters… To quote fleabag with the hair bit redacted. Typography is everything. It’s your font, your tone, your voice. The typesetting is what the readers will see before they start to read. You’ve got a great cover, a great concept, but wow, that typesetting is… something. It hurts my eyes.

Also, typesetting makes your book look professional. Pick up any book published by one of the big five publishers, and you’ll notice paragraphs are indented. They are not separated by blank lines. Right margins are justified, not ragged. Any book set in block paragraphs or with ragged right margins will show you haven’t thought about typography at all.

How to Typeset

The easiest and best way to typeset a book is to get a professional to do it. Based on our team, for a book of about 70,000 words and no illustrations, pro typesetting will take about a week and cost somewhere between £1 – £10 per page. Cost has everything to do with the typesetter’s level of experience. It is worth it, especially if you’re going to get on the bestsellers list!

If you’re strapped for cash, though, you can to do it yourself. Bear in mind that you’ll need the right tools , and your final product may not look 100% professional. Still, you can come close, and that’s okay.

So what tools do you need?

You want publishing software comparable to Adobe InDesign? Word allow format changes!

What’s constitutes comparable? Any publishing package that provides full control over layout and typographical settings including leading, kearning, and tracking, and exports to print-quality PDF.

Typsetting: the faces and fonts

A typeface is a lettering style: Arial, Times New Roman, or Helvetica.

A font is a variation of a typeface: Helvetica Regular, Helvetica Light, Helvetica Oblique, etc.

The typeface is just the form of the lettering. The font includes style elements such as size and weight.

When designing a book, restrict yourself to a minimum number of typefaces: one for the body of the book, one for chapter titles, maybe one for subheadings or image captions (although you’re generally fine using the body typeface for those).

Less is more.

You might have two body fonts (one regular, one italic), one chapter title font, and maybe one or two for special elements such as subheadings or image captions. Less is more.

Typesetting: the bottom line (well, all the lines)

While you can accept the default values for typesetting parameters, they won’t work throughout an entire manuscript. Why not? Because words aren’t all the same length (hate to state the obvious). But if you right-justify your paragraphs, you’ll have a fixed amount of space for every line of text, whereas the number of letters on each line will vary. Moreover, in a proportional font, different letters take up different amounts of space.

Result? The software messes with every line to justify the right margin. It does this in two ways. First, it automatically hyphenates words at the end of a line if needed. Done multiple times, this is ugly and hard to read.


  1. Keep spacing as consistent as possible. Keep it even, keep it safe (points to you if you get the reference).
  2. Avoid hyphenated words as much as possible. Also, don’t split a word such that only one or two letters fall before or after the hyphen.
  3. Avoid excessive hyphenations in the same paragraphs.

The only way to fix hyphenation issues is to adjust the spacing. It’s an art, albeit a hard one. That’s why we use professional typesetters.

Type the Typesetting: Kearning

No, I didn’t spell it wrong. Kearning is the spacing between two letters. In InDesign, kearning can be applied three ways.

  • Metrics kearning – pairs of letters are spaced using information built into the font.
  • Optical kearning – spacing between adjacent characters is based on their shapes. This works well with Times New Roman or if you use two typefaces or sizes on a line.
  • Manual kearning – place the cursor between two letters and manually adjust the kearning value. This takes a long time. Fortunately, metrics kearning works well in most cases, and you’ll only need to kearn manually where a pair of letters look wrong.

While sometimes confused with kearning, tracking is the spacing between characters throughout an entire word (as opposed to between just two letters). It actually can be applied on single characters, but that’s not its primary purpose. Most often, you’ll adjust tracking on an entire word or group of words to slightly stretch or shrink text to better fit a line. In InDesign, just select the text you want to modify, then change the tracking value.

When you change tracking on a whole word, spacing between letters will remain proportionally the same. So kearn first if needed, then track. That will keep words looking good, so long as you don’t over-track. Reducing tracking too much leads to illegible words (the letters get squished together), while increasing it too much leads to stretched words, which is hard on the eyes.

With both kearning and tracking, use the smallest changes that work. And if you find you’ve made matters worse, undo your changes and try again with different selections or values. Always remember your goal: legible, appealing (easily scanned) text.

Adjusting paragraphs

All those lines are building your paragraphs so, let’s not forget about them!

The last line of most paragraphs will be a short line, but you don’t want it too short. In fact, it should be no shorter than the indent on the first line, otherwise you’ll get an ugly gap between paragraphs.

When paragraphs fall across page breaks, as they often will, avoid widows (the last line of a paragraph that falls at the top of a page) and orphans (the first line of a paragraph that falls at the bottom of a page). On both sides of a page break, broken paragraphs should have at least two lines.

Finally, problems can arise in a paragraph’s interior. Sometimes spaces on consecutive lines align to form rivers of white space running down a paragraph. These can be distracting, so you’ll want to avoid them. Less commonly, the same word can appear in about the same place on multiple lines in a row, creating a word stack. These should likewise be eliminated.

Most of these problems are addressed by adjusting tracking. Widows and orphans, however, are often fixed by adjusting leading, the space between lines. Leading is applied to the space above each selected line.

Leading adjusts page-level problems, too. The text on a page should start the same distance from the top and end the same distance from the bottom. The text is contained in frames on professional software such as InDesign.

If you’ve aligned the frame properly, the top and bottom will never change. However, if you’ve changed the widow and orphans, then sometimes the bottom line changes and can push the line into the wrong place. Adjust the leading carefully to fix this.

Typesetting: Heave and Ho’

All that spacing adjustment isn’t easy. Think of your text like a river and by adjusting the spacing, you’re causing the river to meander. Begin upstream (at the beginning) and think of how this will change the downstream flow.

Typesetting is a long process. It’s all the words, lines, and pages. It requires a good eye and that’s why there are professionals who dedicate their entire day to typesetting! The folk we work with do this (trade secrets here so take note):

  1. What are the default values across the whole manuscript? Let’s make it all the same.
  2. Right, paragraph to paragraph. Each paragraph needs its kearning adjusting. I’ll track the hyphens, words stacks, and final line lengths so I can return to small small adjustments.
  3. All the paragraphs are in good shape. I’ll return to the first page again, and go through every single page to check the text is the same distance from the top and bottom. Keep tracking changes here so I know what I’ve done and not done. Small changes here and there. All the lines are on the page. Facing pages are as similar as technologically possible.

Still Confused?

Even writing this, as an editorial assistant, I still feel pretty overwhelmed so I can’t imagine how you feel if you’re new to this. I’ve typesetted a couple of manuscripts myself, and practise makes perfect (sort of). Most readers won’t spot the issues a professional typesetter will, so give it a go or come to us for some advice.

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by Shelby Jones