Doing Drop Caps Right

One day you’re writing along, minding your own business, and you hit a slight scene change. You’re not ready to end the chapter, and a simple transition sentence won’t be sufficient to thoroughly break away from the previous scene, so you’ve got to figure out how to make it clear to the reader that gears are being shifted.

In print, there are a few established way to do this, and typesetters will generally use an established special character (such as asterisks or squiggly symbols ( * and ~ respectively)) centered in the page between paragraphs to denote a full shift. A similar method can be used on the web, of course, but we can also easily use horizontal rules, pictures, or pagination to make our point.

I’ve always felt that these methods are too abrupt for most blog articles. Generally, blog articles are rather short affairs, and though a change in thought might call for some sort of indicator that a shift has occurred, there is no graceful way to do so. A horizontal rule or set of centered characters really breaks the reader’s stride when the truth is that only a subtle shift has occurred.

Therefore, when blogging, we need a more subtle indicator. Enter the drop cap.

I only started using these on my own blog recently when writing a series of articles on the Purpose, Power, and Presence of Design as part of a collaborative conversation. Shifting between narrative and my thoughts on design called for some sort of indicator that the tone of the article had changed, but that indicator needed to be slight. I’d seen drop caps used well to this effect in magazines and newspapers, so thought I’d give it a go.

The first plugin I found to achieve this effect was totally overkill, and did drop caps completely wrong. Yes, it technically worked, but it was limited in its customizability. I could either have drop caps used at the beginning of every paragraph, or at the beginning of the piece. The former is overkill, and the latter doesn’t serve my purposes.

When you have a nifty feature like drop caps, it is tempting to use them everywhere. Doing so completely ruins their effectiveness, though, because you no longer indicate anything to the reader other than the beginning of a paragraph, which should be properly conveyed through either a slight break in spacing between the paragraphs (which most WordPress themes do by default) or through indentation of the first line of a paragraph (not really suitable for most online print and generally going out of style in print publications).

Instead, you need a flexible way of using drop caps and employing them right where you want them. To this end, Ulysses Online has a great guide on how to create drop caps in just a few easy steps. You’ll have to be able to edit your CSS file (so this won’t be appropriate for a WordPress.com account if you haven’t bought the CSS upgrade), but it’s a pretty easy process.

Once you have that done, you have to manually enter your drop caps through the HTML view in WordPress. This is a bit of a pain, and though I’ve looked at a couple of guides for adding buttons to the Visual Editor in WordPress, I haven’t gotten it to work yet. Still, adding a span tag in the HTML editor isn’t all that bad, especially for such a handy visual tool!

Got questions? Feel free to leave a comment here and I’ll get back to you ASAP.

And remember, ONLY YOU can prevent poor typography.

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