[OT] Just the right type

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When I started in journalism we were still using manual typewriters to hack out copy that we sent to typesetters to be cast in hot metal. Ah, those were the days.

Writing about the flowchart template I acquired a while back made me think about another handy bit of plastic that used to be an integral part of my job.

At my first job, we wrote on sit-up-and-beg Underwood typewriters. These were more convenient than slimline or portable typewriters because you could tip them on to their backs to clear desk space when you weren’t typing. And you needed that space for proofreading.

For those born since the coming of personal computers and desktop publishing (DTP), the magazine publishing process went like this.

You typed your copy. Most magazines or newspapers had a standard column width (measured in ems) for any given section. If you were smart, you set the margins of your typewriter to match the average number of characters that would fit on a line (in my first job, it was 39 characters). That way, the number of lines on your typed manuscript would roughly match the number of typeset lines, give or take a few. If you were marking up an existing manuscript that hadn’t been so typed, you’d need to ‘cast off’ – estimating the number of lines by counting characters (which could be every bit as tedious as it sounds).

You then marked up the manuscript, telling the typesetter what typeface, font size, leading and measure to use for each section of text (heading, standfirst, crossheads, body copy etc). For body copy, for example, you might specify something like:

9/10pt Bodoni Roman R/L x26ems

This tells the typesetter that the font should be 9pt Bodoni Roman, but set on a 10pt line spacing. This would give 1pt of blank space between each line (known as ‘leading’ because it was often achieved by inserting lead strips of the appropriate thickness between lines). The ‘R/L’ means ‘ranged left’ (known to some as ‘ragged right’, but that was a term I never encountered among professional editors or typesetters).

What we’d receive back from the typesetters would be a galley proof. This is the type properly set but in one long strip. This would be proofread by a sub-editor (‘sub’). With one publication on which I worked, we’d proofread and correct this galley and send it back to the typesetters. Only when we had a ‘clean’ galley, with no errors, would it go to the layout artist. On other jobs, we’d edit the first galley and just alert the designer if any corrections would result in the text becoming longer or shorter than the galley proof.

The layout artist would then chop up a copy of the galley proof to lay down the text on a page layout grid – a pre-printed sheet on heavy paper showing guides for text columns, trim, bleed areas etc. The artist would also paste in sketches showing where images should go. This layout went back to the typesetters or printers where they would produce camera-ready versions of the text, halftone images or separations of colour images and send back a page proof – a photocopy of the laid-out artwork. We subs would then get to proofread again.

Throughout this process, there were numerous occasions when you needed to count lines of text. Maybe you needed to count blocks of text because there was overmatter – text that couldn’t fit into the layout. Maybe you needed to know where crossheads or paragraph breaks would fall (armed with the knowledge of how many lines there were to a column on your publication’s layout grid). Or whatever.

Counting lines was a very common task, and a tedious and slow one. Enter the type scale or depth scale. This is basically a ruler that measures lines of text. It has multiple scales for various line heights.

So, which leading is it? Trick question: it’s none of these. This proof is a print-out that has been scaled by the printer so it doesn’t match any of the standard leading sizes.

Note, it measures lines. Remember that 9/10pt text we specified earlier? For that, you’d use the 10pt scale.

The type scale was a standard piece of kit for any journalist who subbed or proofread copy. It was like a badge of office. I can’t even remember when I last used mine, but I could never get rid of it.

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