Picking a great writing font
One thing to do when you’re supposed to be writing is to fuss about your writing environment.
Not wasting time
Choosing the perfect writing font is a classic way to procrastinate—but it is not a waste of time. Fonts are important. A good font is not only highly legible, it also conveys a subliminal emotional effect on the reader. Naturally, it follows that it will also have similar effects on the writer. A good font will make you feel better while you are writing—maybe because you can read it more easily, or because you find elements of it, its curves or serifs, aesthetically pleasing. Whatever the reason, picking a font that is pleasing can have a profound effect on your writing.
What makes a good writing font?
For me, as a writer and programmer who began typing text on a computer in the 1980s, I gravitate toward monospaced fonts. Every character in a monospaced font has the same width. This is useful in programming or for data files, because, in those uses, you often want to align columns of text. It is not useful at all in typesetting books, of course; text laid out in monospace fonts looks primitive and wide-open. Primitive and wide-open, however, are perfect attributes for text that I am writing, breaking apart, moving around, and recombining. Writing in monospaced fonts is, on a subconscious level, freeing. It helps me feel like nothing in my text is set in stone.
Whether the font is monospaced or proportional is only part of what is important. Other things matter, too: the shapes of the characters; whether they have serifs or not; whether some look identical to others (l vs. 1, or O vs. 0, for example); and so on.
Beyond that, some fonts render better on screen than others. For example, Verdana and Georgia were commissioned by Microsoft specifically to be look good, clear, and legible on screens, rather than on paper. This was revolutionary at the time, as was their free-to-use licensing. Consequently, these two fonts were adopted almost everywhere on the web for a while. Georgia is still one of the eight font options in Apple’s iBooks ebook reader.
Your particular display and operating system have a lot to do with what font looks good. In general, displays are much higher resolution and much higher quality now than when Verdana and Consolas were invented. As you might expect, this means that all all scalable fonts look better on modern, high-resolution displays. Still, some fonts will look much sharper than others on some displays. For example, on my Dell 27” 4K display for my work machine, a Windows 10 laptop, Consolas looks the best for the terminal and any coding I am doing, and Sax Mono looks better for writing actual documents. These fonts don’t offer similar advantages to me on my Mac or on iOS, however. They look fine, but they really pop for me on my work machine.
My favorite writing fonts over the years
There are tons of monospaced fonts available. Here are a handful that I have used over the years, with the platform I used them on in parentheses. I recommend trying them in your text editor, especially the newer ones listed at the bottom.
- Monaco (Mac)
- Menlo (Mac)
- Consolas (Windows)
- Source Code Pro (Windows)
- Droid Sans Mono (Windows, Android)
- Sax Mono (Windows)
- IBM’s Plex (Mac, iOS, Windows)
- iA Writer Duospace (Mac, iOS)
These are listed in the order in which I have adopted them. I tend to use only a few at a time, depending on which one looks best on my hardware and software at the moment. Below, I highlight two of my favorite, very much related, fonts for writing these days: Plex and iA Writer Duospace.
IBM released Plex, an open source font that will be used in all of IBM’s published materials going forward, in late 2017. It isn’t the only open source font that’s free for anyone to download and use, but it is a really good one. Plex Mono, its monospaced variant, looks fantastic on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Its edges are crisp, and the stroke has a consistent width; it looks like the lines fit just right in the pixel grid that makes up the screen.
iA Writer Duospace
The iOS development company iA took IBM’s Plex Mono and tweaked it a little bit to make it even better, in their opinion, for writing. They kept the font monospaced except for M’s and W’s. It’s a pretty simple change, but a lot of thought went into it. iA Writer’s article about this process is absolutely fascinating—I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
The resultant font, iA Writer Duospace, looks great on my MacBook Pro. I prefer Plex Mono on my iPad and iPhone, though. There is something about the wider W and M that looks different in the two platforms. It could just be that my iOS screens are a lot smaller, and width is at a greater premium. It could also just be that I prefer my letters to line up vertically, especially when my text is constrained to a narrow column.
Perfect, for now
For now, I am very happy writing in Plex and iA Writer Duo on my Apple devices. I still happily use SaxMono and Consolas on the PC for writing notes and coding, though Plex Mono is starting to creep into use for my todo.txt file and in other places. Every year or two I look for something better, but I probably won’t change from these four main fonts until I get new hardware, which could change how everything is rendered, but that is probably a long way off.