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Yes, You Can Use Microsoft Word to Set Type That Looks Professional

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Can a program like QuarkXPress, Adobe PageMaker, or Adobe InDesign produce better-looking copy than Microsoft Word? Certainly, when users know what they’re doing. But most often, they don’t.

According to research cited by James Felici in his Complete Manual of Typography, 90 percent of the people who use such page layout programs never change the default settings, and, as Felici points out, these settings are never much good as they are. For instance, InDesign’s main typographic advantage over Word is its automatic letterspacing feature–which InDesign’s default setting turns off.

People also often ignore features in Word, and this, I believe, is what gives the program such a bad name in terms of typography. Yes, if you simply open a new Word document, type away, and use what you type as your finished page, the page will look awful. But if you know what you need, and if you delve deeply enough into the program, you can produce type that only a trained eye could distinguish from the best Adobe or Quark can offer.

So, here are a few tips for producing type with Word that no book reviewer will scoff at. (I checked descriptions of Word commands and features on several versions of Word for PC and Mac OS 9, from Word 97 to Word 2002. If your version differs, refer to Word’s Help function.)

Study up. Get a copy of The Complete Manual of Typography and actually read it. (Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style–the title most often recommended by typesetting aficionados–is simply not for beginners and does not always present standard practice.)

Learn to use styles. Word’s Style feature lets you group character, paragraph, and other attributes and apply them collectively to selected text. While styles are not easy to set up, they can save you lots of time while you’re formatting a book, help ensure consistency, and allow you to experiment quickly and easily with format variations. And styles can be stored in a template for convenient reuse in later books.

Change your font. Word’s default font–or more accurately, typeface–is Times New Roman, and many users never switch to another. But this narrow face, designed for newspaper columns, was not meant for books. Set your body text in a wider serif face, such as Palatino, Garamond, Baskerville, Century Schoolbook, or Georgia.

Change your font size. Word’s default font size is 10 points, but that’s too small for almost any book other than a mass market paperback. For comfortable reading, longer lines of text should be matched by larger font sizes. One rule of thumb says the optimum number of characters per line is around 40, and the maximum around 70. For the page sizes of typical trade books, you’ll probably want to keep your normal text type between 11 and 13 points.

Control linespacing.

Your needs may not be met by Word’s standard linespacing choices: “single,” “1.5,” and “double.” For more control, choose “Paragraph” from the Format menu; then for “Line spacing,” select “At least” or “Exactly” and a point measurement. For normal book text, a good point measurement would be 2 to 4 points more than the font size–for instance, 14 to 16 points for 12-point type.

Use typographic characters. One of the surest signs of the amateur–and unfortunately a sign seen more and more often–is the use of typewriter characters instead of typographic ones. Chief among the culprits are “straight” quotes and apostrophes (“, ‘). Only typographic or “curly” quotes and apostrophes (“, “, ‘, ’)–what Word calls “smart quotes”–should appear in a book.

In Word, these can be inserted with special key combinations or with the “Symbol” command on the Insert menu–but the simplest way is to make sure the “smart quotes” option is selected on the “AutoFormat” and “AutoFormat As You Type” tabs, found by choosing “AutoCorrect” from the Tools menu. This way, the quotes and apostrophes you type are automatically converted to the proper characters, and you can convert those already in the document with the “AutoFormat” command on the Format menu.

Hyphens (-), single or paired, should never take the place of true dashes (–), or “em dashes,” as they’re properly called. These too you can insert with the “Symbol” command, or with AutoFormat options, or with a special key combination.

Note that some versions of Word for the Mac refuse to break a line after an em dash when it should fall at the end of the line–so you may sometimes need to insert a manual line break.

vTake charge of your options.The Options or Preferences dialog box offers a number of choices for customizing print, most of them on the “Compatibility” tab. If your file or its template was created in an earlier version of the program or in another program entirely, Word may already have selected a number of this tab’s options for you so the document’s layout won’t change. In general, when preparing a document for print, your best and safest course is to clear all these options. This lets your current version of Word operate as designed.

As one exception, you might want to select “Do full justification like WordPerfect 6.x for Windows,” an option that some Word experts swear by. But this works right only on a PC.

If you’re on a Mac, you’ll probably want to click the “Print” tab also and select “Fractional widths.”

Use adjusted hyphenation. To produce justified lines with good spacing, you’ll need to turn on hyphenation. Choose “Hyphenation” from the Tools menu, or else “Language” and then “Hyphenation.” For fewer hyphenated words and better breaks, change the settings in the Hyphenation dialog box so that the hyphenation zone is half an inch, and the limit on consecutive hyphens is 2.

vUse selected automatic kerning.Kerning is the moving of individual letters closer or farther apart to make the spacing look more even. Word does have automatic kerning you can turn on, but it’s fairly primitive, and its effect on justified text is not always an improvement. (It can also slow down your computer.) But it works all right where it’s most needed–for larger text in single lines, such as titles and headings.

Turn it on for selected lines by choosing “Font” from the Format menu and clicking on the “Character Spacing” tab. Better yet, add it to specific styles.

Resolve spacing problems manually. At this writing, both Quark and PageMaker justify text in the same basic way as Word–a line at a time. InDesign’s big claim to fame is that it justifies text a paragraph at a time, looking back at previous lines in the paragraph for solutions to any spacing problems that come up.

The big secret, though, is that you can do that yourself, even with a lowly word processor. Your two basic tools are manual line breaks–breaks that force the start of a new line but not a new paragraph–and optional hyphens–hyphens that tell the program where to split a word but are used by the program only if the split is needed.

For instance, say you find a line with words spread much too far apart. Look closer to the beginning of that paragraph for lines that have wordspacing tighter than average and that end with a short word or with a single syllable of a hyphenated word. If you find one, try inserting a line break to shift the final letters to the next line. With luck, this will shuffle the paragraph in a way that gets rid of your problem without creating a new one.

Avoid widows and orphans. An orphan is a paragraph’s first line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page, especially with a blank line or a heading above it. A widow is a paragraph’s last line that appears by itself at the top of a page. Both are considered undesirable. Word avoids most widows and orphans by default, but you might want to check that this option is turned on. Select “Paragraph” from the Format menu and click the “Line and Page Breaks” tab.

With these tips and guidelines, you can create type from Microsoft Word that will match or surpass the output of 90 percent of the users of Quark, PageMaker, or InDesign. And if you ever do move to one of those programs, you’ll be ahead in knowing how to get the most from it.

Aaron Shepard, an award-winning children’s book author, self-publishes professional and how-to books via Shepard Publications. This article is abridged from his e-book Books, Typography, and Microsoft Word (available at Amazon.com as a PDF download), which serves as its own example of what these methods can achieve. For more info, including a sample page from the book that you can download and print out, visit www.aaronshep.com/publishing.

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