Check, Please: A Typographic Checklist

In the best of all possible worlds, we’d have type-savvy proofreaders or copy editors to check every project before it goes out the door. More often than not, though, quality assurance falls to the designer, page-layout artist, or compositor. Having spent years as a proofreader in a commercial type shop, I’ve created the following checklist of typographic details to make that final once-over easier.

I’ve divided this list into two halves: problems that can be located using electronic tools and problems that require human eyes and judgments.

Software-Assisted Clean-Up
Check Font Use
Type rendering on a computer screen is not good, and it can be very difficult to tell one typeface from another, especially at text sizes. But these errors are very apparent on a printed page. Design changes can leave artifacts in the form of previously used faces, as can the failure to totally reformat text imported into a document from another program. Both Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress can list all the fonts used to create a document (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. In InDesign, selecting Find Font from the Type menu displays a list of all the fonts used in your document. If you see one that shouldn’t be there, click on its name and click Find to have the program highlight passages of text set using that font.

Figure 2. In XPress, you can do the same thing by selecting Usage from the Utilities menu.

Check Spelling
Ideally, you shouldn’t have to worry about spelling unless you’ve been editing the text. But the spelling checker is also good for finding typographic errors, notably missing word spaces after commas or sentence-ending periods. It’s also alarmingly easy to accidentally introduce typos into a document, for example by accidentally hitting Shift-P instead of Ctrl-P when printing a proof.

Find Auto-Leaded Text
Normally, you want explicit control over the leading of your type, so it’s best to avoid Auto leading (see “Just Say “No” to Automatic Leading”). Nevertheless, it can creep unnoticed into your pages through your program’s default settings or via imported style sheets. Unless you intentionally use Auto leading, it’s apt to clash with your specified settings and create layout inconsistencies.

To search for instances of Auto-leaded text in InDesign, choose Find/Change from the Edit menu and click on the little magnifying glass icon to the right of the Find Format field. In the dialog box that opens, select Basic Character Formats from the list on the left and choose Auto from the Leading pop-up menu. Click OK, and the program is ready to find any text that has been formatted with Auto leading.

XPress can’t search for Auto leading, so you’ll have to locate it with a line-by-line exam of the whole file. Use the down-arrow cursor key and keep an eye on the Leading field of the Measurements palette. Leading is a paragraph attribute in XPress, so as long as your cursor is somewhere in an Auto-leaded line, the program will alert you.

Other Finds-and-Replacements:
Tabs for Indents
Paragraph indents are best defined as paragraph attributes and created automatically, rather than being made with the Tab key (Figure 3).

Figure 3. To weed out Tab-created indents, use your find-and-replace tools to locate the expression ^t, because you can’t type a Tab into the Find field.

Unbuilt Fractions
Integers separated by a solidus, or slash, can creep into your pages unnoticed. Do a search for the / character to find them and substitute properly built fractions.

Double Word Spaces
Unless you prefer to use two word spaces after a sentence-ending period, there’s no reason for having consecutive word spaces in your text (see “To Double-Space or Not to Double-Space…” ). Use Find and Replace to substitute one word space for two, and then repeat the search until the program reports that it can’t find any more occurrences.

Typewriter-Style Quotes and Apostrophes
The only use for typewriter-style quotation marks is to create the look of typewriter-style quotation marks. For quotes, you should use true quotation marks, and for apostrophes a single closing quote. For inch and foot marks as well as minutes and seconds, use primes. Even though you may be assiduous about not using typewriter-style quotes, spelling checkers often introduce them when correcting words containing apostrophes.

Misused Hyphens
Manuscript authors may incorrectly use hyphens in place of minus signs or en dashes, and double-hyphens often masquerade as em dashes.

Bad Ellipses
The ellipsis character ( … ) is best reserved for use in display type, as it’s too narrow for text use. It looks especially bad when used with a sentence-ending period, which has different spacing (Figure 4). Replace them with a series of periods separated by en spaces and connected to the rest of the sentence by a non-breaking space.

