line length45–90 characters or 2–3 alphabets

Line length is the dis­tance be­tween the left and right edges of a text block. Overly long lines are a com­mon prob­lem, but they’re easy to cor­rect. Shorter lines will make a big dif­fer­ence in the leg­i­bil­ity and pro­fes­sion­al­ism of your layout.

The most use­ful way to mea­sure line length is by av­er­age char­ac­ters per line. Mea­sur­ing in inches or cen­time­ters is less use­ful be­cause the point size of the font af­fects the num­ber of char­ac­ters per inch. Whereas char­ac­ters per line works at any point size.

Shorter lines are more com­fort­able to read than longer lines. As line length in­creases, your eye has to travel far­ther from the end of one line to the be­gin­ning of the next, mak­ing it harder to track your progress ver­ti­cally. Aim for an av­er­age line length of 45–90 char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing spaces. You can check line length us­ing word count.

How to use word count

WordReviewProofing panel → Word Count (icon looks like “ABC” above “123”)

Mac OS WordToolsWord Count

PagesViewShow Word Count. When the word-count dis­play ap­pears, click its right edge and switch it to Characters With Spaces.

Al­ter­na­tively, use the al­pha­bet test to set line length. This rule of thumb is worth mem­o­riz­ing, as it can be used even in the ab­sence of a word-count func­tion. You should be able to fit be­tween two and three al­pha­bets on a line, like so:

abcde­fghijklmnopqrstu­vwxyz­abcde­fghijklmnopqrstu­vwxyz­abcde­fgh
= 2.31 alphabets

This is es­pe­cially use­ful when you don’t have easy ac­cess to word counts, for in­stance in a web layout.

How do you ad­just line length? Gen­er­ally you’ll want to es­tab­lish the ba­sic length us­ing page mar­gins. True, you can also set the side in­dents of a para­graph through para­graph-level for­mat­ting, but you should re­serve that for spe­cial sit­u­a­tions (for in­stance, block quo­ta­tions).

by the way
  • If you plan to use in­dent­ing to dis­tin­guish sec­tions or hi­er­ar­chies within your doc­u­ment, take this into ac­count when set­ting up the ini­tial line length. You want to start with long enough lines so that the in­dented parts also fall within the tar­get range. Us­ing fewer lev­els of in­den­ta­tion, and smaller in­dents, will help.

  • The ma­jor flaw in many re­spon­sive web lay­outs? In­suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion to line length. See re­spon­sive web de­sign.

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