My Monospaced Life

by Joel Friedlander on June 8, 2011 · 23 comments

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Okay, I’m going to come clean and admit that I learned to type on a big, hulking pile of metal call a Remington typewriter. The keys on the typewriters in our 9th grade classroom had been covered with blank key caps. We were learning touch typing.

It was actually hard to learn how to strike the keys hard enough to send the metal levers toward the paper with enough impact to make a legible impression. Very physical. I’m still relearning how to type on electronic keyboards, and have to stop myself when I get excited from banging away like I was back at the old Remington.

With the invention of the typewriter came the need for type fonts designed for this new technology. The fonts that were introduced for the typewriter, and that we still think of as “typewriter fonts” are basically slab serif fonts. But there was a crucial difference to these fonts: every letter takes up the same amount of space on the line.

Since they use only one set width for all the letters, numbers and punctuation, these fonts have come to be called monospaced. Most type fonts are proportionally spaced meaning that the letters have different proportional widths depending on their design. So, for instance, an “i” in Times Roman or Garamond or Helvetica—all proportionally spaced fonts—is much narrower than an “m”.

Proportional vs monospaced type

But in a monospaced font, they are all the same.

This gives monospaced fonts a particular character. They were the mainstays not only of typewriters, which could only move one space at a time, but also early CRT screens, where characters were made from pixels in boxes that were all the same size.

The Monospaced Live On

Rather than being left behind by the mathematical power of the computer, which makes spacing proportional fonts quite easy, monospaced fonts have continued to be popular for lots of reasons.

The one I’m writing about today though, is very personal. Let me tell you why.

Once the desktop publishing revolution took over with the introduction of the first Macs and Pagemaker software, proportional fonts became the rule. Where everything had been typewritten or printed on dot matrix printers—more monospaced fonts—now people were writing books, letters and memos in Palatino, Times Roman and lots of other real typefaces.

I was writing a book at the time and also doing a lot of editing. I had trouble for some reason concentrating on the manuscripts I would print out for marking up. There was something wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

So I started to experiment with typefaces, line spacing and anything else I could think of. One day I realized that I never had these problems with manuscripts that were submitted as a stack of typewritten sheets. I took the document I was working on and, after a moment’s hesitation, threw out all the lovely proportional typography. Instead I set the whole thing in Courier, the monospaced font that’s found on every computer.

After fooling around with the settings for a bit I found one that looked quite a bit like typescript. I was a happy editor.

What Is It About Monospaced Fonts?

There’s a bit of magic for me in these monospaced fonts. When I started editing on my new imitation typewriter printout, the font itself seemed to disappear. Like typescript, it was so pedestrian it simply vanished, leaving only the content.

Since then—and despite being a professional typographer—I’ve preferred monospaced fonts for creative work. They allow me to write and edit with no distraction from typography. You know, most typefaces used in books look plain in a big gray mass of type on a page. But up close they are full of rhythm, eccentricity, odd details and angles that go in every direction.

Monospaced fonts, by contrast, are usually very plain, with consistent stroke weights and open, readable letters.

Variations on the Monospaced Font

Here’s Courier, still the standard for monospaced fonts on computers:

monospaced typefaces for creativity

These fonts have also inspired type designers to adapt them in lots of interesting ways. Here’s a classic, American Typewriter:

monospaced fonts for creativity

Even the grunge font fad has caught up with these fonts. Here’s one of my favorites, Love Letter Typewriter:

monospaced fonts for creativity

Finally, the font that I spend the most time with these days, Nitti Light, exclusive to the iPad writing app iA Writer. Here’s what iA says about it:

Writer uses a monospaced font called Nitti Light created and optimized for iPad by the type wizards at Bold Monday. The font transports the provisory character of drafting and forces you to read slowly and precisely without being tedious to look at.

monospaced fonts for creativity

I’ve been doing this so long that I unconsciously associate monospaced fonts with creative work of some kind. One of the things that attracted me to Writer for the iPad was the clean display and unadorned typeface. The combination creates a kind of white noise of the mind, a space within which it’s possible to think and transcribe creative thoughts in an almost frictionless environment.

I don’t know if you’ll get what I mean here, but try using a monospaced font as an experiment when you have some creative work to do. Don’t attempt to format and write at the same time. Set up a plain page in Courier or some other monospaced font and just write like there’s nothing else in the world but you and that screen in front of you. Without encumbrance or distraction, let it flow.

Photo by MPClemens

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    { 21 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michael N. Marcus June 8, 2011 at 4:36 am

    ]]Don’t attempt to format and write at the same time.[[

    That works for some people, but not for me.

    I have to format as I write. I am painting a picture, not just telling a story.

    My brain just won’t let me unlink the message and the medium. A group of letters or words always creates a graphic image — not just in a logo, ad headline or on a book cover. Words are seen before they are read. That’s why we feel differently about justified and ragged text.

    In a book, if my style calls for 14pt subheads, but that size puts one small word onto a second line, I rewrite to eliminate the orphan. (Or I may try 13.5pts.)

