24 Aug 2015

The Machinations of a Writer, Part II: Typesetting

Second in a Three Part Series on Software—See Part One First

‘Alex!’ you cry; ‘wherever have you been? You promised us tales of the Ark; and instead we receive macroeconomics courses and travel guides!’

And you would be correct. Though my interest in economics is substantial—as with numerous other academic deliberations—the Magical Realm is ultimately concerned with my literary endeavours. But rest assured: the Ark is indeed under work. I have completed chapter three; and currently I am engaged in editing, and seeking professional services.

I shan’t detail too much into that, for secrecy is important where it concerns upcoming novels. Instead: allow me to detail the minutiae behind the process of typesetting.


The Ark Screenshot

The purpose of good formatting is two-fold: firstly, it must allow for easy reading. Poor formatting results in poor comprehension; and that’s a real no-no for any successful book. But good formatting must also be beautiful. For the beauty of words cannot truly be discerned in a vulgar typeface—say, Arial. No: typography must mirror the aesthetic principles of that which it aims to represent.

In the case of the Ark, the typeface is Minion Pro. I have temporarily chosen as this as an excellent example of a well-designed, characterful serif; though it may not be the final typeface in use, owing to the decisions of the publisher.

Regardless, it serves to illustrate a key point: in the matter of choosing a font, you must select for beauty, readability, and suitability.

But What of the Software?

The book designer orthodoxy maintains that a proper DTP (desktop publishing) program—like, say, Adobe InDesign—is the force de rigeur for any kind of professional typesetting. But they would be wrong.

Do not mistake me: InDesign is in many regards an excellent piece of software. It has a set of impressive features (including excellent justification algorithms) and the interface is slick, if complex. But InDesign is expensive, and far from userfriendly; worse, performing tasks with it is unnecessarily complicated and timeconsuming.

Allow me to peruse some examples: creating a new document firstly requires going through a wizard, to either manually input all the desired parameters—such as the page dimensions, margins, etc.—or to select from a series of templates that rarely mirror anything you’d find in a bookstore. But even the very idea is flawed: manually inputting parameters is pointless—you’ll almost certainly end up changing them anyway—while switching templates is surprisingly difficult.

DTP software also tends to be overly focused on the idea of ‘Projects’—collections of files—that usually prove tedious and unnecessary for a book.

But it doesn’t stop there. Adding documents require that you use the ‘Place’ function (not the insert function, which does something else) and InDesign does not accept ODT documents; you have to convert them to Word documents, which often results in errors.

InDesign also requires that you pre-style the Word documents with headings, specific paragraph styles, etc. All of this adds time and effort—and all can be done much more easily directly with a word processor program.

Introducing: LibreOffice

LibreOffice is a free, open-source software suite that purports to deal with many office-related tasks; chiefly among these is wordprocessing, and this is where Writer comes in.

Billed a replacement for MS Word, I recommend it not only for being free—a nice perk—nor even for its native compatibility with Ubuntu, my recommended OS (see this). No: I recommend it for being well-suited to formatting, once you learn its idiosyncrasies. (For the record, Word is capable enough in its own right.)

Creating a book is simple. Firstly, you must either have begun it in Writer itself (not something I recommend); but more likely you have it written as a text file:

Gedit Screenshot

In the case of the latter, conversion is necessary. This is easy and error-free. Pandoc—a free, cross-platform conversion program—will do it; you can even automate the process, as I have:


(You can use Gedit’s ‘External Tools’ function to call up pandoc using the pandoc command.)

Once you’ve done that, prepare to add it to your Writer document using the ‘Insert > File...’ function. But first you must have created your book document. This is not terribly complicated either; allow me to illustrate...


From that menu, you may format the page. It’s easy to get away from the A4 default—input 15cmx22.5cm as the width and height (standard for many paperbacks) and voilá! You have something that looks like a book. Play around with the margins: I find that 1.6cm works best for the left and right margins, with 1.8cm top and bottom. If you like, you can even use specific formatting for left and right pages—allowing you to, for example, use longer inner-side margins.

Then comes the matter of the text. This in itself is a complex matter: you must take into account negative space—whitespace kept empty to allow for pleasant viewing—and headings require a lot of experimenting with different sizes, weights, and styles. Or you can even use different typefaces, graphics, and other assorted trickery; the possibilities are many.

In my case, I employed small capitals for all the headings. I also employed italics, different weights—Minion Pro medium in the case of the author name—and full capitals. You can modify all this using the ‘Styles’ sidebar, accessible using ‘View > Sidebar.’

Writer Styles

Once you’ve sorted this out to your satisfaction—don’t forget the copyright page, along with properly ordered Acknowledgements (if applicable), dedications, etc.—use Insert > File to add each chapter. Make sure to format the first page of your document ‘First Page’.


This is important for later. In short, you don’t want page numbers to appear on the first page of a chapter; additionally, designers usually refrain from including headers, footers, etc. While you’re at this, ensure that the FirstPage is formatted identically to your normal page. (That should be called the Default Style in Writer-speak.)

‘Alex!’ you cry; ‘why does my text look hideous?’ This is a fair question. Chances are, Writer has formatted your newly added text in Times New Roman—a ghastly, overused and heavily condensed typeface that should be avoided even in its intended medium (newspapers).

To correct this, head back to the ‘Paragraph Styles’ box in the sidebar. Click ‘Default Style’ and edit away. In the case of the Ark, the typeface is set to Minion Pro; the size to 12pt; the leading (known as ‘Line Spacing’ in Writer-speak) to 120%; and the text to justified. Make sure to enable hyphenation, or you’ll get ungodly typographic rivers. (Concerning hyphenation, make sure to implement a limit to the number of consecutive hyphenations; you may get undesirable results otherwise. Two will do.)

Another important note: the first paragraph of your chapter—and usually scene as well—should be formatted using a separate style: FirstParagraph. This is identical to the other paragraphs, except that there is no indent.

Speaking of which: yes, fiction is indented. Non-fiction generally isn’t. I recommend 0.5cm as a suitable first-line indent.

You must also edit your chapter headings. Ideally, they should already be preformatted to Heading3 (or whatever you deemed suitable in the markdown file) and you can just click on it, and modify the style from the sidebar. In my case, small caps are in use.

Pages Continued

To add more chapters, repeat the process above. If you have written your entire book and wish to speed things up a little, here’s a trick: use cat on a bash terminal to collect all your files into one (or use an appropriate 3rd party tool in Windows).


Then insert the whole file into writer; then use the navigator to go to each heading, and format from there. You can even download the ‘Alternative Search’ add-on, and employ regular expressions to automate the process.

However, there is one other matter to be dealt with: headers and footers.

Go back to the ‘Page Styles’ dialogue, and select Default Style once more. Don’t edit the FirstPage—that will remain as it is. Instead edit Default to include a header and a footer. You may choose to have only one; but in this, you must insert the page number using ‘Insert > Fields > Page Number’. In my case, the header alternates between left and right pages, showing either ‘The Ark’ or ‘Alex Stargazer’ in each.

Are We Finished?

Yes! We now have something that resembles a book. I have not taken to detailing the matter of scenes and scene breaks; but I believe I have instilled enough knowledge for you to be able to do this yourself. I hope this advice has been useful. Typography is far from simple—please feel free to ask for clarifications, advice and details in the comments.

With the second part of this series complete, the third part will follow. That will be a detailed explanation of the publishing process; but until then, I will have poetry, a brief essay concerning voting systems for the UK, and more details on the Ark.

As I say: keep following. The stars do shine, here in the Magical Realm...

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