Lately, I’ve been playing the submission game.
Let me rephrase that. I’m not talking BDSM, I’ll save that for another day. I’ve been submitting stories to various magazines. As part of this game – and it is a numbers game – there is the time-honoured tradition of every magazine having a slightly different requirement for one of the three standard manuscript formats. Which got me thinking about really sexy things, like kerning, justification, line spacing, indents, and whether my big capital I wears a hat or not. Reread that sentence with an erotic voice, and don’t you dare say bananas yet!
Now, I’m not an expert in formatting, layout, and graphic design. But since I have a blog on the internet, I’m apparently required to have an opinion on everything. Fortunately, I do actually have some experience with writing, editing, formatting, and laying out newsletters, ebooks, and webpages. Some of them even looked okay and used the correct
their they’re there. I’ve even found myself in arguments defending the use of both serif and sans-serif fonts, which is like arguing over what colour black you want to wear to a metal concert (that’s a no-brainer: the darker one).
Anyway, there are plenty of anal-retentive science nerds like me who have gone and done research into what fonts work best for which applications. There are actually a surprising number of research studies on fonts and readability.
First, let’s define what is meant by serif and sans-serif fonts. (From Scribe Consulting) Consider the following characters. The first is set in Georgia, a lovely serif font. The second is set in Verdana, an easy-to-read sans-serif font.
Notice the small decorative flourishes at the ends of the strokes in the left character. These are called serif. The right character does not have these strokes and is said to be a sans-serif font. Sans is the French word for without. So I could be currently sans-pants. Or I might be serif-pants.
The most common examples of these two font types are Times New Roman (serif) and Arial (sans-serif). Bleeding Cowboys would be an example of an overused serif font that is for try-hards, whilst Comic Sans is an overused sans-serif that shows a lack of taste.
Now there are some simple rules of thumb when it comes to using serif and sans-serif fonts, which are backed up by science. The first rule is that thumbs only hit the space bar once. The second rule is:
Use serif for printed work
Serif fonts are usually easier to read in printed works than sans-serif fonts.
This is because the serif makes the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognise quickly. Without the serif, the brain has to spend longer identifying the letter because the shape is less distinctive.
The commonly used convention for printed work is to use a serif font for the body of the work. A sans-serif font is often used for headings, table text, captions, and ransom notes.
The third rule is:
Use sans-serif for online work
An important exception must be made for the web. Printed works generally have a resolution of at least 1,000 dots per inch; whereas, computer monitors are typically around 100 dots per inch. Even Apple’s much-vaunted retina display is only around 300 dots per inch — much lower than print.
This lower-resolution can make small serif characters harder to read than the equivalent sans-serif characters because of their more complex shapes. Yes, this does give you an excuse to buy a 4K monitor for your computer. Go nuts.
It follows that small on-screen text is better in a sans-serif font like Verdana or Arial.
Infographic from here.