Formatting Tip: Tracking and Kerning

Posted August 4, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Publishing

Tracking and kerning are all about the spacing between words and letters.

Tracking adjusts the uniform spacing between words, affecting how close or far apart the words or the letters within the words are. By changing this spacing, tracking will also affect line lengths.

Kerning adjusts the spacing between specific individual character pairs, pushing them apart or pulling them in — you’ll have noticed character pairs that are too far apart in your reading. When that “w” doesn’t seem to be part of the rest of the word.

Tracking is the overall spacing tool while kerning adjusts the space between individual characters — it’s all about the visual.

The Tracking

As much fun as it is to play with tracking, it’s better if you work with your text, edit the sentences to eliminate the widows and orphans before you start mucking about with tracking. I can’t emphasize enough that tracking can mess with the formatting of your document, reduce or increase the number of pages which can throw off indexing, the location of any images, and more.

Do NOT use tracking to force your text to fit. It’s purpose is to make the text easier to read.

Once you’ve edited as many of those lone words or sentences as you can, then adjust the tracking.

The Kerning

Adjusting the kerning should be done at the very end when you have a final document and the tracking has been adjusted.

While most software programs have automatic kerning built in, there are times when you will need to manually adjust character pairs. Most fonts have had their character pairs adjusted, however, in real life, there is always something that doesn’t quite look right. It may be combining an italic letter with a roman quotation mark, bumping up a capital L up next to a capital T, or numbers that appear too far apart that are all examples of character pairs that may need kerning.

Formatting Tips started…

…as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with words that should have been capitalized or italicized, in quotes or not, what should be spelled out and what can be abbreviated, proper styling for the Latin names of plants, the proper formatting and usage of titles and more in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this style tip with friends by tweeting it.

Kerning & Tracking
Credit to: Felici, 165-166
Formatting, Typography
Tracking Definition: Adjusts spacing uniformly over a range of characters, words, or documents using a consistent degree of increase (or sometimes decrease) of space between letters to affect density and texture in a line or block of text.

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Tracking is useful to:

  • Pull in (or up) those widows and orphans
  • Squeeze words onto a line to fit the text into a restricted space
  • Change line endings and shorten lines of text
  • Adjust individual lines or words to improve hyphenation
  • Make these adjustments VERY carefully. Avoid extreme changes. Especially on the same page or next to other blocks of text.

Rule: Increase or decrease the degree of adjustment by as unnoticeable amount as possible to keep it from looking obvious.

A.k.a., letter-spacing

loose and tight example of a word

Fig. 1. The letters on top have been loosened up while those on the bottom have been pulled in.

5 examples of paragraph tracking

Fig. 2. Five examples of paragraph tracking with each paragraph block the same width. The top left is the original tracking. The middle top was reduced by 1 space. The bottom left has been reduced quite a lot while the middle bottom is much looser. The block on the far right is justified and uses the same spacing as the middle top.

Kerning Definition: The process of adjusting the spacing between individual letter forms (usually specific letter pairs) that, because of the relationship of their respective shapes, would appear to be badly spaced even when spaced normally.

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Most quality fonts are well-kerned with the two-dimensional blank spaces between each pair of characters having a visually similar area.

The most common problems are “combinations of upper- and lowercase characters, pairs containing punctuation”, and italic-roman combinations (Felici, 166).

As of 2003:

  • PostScript fonts have less kerning information built into them.
  • OpenType fonts are about the only ones that provide number kerning.
  • QuarkXpress has an Edit Kerning table.

Rule: Increase or decrease space between a pair of characters when they are too far apart visually or they overlap.

  • Avoid purchasing programs that claim to control kerning through track kerning or range kerning.

A.k.a., mortising

Problem Letters Include:
Wa, WA
and more
These letters are the most common problem singles and pairs, BUT spacing issues will differ depending upon the chosen font.
Fix Examples
3 rows of unkerned & kerned character pairs

Image by Nilsjohan ~ commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims) is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 3. Demonstrates unkerned and kerned character pairs.

Three versions of WAR in the Clarendon typeface: The top version has no kerning, the middle version has automatic kerning as might be applied by a particular program, and the bottom version has manual kerning.

3 different examples of kerning the word war

Image is Sherbyte’s own work and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 4. Three versions of WAR in the Clarendon typeface: The top version has no kerning, the middle version has automatic kerning as might be applied by a particular program, and the bottom version has manual kerning.


10 expert tips for kerning type at Creative Bloq.

Ilene Strizver’s post at on “Spacing and Kerning, Part 2” is informative.