where do the rules come from?Professional typography

What pro­fes­sional writ­ers know about ty­pog­ra­phy can usu­ally be traced back to un­re­li­able sources—typ­ing-class and com­puter-lab teach­ers, par­ents, fresh­man room­mates, blog com­menters. I’m sure they all meant well. But they didn’t know much about typography.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that bad ty­pog­ra­phy habits get passed along. What’s sur­pris­ing is how tena­cious they can be.

A core prin­ci­ple of this book is that pro­fes­sional writ­ers should hold their doc­u­ments to the same stan­dards as any pro­fes­sion­ally pub­lished ma­te­r­ial, like books, news­pa­pers, and mag­a­zines. There are not dif­fer­ing cat­e­gories of ty­pog­ra­phy—say, aca­d­e­mic ty­pog­ra­phy vs. le­gal ty­pog­ra­phy vs. busi­ness ty­pog­ra­phy. There is only typography.

This wasn’t al­ways true. For a long time—the type­writer era and then the early com­puter era—pro­fes­sional pub­lish­ers could af­ford type­set­ting and print­ing de­vices that were fi­nan­cially im­prac­ti­cal for in­di­vid­u­als. So for most writ­ers, the ty­po­graphic stan­dards of pro­fes­sional pub­lish­ers were far out of reach.

But that’s no longer the case. On the printed page, the type­set­ting tech­nol­ogy avail­able to in­di­vid­u­als is very close to what’s avail­able to pro­fes­sional pub­lish­ers. On the screen, there’s no dif­fer­ence at all. Tech­no­log­i­cal ex­cuses are no longer acceptable.

There­fore, pro­fes­sional writ­ers should as­pire to meet the stan­dards of pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phy. That’s why the rules here re­flect the cus­toms of pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phers and the ma­jor­ity views of au­thor­i­ties on typography.

Must writ­ers adopt every habit of pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phers? No. I use pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phy as a bench­mark for qual­ity, not as an all-or-noth­ing goal. When faced with a choice be­tween more con­sis­tency with pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phy or less, writ­ers should choose more.

But I’m also prac­ti­cal—hence the ti­tle of the book. I don’t as­sume that writ­ers have the time or in­ter­est to be­come pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phers. I as­sume that your goal is to get the best ty­po­graphic re­sults for the low­est cost, and that noth­ing is more costly than your time. There­fore, I rec­om­mend a few short­cuts where the ef­fort out­weighs the results.

by the way
  • When I speak of “pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phy”, I’m re­fer­ring to ty­pog­ra­phy prac­tices in US Eng­lish. I won’t claim to speak for other tra­di­tions, though many of these prac­tices are com­mon else­where. Ma­jor ex­cep­tions, like straight and curly quotes, are so noted.

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