Most word processors default to page margins of one inch. On standard 8.5″ × 11″ paper, that produces a line length of 6.5″. That was fine for the monospaced fonts of the typewriter era, which used a lot of horizontal space. But for proportional fonts, they’re too small.
At 12 point, left and right page margins of 1.5–2.0″ will usually give you a comfortable line length. But don’t take that range as an absolute—focus on getting the number of characters per line into the right range (see line length). The smaller the point size, the larger the page margins will need to be, and vice versa.
The 8.5″ × 11″ paper size is a standard imposed on us by history and tradition. It does not represent anyone’s idea of a convenient size for good typography.
Here’s the proof. Are there any publications that use 8.5″ × 11″ paper? Yes, it’s the approximate size of many magazines. But do any of those magazines run text in a single block on the page with one-inch margins? No, never. They use multiple-column layouts or find other ways to divide the page.
So are there any publications that do run text in a single block on the page? Sure—books are usually set in a single column. But do you ever see a book printed on 8.5″ × 11″ paper? No, never. It would be too big for comfortable reading.
Professional typographers never use 8.5″ × 11″ paper with a 6.5″ line length. Neither should you. Set your text according to the principles of good typography. The white space will take care of itself. The pleasure of reading an effectively designed document will soon outweigh the unfamiliarity of extra white space around the edges.
Start a new document in your word processor. Paste in a text of at least 1000 words.
Format this new document as follows: page margins of 1″ per side, font is Times New Roman, point size is 12, line spacing is
“Double”(if you’re using Word; if not, use exactly 28 points), first-line indent is 0.5″, and no space between paragraphs. I’ll call this document A.
Start another new document in your word processor. Paste in the same text.
Format this second document as follows: page margins of 2″ per side, font is still Times New Roman, point size is 11, line spacing is exactly 15 points, first-line indent is still 0.5″, and still no space between paragraphs. I’ll call this document B.
Print both documents. Which one looks more like a professionally typeset book: A or B?
Which document is more comfortable to read: A or B?
Which document contains more words per page: A or B? Hint: use word count. See line length for instructions.
I’m guessing you answered B to the last three questions. If so, you’re seeing how good typography can be a benevolent force—it improves the appearance and legibility of your text with no compromise in words per page.
Do your margins all have to be the same size? No. To fit more text on the page, reduce the top and bottom margins. Your line length will stay the same, but you’ll get more lines per page. To make the text block appear centered vertically, try making the bottom margin about a 0.25″ larger than the top margin. Otherwise, the text block can look like it’s sagging. Finally, there’s no rule that a text block has to be centered on the page horizontally. For an asymmetric layout, make the difference between the left and right margins at least 1″ to make the asymmetry obvious.
The best way to judge a layout is with your eyes, not with a calculator. But typographers have long enjoyed fiddling with layouts that incorporate specific mathematical ratios. Most famous among these is the
golden ratio, which is approximately 1.618 : 1. If you set page margins of 2.23″ on all four sides of 8.5″ × 11″ paper, the proportions of your text block will be close to the golden ratio.