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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Pages We Make

Let’s talk about typography. A typical law review page is a rectangle, let us say 6.75" wide and 10" tall. With reasonable margins and a 12-point font, that gives us a block of text containing about 65 to 75 characters per line and about 40 to 45 lines per page. Both values are highly readable. (The number of characters per line is the really important value; if it’s more than about 90, the eye tends to get confused as it leaps from the end of one line to the start of the next. As long as the text block is noticeably taller than it is wide, the exact number of lines is less important.) All in all, it’s a good format: readable and reasonably compact.

Unfortunately, printer paper doesn’t come in that size. If you want to print out the contents of a law review article on a standard printer with standard paper, you have four bad options:

  • You could do what most law reviews do in their online PDFs and center that same text block in an 8.5" by 11" piece of paper. That adds another seven-eighths of an inch to each side and another half-inch to the top and bottom margins—so over a quarter of the area on each page is superfluous white space. (Then again, if you make a lot of marginal notes, it might not be wasted from your perspective.)
  • You could blow up the page by a factor of 15-25% (depending on whether you’re willing to chop off some of the header). That gets rid of a lot of the whitespace and preserves the sensible proportions. But it also blows your font up to 14 or 15 points, which is large-print book territory, and much larger than you need for readability. In a sense, you’re being just as profligate with your paper as before, just in a different way.
  • You could treat it like many people (myself included) treat SSRN/BEPress drafts and reformat the page to fit 8.5" by 11" conventions: the same-size font with 1" to 1.25" margins. This nets you about 25% more words on each page, which is a satisfying gain. Unfortunately, it messes up line lengths. You’re now looking at 90 to 100 characters per line, which is definitely longer than optimal and is getting up into the borderline unreadable range. That slows the reader down and makes for a less pleasant experience.
  • You could do what a lot of hand-prepared coursepacks do: shrink the page, rotate it 90 degrees, and print a second page next to it on your (landscape mode) sheet of 8.5" by 11" paper. This can work, but you have to have fairly precise control over the printing process. In particular, if you try to do it automatically, your software is likely to insist on adding its own margins to the margins on the two virtual pages, which just kicks you back up to the wasted space problem.

The reality is that the 8.5" by 11" page is not a good shape for conveying a lot of words if you format it in the same basic way you’d format a law review page. So we shoudln’t. There are better ways to work with the massive canvas that is the letter-sized sheet. Have a look, for example, at the this template from the computer science professional society. It uses two columns. Two glorious columns. Along with a 9-point font, that gives a highly readable 60 characters or so per line. But wait, you may be saying, isn’t 9 points microscopic? As compared with 12-point text, yes. But in the context of a well-designed page, your eye doesn’t even register 9-point text as being “small.” I read a lot of ACM conference papers in my prior life, and never had the sense that there was eyestrain involved.

You may disagree with me about the details. My point is just that there are other solutions to the problem of laying out law review- style papers on an 8.5" by 11" page than the ones we commonly use, and that some of these other solutions have significant advantages over the old standbys. Going for two columns rather than one (either two tall and narrow ones in portrait mode, or two stouter ones in landscape mode) is a particularly promising move. I’d love to see more legal scholarship distributed electronically in formats that work a little better when—as almost inevitably seems to happen—they make their way back onto dead trees.

Posted by James Grimmelmann on July 25, 2007 at 11:17 PM in Information and Technology | Permalink


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Actually it's not that hard to format Microsoft Word (and probably WordPerfect, I haven't tried) to print out book-style, i.e. facing pages on Letter Reverse. Go to File > Page Setup, set Orientation to "Landscape," set Multiple Pages to "2 pages per sheet." Fiddle with the margins -- I set margins of .75 inches, except for the "outside" margin (which is weirdly on the inside) of .38, and use a wider font than Times New Roman at 10 points, 9 for footnotes and block quotes. That's a little small but gets me about 37 lines per page and 65-70 characters per line. I do this for class readings that I compile myself, e.g. Internet Law cases. You can save it as a Document Template so you don't have to continually re-enter the adjustments every time you create a new assignment. You can get fancy with book-style alternating headers across the top and page numbers that switch between flush left and flush right.

Also, for anyone interested in reading about why you shouldn't use Times New Roman (except for narrow columns, like those in a newspaper) and other fun things, I highly recommend the 7th Circuit's manual on brief formatting:


Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jul 26, 2007 12:29:13 PM

One trick I have used, for both Law Review articles and Supreme Court slip ops: If you have the full version of Acrobat, you can use the crop feature to remove the white space around the pages. Then, I print the 2 pages to a sheet.

The catch, of course, is that it requires the full version of Acrobat. Also, sometimes there is text way down at the bottom or up at the top of some pages, even if everything else is centered.

Posted by: Andrew Carlon | Jul 26, 2007 10:32:05 AM

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