Figure 4. As you can see below, creating a four-dot ellipsis using the ellipsis character plus a period, yields inconsistent spacing. This problem is worse in some typefaces than in others. You can create a better, traditionally spaced ellipsis using periods and en spaces.

x Used as a Multiplication Sign
Most fonts now contain a real multiplication sign ( × ), so dump the lowercase xs and use the correct symbols (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The upper sample incorrectly uses quotation marks instead of primes for inches and a lowercase x in place of a true multiplication sign. The version below it rectifies the problems.

The Eyes Have It
The following problems can only be spotted by your own eagle eyes, and they’re well worth looking out for.

Bad Rags and Bad Hyphenations
Take a look at the right-hand margins of your text columns, searching for unattractive rags and bad hyphenations (see “Rag Time”). Double-hyphenated words, for example, should be avoided, as well as hyphenated last words of paragraphs. Also look for incorrectly hyphenated words, including proper names and homographs, such as re-create/rec-reate and pro-gress/prog-ress.

Widows and Orphans
Very short last lines of paragraphs can seem to create line spaces in text columns and should be fleshed out by causing their paragraphs to re-flow, usually by loosening tracking slightly. Short paragraph fragments that appear at the tops or bottoms of columns also disrupt the harmonious rectangular column shapes and should also be remedied. (See “How to Solve Widows and Orphans.” )

Abutting Subheads
In multi-column layouts, look for subheads that align side by side (or nearly so) in adjacent columns (Figure 6).

Figure 6. A simple page with lots of common problems. They include three short last lines of paragraphs (widows), including one that’s hyphenated. Subheads unfortunately align in adjacent columns. A two-line paragraph broken at the end of the first column creates an orphan there and another at the top the second column. The right-hand margin is afflicted with distracting margin shapes. As a bonus, the page ends with a hyphen, which is frowned upon by most copy editors.

Inconsistent Display Type Spacing
It’s not uncommon to have to tweak the tracking of display type to make it fit in place, but in spreads where there are several pieces of large type, the spacing among them has to be consistent. If one has to be more tightly spaced than the others, also tighten their spacing to match. (See “On the Track of Good Type.” )

Display Type Kerning
Take one last look at all of your display type to make sure you haven’t missed or overdone anything. (See “One Good Kern Deserves Another.” )

Bullet Spacing
If you’ve created bulleted lists, make sure that each bullet is followed by a word space (or whatever your favored spacing is). (For more about spacing symbols and punctuation marks, see “Punc Rocks.” )

Optical Alignments
Just because your program says something is aligned, that doesn’t mean it necessarily looks that way. Centered italic headings may look like they’re drifting to the right. A paragraph’s large initial caps will likely look slightly indented if pains haven’t been taken to make sure they appear optically aligned along the margin (Figure 7).

Figure 7. The natural spacing that occurs on the flanks of characters can make them appear indented when they’re enlarged initial caps, as in the upper example below. Mechanical alignment—what your program creates—doesn’t necessarily create optically correct alignment. Manually repositioning the drop cap in the second version below creates visual flush-left alignment.

Type Color Problems
Look for loose lines and tight lines that create inconsistent type color within paragraphs. InDesign can help you by flagging badly composed lines (choose Highlight H&J Violations in the Composition panel of the Preferences dialog box), but it can’t “see” if type color varies from one paragraph to the next. Look closely for loosely set lines, especially in narrow measures; for example, in text that runs around a graphic. (See “The ABCs of H&J.” )

Random chance can cause a paragraph to compose with a series of lines having word spaces that stack one on top of another. This causes a distracting white streak through the text, called a river. This is easier to see in a printed proof than on screen. On a finished page, a river looks like a fault line running through your text, threatening to crack it in two, and it draws the eye like a magnet (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Rivers like the one running down the middle of the following paragraph happen by random chance, and they happen remarkably often. Mediocre computer-monitor resolution makes rivers hard to spot onscreen, but they pop out in printed proofs and final pages.

Consistency Problems
It’s a good idea to create a list of typographic standards that you intend to use in a given project. For example, will you be using lining numerals or old-style numerals? What are the standard tracking adjustments for display type at various sizes? What fonts will you use for characters such as bullets and ballot boxes? In short, note any typographic decision that you make that could be handled in an obviously contrasting way elsewhere in the job.

