research papersBigger margins, smaller point size, tighter line spacing

Does this look fa­mil­iar? A doc­u­ment with one-inch mar­gins on all sides, 12-point font, and dou­ble-spaced lines? These were id­iomatic type­writer habits. That’s why they be­came the ba­sis of many in­sti­tu­tional doc­u­ment-lay­out rules. Nearly 40 years into the dig­i­tal-type­set­ting era, they re­main with us.

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.

  2. Point size too big.

  3. Line spac­ing too tall.

  4. Times New Ro­man—snore.

  5. Fail­ure to put one space be­tween sen­tences.

  6. First-line in­dents too deep.

  7. Jus­ti­fied text with­out hy­phen­ation.

  8. Un­der­lin­ing in headings.

If some au­thor­ity fig­ure in­sists that you use this lay­out, then do so. If not, then don’t. It’s awful.

For­tu­nately, trans­plant­ing this doc­u­ment from the 1890s into the present is sim­ple surgery.

  1. Page mar­gins larger; line length shorter (about 65 char­ac­ters per line).

  2. Point size smaller.

  3. Line spac­ing reduced.

  4. Bet­ter fonts (Eq­uity and Con­course)

  5. One space be­tween sentences.

  6. Hy­phen­ation turned on.

  7. No underlining.

by the way
  • An­other virtue of the re­vised lay­out: it fits more text on the page.

  • Well, maybe that’s not al­ways a virtue. One likely rea­son for the tenac­ity of the type­writer-style lay­out is that it pro­duces a con­sis­tent num­ber of words per page, pre­vent­ing writ­ers from abus­ing page lim­its. But in the dig­i­tal age, the bet­ter way of con­trol­ling doc­u­ment length is with word counts. (See point size for more.)

  • If you’re work­ing on draft doc­u­ments with oth­ers, you have to be care­ful about fonts—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 col­lab­o­ra­tion hap­pens. If you like, you can re­for­mat with a dif­fer­ent font at the end.

    If it’s crit­i­cal that your doc­u­ment ap­pear the same way on your col­lab­o­ra­tor’s screen as it does on yours, the only fool­proof tech­nique is to share PDF files and use PDF-based com­ment­ing and re­view tools.

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