X Is for X-Acto Knife

I was going to feature an image of my two X-Acto knives, a #1 and a #2, in their plastic case, but case and knives have vanished from the drawer where I keep miscellaneous office supplies. Could they be hiding somewhere else in this not-very-large studio apartment? Could I have lent or given them to someone? No idea.

Here’s what a #2 X-Acto looks like.

What I wanted to blog about was how we produced documents in the days before the digital age made it all a helluva lot easier. My X-Actos may have vanished, but I still have a few relics from back then, so here goes.

In my antiwar movement and student government days, late 1960s and early ’70s, photocopiers were generally inaccessible to us scruffy activist types, so to make multiple copies of anything we had to prepare a stencil and run it on (usually) a mimeograph or (sometimes) a Gestetner machine. What I recall most vividly about the Gestetner is its penchant for unexpectedly spewing ink in all directions.

Typos were a bear to correct on a mimeograph stencil, so accuracy at the keyboard was a plus. I didn’t learn how to type till several years later, after I learned that female liberal arts graduates were pretty much unemployable without clerical skills. Nevertheless, in college I did make some money typing papers for my fellow students, who realized that though I might type with my two forefingers, I would also correct their grammatical and spelling errors as I went. I didn’t know what an editor was at that point, but clearly I was on the way to becoming one.

In those days the guys did the writing and public speaking; the girls did the typing and ran the various duplicating machines. Supposedly the guys were innately adept at things mechanical, but when the mimeograph or the Gestetner jammed or otherwise screwed up, the guys were nowhere to be found so of course the girls figured out how to do it ourselves. This was a contributing factor to the rise of the women’s liberation movement and the decline of the (male) New Left. Feminism meant, among other things, that though we still ran the machines, we also got to write the stuff we printed on them.

Not only did we publish broadsides and pamphlets, we established print shops, like the Women’s Press Collective in Oakland and the Iowa City Women’s Press (guess where that was), whose technological capacity went way beyond mimeographs. They published magazines and books that included graphics and photographs and, eventually, four-color covers.

In the mid-1970s, now a competent typist, I got my first proofreading job, working on contract jobs for the company that published my hometown’s weekly newspaper. The production process was a complicated hybrid of technologies. I worked nights, usually alone in the office with the typesetter. Early in the evening Dave the production manager was still around. A generation older than I and my college colleagues, he was adept at fixing cranky machines.

The process went something like this, to the best of my recollection (which I confess is a little fuzzy in places). I sat at what looked like a contemporary desktop computer only clunkier, and it came with a couple of gizmos on the side that I don’t remember very well because I haven’t seen anything like them since. The typesetter’s  machine was a glorified IBM Selectric typewriter, or so I recall it, though I’m sure it had a monitor attached. It used a special ball that produced manuscript pages with what looked like a running barcode under the letters.

I would feed these pages into one of my gizmos, whereupon the copy would magically appear on my monitor, usually with a fair number of @@@@@@, which meant that the gizmo hadn’t read the barcode correctly. I’d correct these and other spelling and punctuation errors on my screen, then when it all looked good, I’d hit the equivalent of Send or Print or Enter and out of another gizmo would come a long punched tape. Here’s one of the relics from my drawer, showing the hole pattern for each letter and command. It looked a little like Braille, only with holes instead of raised dots.

I would then take the tape over to the humongous phototypesetting machine, which I think was a CompuGraphic, thread it properly (sort of like threading film in a pre-digital movie projector, or a chain through a bicycle’s rear derailleur); and press a button.

This step produced film in a sealed container, which then had to be fed through a developer. At long last, down the sloping front of the developer would come the galley proofs.

This process was laborious and time-consuming enough that we were not about to repeat it for every little correction — and yes, I did catch on the proofs typos I’d missed on the screen. This is where I became adept with X-Acto knife, straight edge, and Scotch tape. If two letters or two words had to be transposed, I’d carefully cut them out of the galley with knife and straight edge, apply tape to the back of the galley with the sticky side showing through, then use the tip of the knife to replace letters or words in the correct order.

line gauge

A line gauge, aka pica stick, makes an excellent straight edge, and you can measure with it too.


My steady hand and reasonably accurate eye served me well in the years that followed, when I was active in various feminist groups in Washington, D.C.  We produced flyers and short documents using a combination of typewriting and presstype — rub-on transfer lettering that came in a wide variety of fonts and sizes, including dingbats, ornaments and symbols that could be used to make a page of unrelenting type more visually appealing.

me checking newspaper pages

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, October 1993. Paste-up was still being done manually. Those “boards” were what went to the printer to be turned into a newspaper.

Also available was Formaline rub-on tape, which came in various widths and was used to put borders around text or graphics, or to separate stories from each other. It was still in use in my early newspaper days, late 1980s and early ’90s, before manual paste-up gave way to digital layout.