On Deadline
There never seems to be enough time at the end of a job to perform that careful double-check. But if you organize a formal checklist, you can do it in a structured, efficient way that will ultimately save you time. There’s nothing worse than having to go back into a “done” job.

If there are things you’d like me to add to this list, please comment below and share it with me and the rest of your fellow readers. I’m sure we all have stories about the one that got away and came back to haunt us.

Posted on: June 9, 2010

James Felici

James Felici has worked in the publishing industry—in both editorial and production—for more than 30 years. A veteran journalist and former managing editor of Publish magazine, he has set type by hand as well as on systems from IBM, Linotype, Compugraphic, CCI, and Magna. His books include The Complete Manual of Typography (Peachpit Press), The Desktop Style Guide (Bantam/ITC), How to Get Great Type Out of Your Computer (North Light), and contributions to The Macintosh Bible (Peachpit Press). He has written for numerous publications, including PC World, Macworld, and The Seybold Report, and has been a featured speaker at Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and other events worldwide.

12 Comments on Check, Please: A Typographic Checklist

  1. Thanks for this, James. What a great reference and reminder! You’ve done what students and designers keep asking me for, and that I keep saying I’m going to do, but have not gotten around to doing!

    .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..

    T H E T Y P E S T U D I O
    Westport, CT

  2. Thanks for putting all this together on one page. Excellent checklist!

  3. We were looking at the final print-proof of a newsletter that featured an article about recycling paper bags. With horror, we discovered the story’s headline, “Putting the old bag back to work,” was juxtaposed with a photo of the recycling company’s female owner. A quick layout adjustment ensued.

  4. Ha! Never thought about it — thanks! I have a ton of changes to make.

  5. Basics but precious to remeber and correct for best results in publication of all sorts!

    John Cyrus

  6. This is a fantastic list!

    However, I’m not sure exactly what to do now that I have a stack problem. Since my paragraph is not full-justified, how do i fix it without introducing extra whitespace?

    Is the only solution to rewrite it?


  7. There is some “best practice” typographical information here but may add, that after a drop cap, you should use CAPITAL letters for the next few characters especially on a two line drop. Olwen Bruce

  8. Is it my browser or the link? Can’t seem to get this to my printer, or to e-mail it.

    Great list though.

  9. This checklist is so helpful! Thank you for sharing.

  10. I recently posted my first article on a website, and didn’t proof the story after it was posted (I’d proofed it during my six or more re-writes and was sick of reading it). The website had inserted HTML code in place of the apostrophes I had typed in the story. I ended up using a different character (found by using Microsoft’s Charmap.exe) which looked just like an apostrophe, but didn’t trigger the website to produce the code in place of it.

  11. The Hawaiian language is a challenge for those who seek to duplicate the chosen marks for glottal stops and other needs. There are several of these and the most common is the `okina, a single quotation mark between letters in words such as “ku`la.”

    One difficulty is that the `okina should always match the opening single quote mark rather than the closing mark style. And, as those of us who set type in the Pacific areas know, that is not always easy.
    Can’t demonstrate it acccurately in this note, for example, using the mark under the tilde on many keyboards. That is not a quotation mark but Hawaiians do appreciate the effort when spotted.

    It is a growing issue. Most non-Hawaiian folks here remain in shame for the fact that America banned the Hawaiian language shortly after the takeover of the islands. That is no longer the case but in the meantime the nuances of the language were lost on many.

    Now we are attempting to make amends. Where street names, for example, are Hawaiian words there is a sincere effort to present them on signs, directories and elsewhere with the proper diacritical marks.

    How do we do it in most cases? With the `okina, we place a single quotation mark at the beginning of a word, cut it and paste it inside the word where it belongs as a glottal stop. Mostly it works.

  12. I sent along a note about using quotation marks for the ‘okina in the Hawaiian language — and elsewhere. I had not signed in so it was said to be from a ‘Guest,’ which is true. But some may want to know that it came from HawaiiBill, an ardent fan of James Felici’s work.


    An old man, a writer who likes people, living in the middle of the Pacific ocean near volcanoes, in tradewinds and soft bird songs.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.