Clarification on Text Styles

Subject: Clarification on Text Styles
From: Beth Agnew <bagnew -at- INSYSTEMS -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 12 Dec 1997 08:42:31 -0500

Hi folks,

I've sure appreciated the responses to my trolling for discussion on
multiple text styles. However, it's evident that a little clarification
might be in order.

First, some definitions:

Text styles refer to the type face, point size, leading, indentation and
font of text. <Arial, 12 pt, 6 pt above, 6 pt below, flush left, regular>
would be a text style, just as we see in Word or Wordperfect style sheets.

Type faces are the font family -- Arial, Times New Roman, Garamond, Bodoni,
Mistral, and so on.

Fonts are the collections of individual letters within a type face,
so-named from the old days of hand-setting of lead type when the individual
metal letters were kept in partitioned trays called "fonts". A font is a
set of letters of one type face or size. Arial Bold 12 pt is a font; so is
Arial Italic 10 pt. That's why you can buy 600 fonts on a disk and only get
about 40 type faces.

Leading ("ledding") refers to the spacing between lines of type. After the
typesetters laid down a line of type, they'd add a strip of lead in the
appropriate point size underneath to provide spacing between that line and
the next.

Quite a few folks wrote and cautioned against "ransom-note" publishing -- a
kindergarten publisher's error. (Oooh - Let's use Rockabilly for our
headings!!). Thanks, but my concern goes much deeper than that. This
affects a "standard" practice among technical writers/publishers.

There is widespread use, among software manual writers, of different text
styles, apart from headings and body text, to indicate each of: what the
user types in, what the computer responds with, what code looks like,
possible error messages, and more. In a long document with meaty paragraphs
and few bulleted or numbered sections, it doesn't look that bad. The
thinking has been that users need the visual cues to differentiate between,
say, the name of a menu item and what they type in. You might have a line
that reads something like: "Click File / Open, type in
c:\directory\filename, click OK and you will see your document Filename in
the Editor window." File / Open might be in Arial bold;
c:\directory/filename in Times bold italic; OK in Arial bold; and Filename
in Times bold.
These text styles are the conventions used in the manual to "help" the user
distinguish among interface and procedural elements.

I'm proposing that it is not at all necessary. In the example sentence I
just gave you, the multiple type styles are certainly overkill. But I see
it time and again. On the surface, different type styles seems like a good
idea, but what looks fine in the "conventions" section can back you into a
corner when to remain consistent you have to use all of those type styles
in one sentence or on one small page. The manual I reviewed yesterday had
11 type styles on one 9 x 6" page! And this HELPS the user? I think not.

I've stopped doing it. The "Conventions Used in this Manual" section of our
user guides is GONE. Instead, I use more white space (leading and
indentation). I still use a sans serif type face for headings, and a serif
type face for body text. Italics and bold are used *sparingly* for
emphasis. I use rules (that's "lines" for the typographically-challenged),
callouts and boxes where appropriate.

How about the rest of you software writers?

Beth Agnew
Senior Technical Writer, InSystems Technologies Inc.
65 Allstate Parkway, Suite 100 Tel: (905) 513-1400 ext. 280
Markham, Ontario, Canada L3R 9X1 Fax: (905) 513-1419
mailto:bagnew -at- insystems -dot- com Visit us at:

See my friendly face at:, or

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