The paper is too big

In response to the question “Why are default LaTeX margins so big?” Paul Stanley answers

It’s not that the margins are too wide. It’s that the paper is too big!

This sounds flippant, but he gives a compelling argument that paper really is too big for how it is now used.

As is surely by now well-known, the real question is the size of the text block. That is a really important factor in legibility. As others have noted, the optimum line length is broadly somewhere between 60 characters and 75 characters.

Given reasonable sizes of font which are comfortable for reading at the distance we want to read at (roughly 9 to 12 point), there are only so many line lengths that make sense. If you take a book off your shelf, especially a book that you would actually read for a prolonged period of time, and compare it to a LaTeX document in one of the standard classes, you’ll probably notice that the line length is pretty similar.

The real problem is with paper size. As it happens, we have ended up with paper sizes that were never designed or adapted for printing with 10-12 point proportionally spaced type. They were designed for handwriting (which is usually much bigger) or for typewriters. Typewriters produced 10 or 12 characters per inch: so on (say) 8.5 inch wide paper, with 1 inch margins, you had 6.5 inches of type, giving … around 65 to 78 characters: in other words something pretty close to ideal. But if you type in a standard proportionally spaced font (worse, in Times—which is rather condensed because it was designed to be used in narrow columns) at 12 point, you will get about 90 to 100 characters in the line.

He then gives six suggestions for what to do about this. You can see his answer for a full explanation. Here I’ll just summarize his points.

  1. Use smaller paper.
  2. Use long lines of text but extra space between lines.
  3. Use wide margins.
  4. Use margins for notes and illustrations.
  5. Use a two column format.
  6. Use large type.

Given these options, wide margins (as in #3 and #4) sound reasonable.

12 thoughts on “The paper is too big

  1. If printers had used wider margins in the seventeenth century, we might know what proof Fermat had in mind for his last theorem.

  2. Back in the 1980s I heard leslie Lamport himself say that the default LaTeX layout was chosen with the help of a professional book designer, and that the motivation for the extra-wide margins was indeed the one pointed out by Paul Stanley: because long lines with small font make the text hard to read.

  3. A lot of conference proceedings use a double column format to keep line length down while maximizing the amount of text per page. However I think the default font size is about 9 points which I think is a bit too small. 10 point, 2 columns seems pretty good to me.

  4. I wish all printed document followed the rules you mentioned. I find myself reading notes or lectures written in Word or similar and looking focus pretty soon. In these cases if I often collapse two virtual pages into a landscape page and in this way I found much easier to read. I like style suggestion –

  5. Shrutarshi Basu: The default font size in LaTeX is 10 point. I guess the conference proceedings could screw around with that though.

    It also depends on the font you use. Times (New Roman) looks pretty good at 8 point, while I find Bookman Old Style, which I normally prefer, looks horrible and hard to read at that size.

  6. I’m curious, John — why do you recommend wide margins over larger type? I can’t think of any disadvantages to larger fonts, and (especially as my eyes get ready to exceed their warranty) at least one clear advantage.

    (If you want optimal aesthetics and legibility, be sure to increase the line spacing more than proportionately. The most beautiful Western calligraphic hand is the half-uncial of Tours — but only if you write it with the original triple-spacing between lines.)

  7. Dave: I believe I’ve read that people read most efficiently when text is set in 9-12 pt type. If so, enlarging the text to fill the page would decrease reading speed.

  8. The line:

    “This sounds flippant, but he gives a compelling argument that paper really is too big for how”

    has 101 characters.

  9. @John: I wonder if that varies depending on language? For example, French has a lot of accents which are small, so I wonder if there is a different ideal size for it? What about Russian or other Cyrillic languages?

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