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On Document Style: Text Columns

Yesterday’s story about carving out the blackberry bush, while carefully leaving load-bearing columns in the heart of it, would make for an excellent post on document structure. Wouldn’t it? Maybe I’ll have to tell it again sometime when you’re not looking….

Today I want to talk about a different type of columns, though: text columns, and page layout and design in general. In fact, I’m going to spend the whole next month talking about professional document styling, so brace yourself!

Using Columns to Create Whitespace

You’re certainly familiar with text columnation — breaking up a single page of text into multiple narrow columns. There are several reasons we do that. The most common is to create an appealing visual effect.

I’ve spoken before about the use of whitespace in page layouts. It breaks up a big grey block of text into readable chunks. That’s why we use space between paragraphs, it’s why we look for every opportunity to incorporate headings and bulleted lists, and it’s absolutely the motivation behind most text columnation.

Think about the types of text you’re used to seeing in columns. Probably the three that spring most readily to mind are newspapers, indexes (like phone books, for example), and long-form heavy-reading (like textbooks or the Bible).

In all of those cases, you’re looking at documents that have to present huge blocks of text with few formatting options for breaking up the text. Switching to a columned layout automatically breaks up every page of the text, without requiring any manual adjustments within the content.

Using Columns to Differentiate Information

Another major reason we use column layouts is to differentiate text. Technically that’s something we use whitespace for, so this could be seen as a coincidental overlap with my last point, but the big difference here is that we’re not talking about whitespace just to break up the page, but to create a specific contrast.

In other words, unlike the multi-column documents I was talking about before, sometimes we’ll be working with a single-column document and just break a single section of the text into multiple columns. That creates a strong visual effect — as we discussed before — but in this case that effect serves primarily as a contrast to the other text around it.

I’ve seen this technique used in newsletters, brochures, textbooks, and other technical documents to draw attention to a particularly important bit of information within an otherwise dry description. One of the most common places you’ll see it, though, is in cookbooks.

That examples springs readily to mind, because I had to help one of my students figure it out for her final project in my Tech Writing class last fall. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on cookbooks, but I’ve seen this effect often enough that I feel pretty confident discussing it.

What you’ll usually see is a name for the dish, maybe an illustration, and then a two-column list of ingredients, before returning to standard full-block text for the preparation instructions. That layout strongly differentiates the ingredient list from the actual procedure.

Using Columns in Microsoft Word

There are certainly good reasons to use columned layouts in your writing. Sometimes you just want to add a professional touch to your document, or you’re trying to fit some text to an awkwardly shaped areas on a printed page. Every application has its own challenges, though — and only the most basic is anything like “easy” to do in a word processor.

My student learned that the hard way when she tried to prepare her cookbook, and I learn it the hard way again every time I try to do something that should be simple. Formatting columns can be punishingly difficult, but it’s also something you’ll need to do eventually.

So come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you how to set up column layouts in Microsoft Word. Even if you’re not using Word, chances are good this will get you moving in the right direction.

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