    I often write a blog title so it will take up two approximately equal lines, and sometimes insert a break with html to force equal line lengths.

    When I was an advertising copywriters, the art directors liked working with me because I was usually willing to shorten my copy to fit the ad’s layout, rather than insist on smaller type or a smaller photo. I knew that the initial impact of the ad was more important than specific words. Most people see a headline and illustration, but few read down to the bottom.

    Even in a boring business letter, I’ll chop or change words, adjust margins, type size and line spacing to avoid having just a few words and the signature on the second page.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.Self-Pub.info
    http://www.GoodBadAndUglyBooks.com (reviews of books for writers)
    – Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    – “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 8, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Of course, your method will only work if you write, edit, design and lay out your own books. For those of us in a workflow that involves other people it wouldn’t work as well, but thanks for the input.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus June 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks very much, Roger.

    It’s good to know that you share my sense of humor and need to see words in their space.

    Years ago on a new job, I was assigned a secretary. I was supposed to dictate a business letter to her, and after about two sentences, I told her that I would type it myself. I had to see my words, not just say them. Even in prose, line breaks affect the rhythm of the words.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Editor’s note: In a case of “don’t look before you click” I inadvertently deleted one of Roger C. Parker’s comments. Sorry about that.

    Reply

    Wayne Groner June 8, 2011 at 6:15 am

    I learned to type on the same kind of typewriter when I was in the ninth grade. I was the only boy in the class. We were taught to leave two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. Today, students learn keyboarding and, with propotional spacing, are taught to leave one space after a period. A writing friend insists on double spacing at the end of sentences in his manuscripts written on his computer. He also insists on underscoring words to be italicized, rather than using the italicized feature of his word processor. Both of those seem to me to be way out of date. What do others think? Are movie scripts and play scripts still written with monospacing?

    Reply

    Mchael N. Marcus June 8, 2011 at 7:22 am

    >>A writing friend insists on double spacing at the end of sentences [and] on underscoring words to be italicized . . . What do others think?<<

    Take away his keyboard or his fingers.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 8, 2011 at 8:47 am

    Wayne, old habits die hard, don’t they? I agree with you, both practices date from the typewriter era. With monospaced fonts we were all taught to leave 2 spaces at the end of sentences but they aren’t needed and create another task when it comes to manuscript preparation, since we have to take them all out. Same with underline, which was used to denote italics when there was no other way to indicate a font change since a typewriter only has one font. I have no idea what is used for scripts, but here’s an interesting sidelight to this story.

    I know an information publisher who has big facilities and a whole staff full of editors and fact checkers. He publishes specialized directories and comes out with new editions frequently. All his books are typeset in Courier. When I asked him about it, he said that his buyers expect the most recent possible information and his directories sold better in Courier because people assumed they were done so fast that they couldn’t be typeset in the normal way. In fact, he could have used any typeface but this was a pure marketing decision and he was running a very successful company.

    Reply

    Jim Crigler June 8, 2011 at 7:15 am

    As old Unix geek, I write, not with a “Word processor” or “Typesetting engine”, but with a text editor (from the vi family), which *requires* a monospaced font; I chose Lucida Typewriter. Windows users should think “Notepad with powerful features”. I find this reduces the interference between my screen and my brain.

    I use a very simple markup language to describe formatting, e.g., to italicize a word or phrase, I surround it with *asterisks*. An open-source program called “pandoc” translates this markup language (called “markdown”) into ePub and LaTeX formats, including changing “straight quotes” into “curly quotes”; the latter is processed with the LaTeX engine for print. To make mobi input for Kindle, I re-process the ePub through Calibre. Stylesheets are required on both paths, but the writing phase does not depend on them. In both cases a *very small* amount of hand tweaking is required to produce the final output, but I get to work in (what is for me) the most efficient way possible.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 8, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Jim, that’s interesting and thanks for sharing your workflow. Although I’ve never used LaTex, users seem to be quite attached to it. Lucida Typewriter is a very clean monospaced font and your writing setup sounds very similar to the one I use. I’ve developed my own “markup” but it’s only for my use, since I drop the results of my work in Writer into either Word for formatting or into Wordpress for publishing online.

    Reply

    Victoria Mixon June 8, 2011 at 10:50 am

    I laughed out loud at this one—my tech writer/geek husband was once a master of vi and, for all I know, still is. I was just searching my brain yesterday for obscure text editors I’ve used and only got as far as TechInfo.

    I, like Joel, learned on a big old typewriter: a Royal upright with keys you needed a sledgehammer to move. My mother had the slightly easier typewriter, an Underwood upright. Wow, did my fingers get strong.

    I’ve used various typefaces throughout the years since I moved my operations to a computer, but right now I’m stuck on Bookman Old Style. Big, clear, clean, but with a lovely subtle flair. Not a monotype, just close enough for my purposes.

    Helping my editing clients navigate the switch from old-style (double-space between sentences, underlining for italics) to new-style is pretty simple: I do a search-&-replace on their docs. It takes about two minutes.

