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January 2, 2015 / jpschimel

Condensing on a deadline, or Why justified margins are not justified

When trying to condense an 18-page draft into a 15-page limit, it’s not words you need to cut, but lines. If cutting a word doesn’t save you a line, it doesn’t achieve anything.

Particularly when time is pressing (which it almost always is when there’s a page limit), my approach is to first look for the low hanging fruit. Or in this case, the low hanging words; paragraphs with a few words dangling on the last line—words known as “orphans” in typography. If you can tighten the language and cut a few well chosen words, you can pull those orphans up into the body of a paragraph and save an entire line. It is hard to save a line when a paragraph’s last line is full; then you probably have to cut an entire sentence.

Cutting a single word, however, won’t necessarily open the space needed for an extra word, and won’t necessarily give the orphans a home in the body of the paragraph. Whether cutting one word will save a line depends on three things: 1) how big a word you cut, 2) how much extra space there is on the line already, and 3) how long the first word on the next line is. Cutting a short word on a full line that is followed by a long word isn’t going to save space.

For example, let’s look at the following paragraph (screen shots from Microsoft word, Times New Roman 12 pt. text):

Just p 1

I’m sure I can trim enough to make room for the orphan “individual monomers” in the body of the paragraph and so save a line.

One approach to condensing is to start at the beginning and find words to cut. Using this approach, the first word, I’d eliminate is “enzyme” in the second sentence: we’ve already identified that b-Galactosidase is an enzyme, so we don’t need to restate it.

Just p 2

But, this didn’t solve the problem! The first word on the following line, “exoglycosidase,” is too long to fit on the first line. The language is tighter, but I still have the orphans.

A quicker approach is to look for easy targets. The obvious one here is the 4th line, which ends with a big space. It should be easier to make enough space for an extra word. It also has an easy word to delete: “long” from “long polymers.” Polymers are by definition “long,” so “long” is an empty amplifier—an adjective that adds no real meaning (Writing Science pg. 164).

Just p 3

Bingo! That did it. By scanning the right hand margin, I was able to quickly identify a place where there was room I could use, and so speed the work of getting rid of the orphans and save myself a line. The alternative of working through word-by-word might have gotten me to the same place in the end, but it would have taken longer.

I was able to scan for the easy target because I formatted the paragraph as “Align Text Left” (the Microsoft term for what typographers call “Flush Left”) which leaves a ragged right edge. If I had switched this formatting to “Justified,” which forces the text to align along both the left and right margins, the original paragraph would have looked like:

Just p 4There are two problems here:

  1. I can’t see where there may be an easy place to cut. If you really like the tidy look of justified margins, you can edit in flush left and then switch to justified, but that raises the other problem with justified margins in word-processers.
  1. It’s hard to read. People don’t read letter-by-letter, or even word-by-word. We actually read by grabbing groups of small words at a time. The only time you have to stop for single words is for long, complex, or unusual words. To read quickly and smoothly, there shouldn’t be too much space between words and those spaces should be consistent. Word justifies margins by inserting extra spaces between words. But this can leave long and erratic gaps between words, making the text  hard to read.

We’re used to thinking that justified margins are pretty and professional-looking; after all books and magazines invariably use justified margins and they are wonderfully easy to read. True, but they use sophisticated typesetting systems that adjust spacing between words and even between letters within a word, and which hyphenate words when necessary to avoid creating excessive spaces. Microsoft Word can hyphenate, but how many people even know where to find the settings for it? If you hyphenate the original example paragraph, it looks like this:Just p 5

This doesn’t have the nasty gaps between words that the simple justified version does, but it didn’t eliminate orphans, and hyphenating technical words makes them harder to read.

If you’re producing a document using a sophisticated typography system, you can do proper justifying that adjusts space between letters as well as between words to get polished text and properly justified margins. But do any of us ever use those systems? It’s possible in LaTex, but even LyX, a popular LaTex-based word processor,  by default only adjusts inter-word, rather than inter-letter, spacing and so will be no better than MS Word at avoiding awkward spacing within paragraphs. In a Column in about justified type Ilene Strizver says “the wise designer will refrain from using justified type unless there’s a compelling reason to do so, and only when he or she has the time and flexibility to fine-tune the text.”

My Principle #1 is “It is the author’s job to make the reader’s job easy.” If you’re not using sophisticated typography, the best way to do that is to use flush left formatting. It will be easier to read and it will be much easier to work in if you need to condense to a page limit.


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