How to Make an Elegant Drop Cap

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In a previous blog I said I would show you how to make a real drop cap. I’m using Microsoft® Publisher (a powerful DTP tool), but you can do the same sort of thing with InDesign or QuarkXPress.

The illustration below shows two views of the same piece of a page. On the left side, the View
Boundaries box has been checked to show the elements that make up the drop cap. On the right side is the plain view.

Drop Cap Rapidsoft Press

The dotted blue line on the left is part of the text box that holds the text on the page. The large blue box around the S is where the drop cap is placed. This one is in 48-point Castellar (the rest of the text is 11-point Minion Pro). The drop cap text box is aligned with the left side of the page (using “Align” from the ribbon menu) and is placed so that the bottom of the S lines up with the bottom of the line of text reading “eye and yelled.”

When you place this text box, all of the text to the right will shift away from it. You don’t want this, so you click “Send Backward” from the Home ribbon menu. This puts the drop cap and its text box in the background. The text to the right will immediately fill in to the left, actually overwriting the S.

about drop caps
This is where the two foreground “bumper” text boxes come in. I call them “bumpers” because they position the text to the right of the drop cap where you want it to be. The top, narrower one, positions the word fragment “econd” so that it almost touches the S but not quite.

The lower, wider bumper forces the second line of text beginning with “eye” to the right, leaving a comfortable amount of white space between the lower part of the drop cap and the line of text. There is no rule for this spacing. Do whatever looks good to you.

The line below, beginning with “Captain,” is aligned normally on the page.

You now have a
well-crafted drop cap. You only have to do this once for each chapter in your book, so it’s not a real chore. Try it yourself and see.

Don’t Use Words Unless You Know What They Mean

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In particular, don’t use colorful language that you don’t really understand.

Case in point: Fifty Shades of Grey. Author E L James too often describes her heroine as blushing, and she uses words to describe this blushing that are, simply put, unbelievable. After the first ordinary blush she then blushes crimson, scarlet, and finally puce. Puce? Really?

Here is an illustration of these colors as they are defined by an international committee on color standards (CIE).

shades of color

Not only are crimson and scarlet very close to each other in the color spectrum, but I have never seen a woman’s face blush anywhere near as intense a color as those. Have you?

And puce: omigod. A woman would look like death warmed over were her face to blush in a color anything like that.

It’s nice to use vivid, descriptive terms in your writing, but before you do, make sure you know what you are talking about. E L James is obviously using these color names to inject color into her story, but the colors she uses are beyond the pale. (And, yes, the pun is intended.)

Look before you leap, and think before you start typing your story.

Tips for Publishers

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Use Real Drop Caps to Improve Your Formatting

Making elegant drop caps is fast becoming a lost art. Desktop publishers who are serious about their work should learn how to make good drop caps to begin chapters.

real drop caps
To learn more about this, and other aspects of desktop publishing, I highly recommend Mark Hengesbaugh’s excellent book, Typography for Desktop Publishers (Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin, 1991).

One of the subjects Hengesbaugh covers is the proper formatting of drop caps. No word processing or layout software available today—to the best of my knowledge—is capable of producing correctly formatted drop caps. It’s something you must do on your own. It’s not difficult, and you will quickly get the hang of it.

Here is an example of a correctly formatted drop cap. It is the first paragraph in the first chapter of First to Die, a book about the sinking of the SS Vestris in 1928, which I co-authored with Kristin Delaplane of Our American Stories® LLC.

Rapidsoft Press Drop Caps

The large initial letter and the extra white space around it catch the reader’s eye, which is drawn into the text. The small caps following the drop cap pull the reader’s attention to the rest of the line. The drop cap extends above the first line of text and is separated from the following line by extra white space.

The bottom of the drop cap lines up with the bottom of the second (or third) line of text, depending on how you choose to format it. Normal formatting resumes with the first line below the bottom of the drop cap.

Note that the rest of the first word of the first line is brought up close to the drop cap.

The poorly formatted drop caps that are produced by software like Microsoft® Word leave a large gap between the drop cap and the rest of the first word of that line. As Hengesbaugh observes, “Parts of words are particularly difficult to find because people read by recognizing whole words at a glance, they aren’t used to putting pieces of words together.”

In a later blog in this series I will show exactly how a drop cap can be produced in Microsoft Publisher.

Tips for Authors

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Avoid Said Bookisms

Three of the basic rules of good writing are to use nouns and verbs, avoid adjectives and adverbs wherever possible, and avoid said bookisms.

Rapidsoft Press Blog
You’re probably thinking, “Say, what?” It is easier to show what said bookisms are than it is to explain them. They happen when a writer tries to limit the number of times the words “said” or “says” appear in the text. So they write things like, “He muttered . . .” or “She murmured . . .”—the list is almost endless.

These are said bookisms, because they swap “said” for what the writer hopes are more descriptive words. Said bookisms were once an accepted form in writing, but that was many years ago. The idea nowadays is to make writing sleek and effective without overloading it with these kinds of extras.

Sometimes even the word “said” is unnecessary.

Here is a quick example. Put two people, say Bill and Joan, into a room with nobody else present. They begin to talk.

            “Bill!” exclaimed Joan. “Come see what I just found.”

            “Is it about the Stoney Point incident?” asked Bill.

Now, as these two are the only ones in the room, this can be rewritten as:

            “Bill! Come see what I just found.”

            “Is it about the Stoney Point incident?”

There is no question as to who is doing the talking in each of these sentences. The extra words in the first set are just window dressing. They accomplish nothing useful.

So improve your writing by avoiding said bookisms. An occasional one may work, such as “he shouted” or “she whispered,” but only if they are appropriate under the circumstances of your story. And you should probably limit yourself to only a couple of things like this in a single chapter.