Working with manuscripts and authors


When you are typesetting a text, you are imparting semantics to the text through styling.

The author will have done their job, and now it’s your turn as a graphic designer or typographer to take over.

The manuscript often comes from some source that makes inferring the semantics difficult. And by semantics in this context, I refer to the meaning of words, especially that of hierarchy, emphasis and microtypography like numbers, dates and math equations. A word’s meaning can change with it’s style. I can make you read this differently than that.

In pre-internet days, imparting meaning at the visual, end level was often good enough. After all, the manuscript was always meant to be a printed book, and often it remained one. But today, things have changed. The printed book is only one of many potential publishing outlets for the manuscript.

Say our manuscript is a cookbook. This particular cookbook is about one third recipes, one third are stories, segues and context, and the final third are images and illustrations. A fairly complex example, especially because this is not mainly data-driven content[1].

As a typographic designer, the typical approach would be to take the files, Word-documents, Google Docs, and maybe a shared folder for images and start doing some sketches, or test layouts. After some sending of files back and forth, the commisioner and the designer come to an agreement about which direction to take the design, and the designer gets to work. This is a tedious job, requiring meticulous care. This part of the job is often pleasurable, because it allows you as a designer to get stuck into some details that they really care about. These details convey meaning. When the designer makes a decision, they impart meaning to the letter, word or sentence they are working on.

Herein lies a problem. The meaning imparted, supported, or emphasised by the designer is now lost to the world outside the typesetting progam. If you wanted to publish the manuscript as an e-book, or perhaps parts of it on a website, you need to do the imparting of meaning again. For each outlet. This is both error-prone and inefficient. And worst of all, it does nothing to improve the original manuscript.

The typographer usually does a fair amount of cleaning up of the manuscript, removing superflous spaces, indents, line-breaks. Fixing hyphens, numbers and other microtypographical details. Sometimes also removing blatant spelling mistakes.

Of course, the typographic designer does more than just cleaning up. Although some of this work can only be done within the context of the printed book (margins, line-breaks etc) – parts of the work should be fed back to the manuscript. This work should be done outside the design program.

What tools do we have to structure and impart meaning to our texts?

On the surface, a book can appear to be a linear structure. It has incremental page numbers and can be read from beginning to end. But as soon as we start looking more closely, the illusion of a linear structure crumbles.

The first, and most familiar example might be the table of contents. The table of contents serves as a navigation tool. In its simplest form, it could be a list of chapters in a book. The references to page numbers allows us to jump to a chapter without having to read the preceding ones to get there. This is not very linear.

The index allows us to do something similar, but this time based on key words in the text.

We have cross-references to other parts of the book. We have figures: diagrams, illustrations and images with their respective captions.

We have footnotes and end-notes. Sometimes to explain difficult terms or an unclear concept, other times they are references to places in other texts, books, videos, audio.

Suddenly, our simple linear structure looks more like a network of interconnected nodes. Using an application geared towards simple linear structures like Word to manage a complex network (graph) such as this seems counter-intuitive.

When I wrote my bachelor’s thesis in 2010 I had a hunch about this, more by intuition than explicit reasoning. I felt intellectually imprisoned by Word and its rigid linear structure and ended up researching and testing a mixture of tools available then, like Scrivener and Ulysses. A form of productive procrastination.

There were a few core features that set these tools apart from the rest. They had:

  • clean and clutter-free interfaces conducive to focused writing
  • a way to store text as individual chunks or files
  • the ability to organise and reorganise the chunks into longer, running text
  • export and print options

They were lacking in features to deal with non-textual assets, and there weren’t great tools for referencing[2], but they still allowed me to develop my text iteratively.

I oscillated ∿ between a bird’s eye view and a detail view. From macro to micro. From looking at the flow and the outline of the text, to swooping in on individual chunks to do editing or roughing out new content. This felt empowering and liberating, and allowed me to think about writing text in a completely new way. It felt like I found my way, and it made writing a pleasure rather than a drudge.

Complex and complicated are not the same thing.

We all want our output to be a simple as possible, to explain things in the easiest possible way without unnecessary assumtions about the subject or the reader. (See Occam's razor)

Admitting that our text is complex is the first step in being able to communicate it clearly.

What are the next steps here? where are we going with this?

I think we should explore Obsidian as a potential tool here, and discuss its features and drawbacks as a tool for manuscript interchange.

There are a few problem spaces here – is it too bold to look at them all?

  • Creating and editing a manuscript (and references)
  • Sharing and getting feedback on the manuscript (collaboration)
  • Typographer needs to clean up the manuscript so the changes are made to the manuscript (and the value is retained and transferrable)
  • Manuscript needs to be exported to/or already be in a usable format for import into publishing software (like Indesign, ebooks, websites etc.)


  • A format with no presentation (markdown?)
  • Could we convert to for instance markdown via Pandoc?
  • A way to comment (annotate?)
  • A way to reference
  • A way to display the text in different ways

I see our example of the cookbook as a hypermedia graph.

A book is a hypertext An exhibition is a hypertext


  1. Data-driven content is content that is mainly in the form of a machine-readable database, like an excel sheet. ↩︎

  2. When I was studying I used Endnote as my reference database. ↩︎