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On Document Style: Page Layout

I started yesterday with a story about getting the most out of every page of my scribblebook. These day I actually do something pretty similar at work, twisting and reflowing thousand-page instruction books in an effort to shave printing costs while maintaining as much usability as possible.

Your tax dollars at work.

Paper Size

One of the first choices in a document’s page layout is the paper it’s going to be printed on. If you’re going to have to deal with printing and binding a document (and the associated costs), paper size becomes a critical concern. Standard sizes will usually print cheaper (although not always), but you’ll have to think through what size of pages will most effectively contain the information you need to present.

If you’re really involved (or really trying to manage costs), you’ll also have to think about what size sheets the pages will be printed on. In large print runs, there’s often four or more document pages per sheet of printer paper. These large sheets are then cut or folded to create document pages, and every additional cut or fold adds to your document’s manufacturing cost.

In all likelihood you won’t have to deal with any of that, but even if you’re just working on the $60 inkjet in your home office, you still have choices to make. Do you want to print your document on a standard sheet of Letter paper (8 1/2″ x 11″), or a taller Legal page (8 1/2″ x 14″). Most office printers will also come stocked with 11″ x 17″ sheets, which can be quite handy for foldout illustrations.

Another standard print size, common for trade paperbacks, is 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″, which you can get by folding a sheet of Letter in half or cutting along its center line. You can sometimes get a professional look for a short booklet by setting up your book as two columns of text on a landscape sheet of Letter, then folding it and stapling it along the middle.

Paper Orientation

Landscape pages are pages wider than they are tall. It’s a popular layout for printing posters and heavily-illustrated documents like children’s picture books. Landscape isn’t as effective for text-heavy pages, though. Generally, you should manage your text columns so readers don’t have to turn their heads at all while reading a row from left to right.

In our documents at work we’ll often use landscape 11″ x 17″ pages for engineering schematics, tucked between 8 1/2″ x 11″ portrait pagesĀ of body text. It takes a little bit of work to manage those transitions in Word but it creates a much more readable document than we’d get spilling all those text pages over sprawling 17″-wide pages or trying to cram detailed drawings into an 8 1/2″ space.

And of course we don’t get to use all 8 1/2″. In fact, we use the same 1″ margins you remember from school papers, so we’re left with a text column that’s only 6.5″ from left to right.

The Purpose of Margins

Have you ever stopped to think about page margins? As a technical writer, I certainly have. Margins steal significant amounts of print area from every page in your document, but they serve an important purpose. In fact, depending on your perspective, they serve several.

They’re popular places to scribble comments and notes, but margins exist for much more practical reasons: to protect the information contained in a document.

The page edges are the weak link in the book as a storage format for information. If a closed book gets wet, the water damage is worst along the outside edges. As a book gets old and tattered, it’s the edges of the page that crack and fall apart. Keeping wide margins allows us to respect the physical limitations of our media and still protect the information we’re trying to convey to readers.

And readers certainly benefit from margins, even if the document they’re reading isn’t a water-stained antique. Generous outside margins give readers a place to hold the document without blocking text with their hands. A wide top and inside margin lets a reader staple a loose-leaf document without losing the ability to read the top inside corner of every page.

I said “inside” and “outside” there instead of “left” and “right,” because they change when you’re printing pages front-and-back. If you think of a thick paperback book, there’s a lot of page next to the spine that can be tough to read. On a left-hand page that’s the right margin, and on a right-hand page it’s the left margin, but in either case it’s the inner margin. We call that unreadable edge next to the spine the “gutter.”

How to Use Section Breaks in Microsoft Word

That’s a lot of stuff to manage, but if you’re trying to produce a professionally-formatted document, you need to consider every aspect of your reader’s experience. The good news is, modern word processors provide tools to handle all of it, and to handle it well.

I’ll show you where to find the necessary options tomorrow, when we look yet again at how to use section breaks in Microsoft Word.

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