    A far bigger deal is the switch backward from new-style sloppy language to old-style beautiful prose. I wouldn’t care how many double-spaces they put between sentences if they’d just learn that “grab” is not an all-purpose verb for “pick up like they do it on TV.”

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 8, 2011 at 10:59 am

    And I laughed out loud at your last switch, to “old-style beautiful prose,” but that’s why we need editors! Thanks, Victoria.

    Reply

    paula hendricks June 8, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    i love these posts that cause me to stop and think about what i do when creating sentences or poems. i haven’t tried mono-spaced, but i do use a specific font and do no layout or editing during first drafting.

    gosh… maybe that’s what om writer does too…. i can’t change too much, so i’m just sinking into content…

    good one joel.

    ph

    Reply

    James Byrd June 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks for the trip down amnesia lane, Joel.

    I too learned to type on a big, clunky typewriter in high school. To this day, Susan and I have to work in separate offices because my typing is so loud. Through part of college, I used a portable typewriter where the shift key physically shifted the entire carriage up to produce capital letters. The process produced such a racket that a busy typing session would scare the cat out of the room.

    After I got into the Information Management Systems program, I had computer time and learned to use a tag-based word processing tool called .RUNOFF on the VAX. I started writing all my papers with my spare CPU time (we had limits back then), and printed them off on a dot-matrix printer. I’d take the pages, “burst” them, and copy them using the crappy copier in the Student Union. The copier was so bad that on the copied pages, the dots bled together, making them look more like a typewriter that needed to be cleaned had produced them. None of my professors seemed to mind.

    As for monospace fonts, I grew up with them and I still prefer them for certain applications. Overall, though, I’m with Victoria on being a fan of Bookman Old Style. There’s just something “respectable” about it.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 11:26 am

    I also had a portable typewriter I went off to college with, and made extra money typing up papers for others. The vast majority of people at that time didn’t know how to type, so just that was an advantage. Thanks for the memories, James.

    Reply

    Kathy Carter June 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Interesting article. Isn’t American Typewriter proportionally spaced? I guess technically you didn’t say it was monospaced, but I think it’s interesting that someone created a font that’s proportionally spaced and yet recognizable as a “typewriter” font. And I love that Love Letter Typewriter.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 9, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Hi Kathy,

    Yes, American Typewriter was an attempt to port the good parts of monospaced typefaces into a proportionally-spaced world. Close observers may also have noted the eccentricities in Nitti Lite which, although it is a sans serif face, has some letters (“i”, “l”) with serifs. Thanks for clarifying that, Kathy.

    Reply

    Roger C. Parker June 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    This great posts brought back several memories, including:

    1) Amazement at the amount of money I made when I left my “real job” and started freelancing using my Pencrest (from JC Penny’s, of course) electrical portable which cost me $199 (on time, of course).

    2) I wonder if anyone else here even went through as much IBM Selectric self-correcting tape as I did. I loved typing on the Selectric, and went through the correcting tape by the box.

    Also: anyone here remember the IBM Selectric Composer with its nifty “line justification” feature designed by Rube Goldberg? It also had removable balls for headlines and subheads, but I won’t go further.
    Roger

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus June 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Before daisy wheel printers became common, there was an attachment for the Selectric that made it work as a computer printer, probably in the mid 1970s. It was a horizontal slab which sandwiched between the main body of the Selectric and the bottom plate, and provided an interface to make it type from a minicomputer. It was commonly used to send out multiple copies of letters, with customized names and salutations for fundraising, elections, etc.

    I still have Selectric ribbons in green and brown, and balls — but no Selectric.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Roger, I typeset books on the Composer, and it was a bear. Although it was exciting for almost the first time ever to have real “typesetting” that you could afford in your own office. And the type wasn’t all that bad for a converted typewriter.

    And yes, I was also a fan of the correcting selectric. IBM could have given the machines away for all the correction rolls they sold, but it also was a technological “marvel” in its day. Thanks for the memories.

    Reply

    Robert H. June 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I completely get what you mean by monospaced fonts being less distracting. I recently solved a bout of writer’s block by switching software — I now use Dark Room, a bare-bones text editor that simulates the black screen and amber or green letters of early word processors. I use the Microsoft font Consolas which is very Courier-like. It takes me back to the ’88 to ’93 era when I learned to compose on the keyboard.

    Reply

    bowerbird June 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    chapter next

    a text-editor with formatted feedback

    here’s what’s next on my plate:
    a text-editor with formatted feedback.

    ***

    wow, what a pleasant stroll down memory lane
    this post is, along with its delightful comments…

    joel, i was gonna ask what you like about ia writer.

    then jim stepped in with an interesting comment
    about his workflow, which consists of a combo of
    vim/markdown/pandoc/latex/calibre/tweaks.

    now that i have got my conversion routines polished,
    the next step is a light-markup text-editor for z.m.l.
    which gives the end-user an immediate .html-formatted
    preview of the appearance of the .epub/.mobi/.pdf output.

    here’s a screenshot of the interface:

    http://jaguarps.com/tools/whatsnext.png

    -bowerbird

    Reply

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