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Typography and LaTeX: Usability of the Written Word

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A dear friend of mine from the community got me into a short discussion on Twitter whether or not Markdown and Pandoc is a good replacement for the LaTeX typesetting system. He started by suggesting his combination instead of using LaTeX. After my objection that Markdown/Pandoc (or Org-mode/PDF-export) is just for quick/short things, he claimed that I never had seriously used Pandoc before. Well, he's got a point: I never did. I only use the PDF-export of Org-mode for "quick stuff".

My point is that methods like Markdown/Pandoc or Org-mode/PDF-export are great for getting something on paper which is not intended to be used by many readers or by serious readers. The result simply lacks decent typography in most cases.

Clearly, the same argument holds for all kind of WYSIWYG word processors like Microsoft Word.

The Twitter discussion above is just one example of many where people underestimate the value of typography in daily life.

I don't want to start a discussion about the purpose of typography in general. I'm not going to argue whether or not typography is important. This whole blog entry is about usability of the written word for authors (the source and the tool) on once side and for consumers (the result, usually PDF) on the other side. Legibility ‘refers to perception’ and readability ‘refers to comprehension’. Typographers aim to achieve excellence in both.

Strive for Perfection

If you are going to produce a PDF which will be read by many readers, you should invest some effort in trying to come up with a good result in terms of typography.

This is not a matter of whether or not you are able to bring information on paper. This is a matter of how enjoyable the process of bringing information to paper is to you and - most important - how pleasant the result is for readers. Thousands of years of experience from early book-writing by monks until modern research resulted in a set of typographic rules. A couple of years ago, "typesetter" was no software, it was a profession you had to learn over many years.

There is even a lot of psychology going on. Researcher showed that different typography of the very same set of words resulted in large differences at the readers' side. After reading an average text, multiple test persons were asked question on the content of the text. A text with bad typography resulted in approximately 15-20 percent reception of the content. The same text with optimized typography resulted in about 85 percent reception of the content. Same words, huge difference in the amount of information the reader could get out of it.

If you do not want to reach the 85 percent reception of your information, your text is probably not worth being written anyway.

Makrotypografie, Mikrotypografie, and LaTeX

Since LaTeX is able to avoid many typographic errors by itself, any serious author of written word still has to know how to generate a fine piece of paper though. In the German language, there is this distinction between "Makrotypografie" and "Mikrotypografie".

If you don't fiddle with default LaTeX settings without deeper typographic knowledge, LaTeX does most "Makrotypografie" for you automatically: print space, reglet, hyphenation, placement of figures or tables, matching fonts and font sizes, and so on. Some things related to "Mikrotypografie" are done by LaTeX itself as well: ligatures, letter-spacing, and so on.

However, for decent "Mikrotypografie", the author still has to do some work on his/her own: correct usage of punctuation mark and corresponding spacing, small caps for acronyms, choosing the right citation method, fixing wrong hyphenation, using non-breakable spaces or reduced spacing when appropriate, choosing the correct characters and quotation marks, avoiding beginner's mistakes like Plenken or multiple spaces, and so forth. This is not necessarily a matter of choosing the right tool. Yet, choosing the wrong tool can lead to the inability to influence "Mikrotypografie".

So there is plenty of room to either completely ignore the fine art of typesetting or to try and come up with a great work which you're going to show everybody with great pride. This is not a matter of yes-or-no. This is a continuous spectrum with hard-to-grasp corners.

From tooling perspective, there are products out there that focus on people not being able or willing to apply typography by themselves: Word and LibreOffice (WYSIWYG in general), Markdown/Pandoc, LaTeX (yes!), and more. Of course, there are other products that allow for typographic optimization on different levels: LaTeX, ConTeXt, and some advanced desktop publishing software.

Literature

For authors using the English language, there are some books I can recommend. How to write proper English is the topic of The Elements of Style, a well-known classic. For scientific authors, I do recommend also "The Craft of Scientific Writing" (Michael Alley) or "Bugs in Writing" (Lyn Dupré).

If you want to learn about typography, you should take a look on books like "The Elements of Typographic Style" (Robert Bringhurst).

For authors using the German language, there are a great number of excellent typographic books. I personally recommend books by Jan Tschichold or my probably all-time-favorite: "Detailtypografie" by Friedrich Forssman and Ralf de Jong. The last one is a sheer beauty of a book, providing information on typography by examples for learning as well as for reference. I love their Checklist chapters or their search-replace guide! Worth each and every Cent.

Examples

I read the readme file of Pandoc. Now I have to admit that Pandoc is capable of more things I thought. However, there are only very few features to optimize "Mikrotypografie". I still do think that documents generated by Pandoc lack excellent results in terms of typography.

To demonstrate my point, I probably have to come up with a LaTeX source and PDF result file which contain examples of typographic optimization I mentioned above some day.

As a starting point, I would take a LaTeX KOMA template I made and write a chapter containing a short selection of things which are listed below:

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