research memosBigger margins, smaller point size, tighter line spacing

The prob­lems that af­flict re­search memos also af­flict other long doc­u­ments like trans­ac­tion agree­ments and con­tracts. You can adapt this recipe for any of them.

My le­gal-writ­ing teacher in law school re­quired memos to be for­mat­ted us­ing clas­sic type­writer habits—one-inch mar­gins on all sides, 12-point font, dou­ble-spaced lines. Be­cause of its gen­e­sis in type­writ­ten doc­u­ments, this for­mat is of­ten the ba­sis of in­sti­tu­tional doc­u­ment-lay­out rules. Many courts, for in­stance, re­quire fil­ings to be in some vari­a­tion of this format.

But have you ever seen a book, news­pa­per, or mag­a­zine that uses this lay­out? No. Why not? Be­cause it’s not op­ti­mally leg­i­ble. So why would any­one use it? Be­cause it suits the se­verely lim­ited ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the type­writer. So if we don’t use type­writ­ers any­more, why does every­one still use this layout?

My thoughts exactly.

  1. Page mar­gins too small.
    Line length too wide.
    Point size too big.
    Two spaces be­tween sen­tences.
    First-line in­dents too deep.
    Line spac­ing too tall.

  2. Times New Ro­man—snore.
    Un­der­lin­ing in head­ing.
    Head­ings don’t align hor­i­zon­tally with paragraphs.

Trans­plant­ing this doc­u­ment from the 1890s into the present is sim­ple surgery.

  1. Page mar­gins larger (2″ on sides and 1.5″ on top and bot­tom).
    Line length shorter (about 65 char­ac­ters per line).
    Point size smaller.
    One space be­tween sen­tences.
    First-line in­dents re­duced.
    Line spac­ing re­duced.
    Hy­phen­ation turned on.

  2. Times New Ro­man re­placed with Eq­uity.
    No un­der­lin­ing.
    Head­ings align with para­graphs.
    Head­ings half a point larger than body text.
    Space added be­fore and af­ter headings.

An ad­di­tional virtue: the re­vised lay­out fits more text on the page.

If you’re work­ing on doc­u­ments with other law­yers, you have less ty­po­graphic con­trol and should ad­just accordingly.

The ma­jor prob­lem is font choice. If you pick a font your col­lab­o­ra­tors don’t have, they won’t see the for­mat­ting accurately.

This is one of the few sit­u­a­tions where sys­tem fonts are your best choice. Your col­lab­o­ra­tors are likely to have them, and these fonts look good on screen, where much of the work hap­pens. If you like, you can re­for­mat with a dif­fer­ent font at the end.

If it’s crit­i­cal that the doc­u­ment ap­pear the same way on every­one’s screens, the only fool­proof tech­nique is to share PDF files and use com­ment­ing and re­view tools on the PDF.

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