Introduction to text massage

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Text massage

What is "text massage"? I’ll tell you. You’ve set up a perfect framework for your piece: page numbers in place, margins and gutters neatly arranged. And when you dump the text into the columns, it looks like a dog’s breakfast. You lead and kern. That’s massage. You lift parentheses and throw in ligatures. After a while, you can have body text that is a work of art. That’s massage.

There are, on the whole, two kinds of typographic masterpieces. One is bold, and we admire it. The other is quiet and gets respect. What I tell you will give you a start on respect.

Here’s a spread from Gutenberg’s bible. It has about six words in each line. Who says two column-pages don’t work?

We’ve been struggling with type over five centuries. There aren’t many surprises left. But you need to pay a lot of attention to detail. You ought to learn about the things that make respected professionals look like ninnies, and to make sure they don’t happen to you. To begin with, I’ll give you three warnings. Let’s look at them before we move on to typographic perils.

One. Don’t trust a built-in hyphenation dictionary. Not many are any good, especially not on small computers. You have to check every word break yourself. And remember that four lines in a row, each with a break, is more than you’ll normally get away with.

Two. Don’t trust programs that check spelling. They’re good at catching words that aren’t in the dictionary. The spelling errors they leave behind make the author sound unhinged.

Three. Don’t trust your typist. Beware of two wordspaces after a period, and paragraphs with three-inch indents. Good, professional typists are too often full of the rot they learned in typing classes.

Line length
Be careful when you choose your line length (or column measure, if you like). If you change it later, you may have to redo other things, such as the hyphenation.

Most people are used to reading newspaper columns of about forty characters. They tend to have trouble with more than sixty characters to a line. Remember that Gutenberg’s masterpiece, the forty-two line bible, had two-column pages.

Don’t indent the first paragraph
An indent tells you that you’ve come to a paragraph break. Therefore, neither the first paragraph needs an indent, nor does the first after a subheading. In general, you to mark the beginning of a new paragraph, because the last line before a break might run the full width of the column.

This rule has often been set aside, in newspaper work especially. News stories do change at the last moment before press time, and that’s not the best time to rearrange a paragraph over for the sake of typographic excellence. You have a computer to work out the details, and no excuse for an indent in the first paragraph.

Italics rather than caps
Capitals in any quantity disturb the texture of the column. Don’t say THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE. Use italics instead. If your italics are much denser than the roman, and you want to avoid a dark patch in the column, you can try spacing them apart very slightly.

The distance between lines is called leading; printers used to add space between lines with strips of lead. Linespace is measured from baseline to baseline, and this causes problems. What we see is far more important than what we measure, and what we see is the strip of white space between the lines. Here’s an example.

Take out a few business cards and look at them. They usually have separate lines for the street, the city, and the telephone number. The line with the phone number usually looks too close to the line above it. This is because numerals are higher than lower case letters and take up more of the white space between the lines. A line with a lot of numerals, or capitals, often needs extra leading.

Lift the baseline
Parentheses are designed to fit the lower case letters. Next to capitals, they usually look too low: (Tt). Let’s try moving the left parenthesis by shifting the baseline a touch. Many other bits of punctuation also look too low with caps. The hyphen is one: a-z looks all right, A-Z doesn’t.

Add ligatures
In the old days, ligatures were a necessity. Metal type looked terrible without them. The text had light patches, because some letter combinations didn’t fit snugly together. The worst involved the f. Ligatures, character combinations on one piece of type, were used to avoid this problem. They aren’t absolutely essential anymore, but certainly add a touch of grace. Many typefaces have the f-i and the f-l. Run "search and replace" to exchange fi and fl for the ligatures.

And finally...
Look through a few books. Joseph Blumenthal’s The Art of the Printed Book 1455 to 1955 is not a bad place to start. Neither is The Typographic Book by Stanley Morison and Kenneth Day. You can get them on inter-library loan. Select pages that you admire. Recreate them as accurately as your equipment will allow: you can learn a lot by imitation. Close scrutiny is the best way I know of acquiring a trained eye.

Learn the rules, and follow them the best you can. Not many people do. You’ll be one of the masters.

These notes were first used as an addendum to Ari Davidow’s desktop publishing course at the New School in New York. They were published in Computers and Typography, edited by Rosemary Sassoon, in 1993.