Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Do It Yourself Typography: Justified vs. Ragged

It's a conspiracy: Justified paragraphs are still more common in books than ragged-right paragraphs, but you almost never used to see ragged-right paragraphs anywhere except in ads.

Today ragged-right paragraphs are something you should consider for your book, especially if readability is your top priority. Ragged right paragraphs are easier to read because the spacing between the words is the same on every line. If the ragged-right paragraphs are not hyphenated, an option not usually entertained for justified paragraphs, they are even easier to read.

Even so, most books today seem to be done with the traditional justified paragraphs.

Here's a secret of sorts. The reason justified text became the standard is that it made journeymen printers (who had served four-year apprenticeships) indispensable. Linotype operators (and before that, manual compositors) needed years of training in order to quickly determine the proper amount of space between words for every single line. It was quite a skill. If the standard had been ragged right, the space between each word would have been the same for each line and anybody who could type could have done the job. To raise the skill level a notch, linotype operators (cleverly, some would say) didn't use the QWERTY keyboard that everybody else in the English world was, and still is, used to. Instead, they used a keyboard unique to linotype machines, which increased the need for specialized training. Anyway, people got used to seeing justified paragraphs and so today most authors still think justified paragraphs are “the way” you have to do a book.

Fair disclosure. My grandfather was a journeyman compositor (typographer) and linotype operator, and my father was a journeyman compositor. My father had to change careers because computers made it much easier to create justified paragraphs. With a click of a mouse, any fool can do it now, but that doesn't make justified paragraphs any easier to read.--The Publishing Pro.

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