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Justification and hyphenation in book publishing is a big and somewhat technical topic. But here I’ll try to give you a 5 minute ‘crash-course’ using some images as an aid to understanding.

Hyphens are used often in writing, and while most authors are aware of their use in joining whole or partial words together, there is another common use for hyphenations in publications. This blog post aims to give some simple technical information about hyphenation so writers who aspire to become successfully published authors can understand the process. It is important to make this point—albeit a generalisation—right up-front: a book without hyphenation is a sub-professional book.

1. The hyphenation basics

When we say “unexpected hyphenation”, we’re not talking about hyphens that are used to connect whole or part-words (like the on in “part-words”). These hyphens are common enough that almost everyone should come to expect them.

The instances where hyphenation can be unexpected for some authors are the ones that appear in a word that is not usually hyphenated where sentences break over to the next line. This type of hyphenation is not input by editors or authors, rather they appear during the design phase when the book is being laid out by the designers.

So, why is your book designer putting random hyphens in the middle of your words? Well, to start with, this is usually an automatic process handled by the design software. The designer themselves isn’t manually placing a hundred hyphens in the middle of your words for fun. But, the reason for the hyphens is that it is a standard technique for typesetting. and actually helps the readability of your book.

With that explained, the two uses for hyphens are as follows:

  • As a punctuation mark used to join two or more words and to separate syllables of a single word. For example son in law is an error but son-in-law is a correctly hyphenated word phrase.
  • As a method of increasing the readability of large amounts of text. This is especially true for when the text is ‘justified’.

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2. Justified text combined with hyphenation

Why is text commonly ‘justified’ in professional book publishing?

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed. It involves choosing the font, color, size, spacing, and layout of texts to deliver a clear message to the reader.

One key aspect of typography to consider in book publishing is justification. Justification refers to the alignment of text along a straight edge. In this instance, justified centered text creates a symmetrical and eye-catching layout. and is commonly used in book design. Justified text is aligned along both the left and right margins and creates a clean, uniform look. It is commonly used in books and magazines as it helps to maximize space on a page and improve readability.

How justification affects readability is best shown graphically. Please note the examples shown below are exaggerated for demonstration purposes.

This format isn’t too bad but with large amounts of text it will look quite poor. The red line shows that the right part of the text area is ‘ragged’. With a large amount of text this looks messy and makes the page harder for the reader.

To correct this messiness a professional book typographer will deploy justification.  The next image shows just how that might look. Does it look better? For me that’s an unequivocal ‘no’.  While the right side is nicely straight, the justified text now has very ugly spaces between the words. The red lines emphasise this effect.

Justified text in typography

The solution to this issue is to use justification along with hyphenation. Hyphenation will appropriately break words to even-out the gaps between words. This is illustrated in the image below.

Justified and hyphenated text in book publishing

Note , here the typographer has made a conscious decision to set both the hyphens i.e. the ‘-‘, and the full-stop i.e. the ‘.’, outside of the right orange line where the letters end. Does this re-introduce the very ‘mess’ justification and hyphenation we were trying to eliminate? No, the science affirms this is a very powerful typographic technique improving readability of large blocks of text. The reader will actually not mentally register the hyphens outside the orange line.

Typography for book publishing - justifiction

To some authors professional typesetting using justification and hyphens has introduced something into their manuscript that was not there in the first place. But every professional book publisher and book designer knows (notwithstanding some rare technical exceptions), text that does not use hyphens screams ‘I’m a amateur author’.

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