By this time photocopiers were widely available in offices, though prohibitively expensive for shoestring organizations and businesses. Those of us with office jobs used the office copier for movement work whenever we could, and “liberated” essential supplies from the supply room as needed. Especially coveted were carbon sets and Wite-Out correction fluid.

Proportion scale

Jobs that required serious graphic quality and more than a few copies went to the local women-run print shop. Preparing clean camera-ready copy required all of the above skills, plus an eye for layout. Photographs and other illustrations often had to be sized to suit the design.

With this handy-dandy proportion wheel you could choose the desired height or width of your graphic element, then figure out what the other dimension would be and how much space to allow for it.

Word-processing and layout apps have superseded most of the tools I used in my younger days. I can make multiple copies of pages to take to my writers’ group and they’re all as clean as the original — there is no original except the Word file on my computer. Fixing errors is easy, but catching them is still hard.

I Is for Italics

After reading “E Is for Ellipsis,” my friend the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs emailed me. “I can hardly wait until u get to I,” she wrote. “I, I hope, will stand for ‘italics.'”

This sentence is set in italics. In typographical terms, type that isn’t italicized is called “roman.” Most of this blog post – and most of most books — is set in roman type. For most fonts, roman is the default setting. Italics and bold are among its variations.

Cynthia is currently one of the jurors in a major mystery award’s first-novel category. The novels she has read so far are, to put it tactfully, a mixed bag. She went on:

The current book I am reviewing has alternate chapters printed in italics. ALL italics, page after page. It’s like reading someone’s handwritten manuscript. The chapters jump from one where I’m not even aware of the printed word, where the author’s voice goes directly into my brain, to a sudden slow-down where I must decipher each wiggly word and consider what the words mean when put together.

In another first-novel entrant, “each character’s words [were set] in a distinctive typeface so we, the readers, would know who’s speaking.”

Curious, I inspected these titles at the next opportunity, which arose PDQ because my Sunday-night writers’ group meets at Cynthia’s house. As I suspected, they were self-published. Self-publishing authors not only produce the manuscript; they also assemble the production team that sees it into print and markets it. Novice self-publishers often skimp on the professional editing and design that make a book readable.

A capable, experienced book designer knows  that in general the goal is to produce pages where, as Cynthia put it, readers are “not even aware of the printed word, where the author’s voice goes directly into [the reader’s] brain.” When the type calls attention to itself, it’s because the designer intended it to. In typography, less is often more. Any technique used to excess becomes, well, excessive. It loses impact and annoys the reader.

The digital age makes excess all too easy. Even the fairly basic options that WordPress offers bloggers include bold, italics, bold italics, strikeout, and lots of pretty colors. Word-processing apps like Word and LibreOffice offer a gazillion fonts in an array of sizes, most of which you would not want to read a whole book in, or even a short chapter.

Newspapers and other publications following the Associated Press (AP) stylebook have managed to get by without italics since forever. Before the age of digital composition, italics were hard to produce and couldn’t be transmitted by wire, which is how news stories were transmitted from the wire services to their subscribers around the world. However, as noted on the AP Stylebook‘s website, “Publications that adhere to AP editing style make their own decisions on graphics and design, including use of italics.”

That said, thanks to various widely accepted conventions,  italics do come in handy for conveying meaning, and good writers, editors, and designers learn to use them — and other typographical devices — wisely. Here are a few instances where the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS or CMoS) recommends the use of italics:

  • Titles of books and other full-length creative works. Short works, such as songs, poems, and short stories,  and the component parts of longer ones are set in roman with quotation marks. Example: “Natural Resources” is included in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974–1977, by Adrienne Rich.
  • Names of newspapers, e.g., the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. CMS  recommends setting “the” lowercase roman even when it’s part of the official title. Publications following AP style often initial-cap and italicize the whole official title, “the” included.
  • Foreign-language words that aren’t included in English-language dictionaries. For example, “raison d’être” comes from the French but is well established in English usage, so no italics. The Gaelic word uisge appears in one of my current copyediting projects. It’s not widely used in English, though the familiar word “whiskey” (also spelled “whisky”) is derived from it, so it’s italicized.

Many fiction writers use italics to indicate what a character is thinking, to distinguish it from what the character says out loud, which is set in roman with quotation marks on either side. Other writers stick with roman type but without the quotes. Either method can work, but keep in mind my friend Cynthia’s words. The goal is for the author’s voice to go directly into the reader’s brain. Typographical style can aid this process without calling attention to itself.

When writers rely too heavily on typography to get the point across, it’s often because the writing itself needs attention. Changes in speaker can be conveyed in words alone. Italics can be used to let readers know when a character is thinking to herself, but when the italics run on for a long paragraph or even a whole page or two, it’s time to take another look at the writing.