Typography Tutorial: Does your Paragraph Measure Up? How to Determine the Correct Width of a Paragraph.

The measure featured image
In this month’s typography tutorial we explore paragraph width. In typography circles, this is known as ‘the measure’. Alongside paragraph alignment, the measure contributes to ensuring that the overall paragraph formatting is conducive to optimum readability.

Featured Image: Full Stop by Sidney Lim YX licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0

What is The Measure and Why is it Important?

The measure can simply be defined as the width of a paragraph. While on the surface this may seem like a relatively unimportant factor, but let me ask you this. Have you ever read the same line in a paragraph twice? I would bet most of you have and the reason behind this is simple. The measure or width of the paragraph is too wide. This causes the eye to lose its place as it moves back from the end of one line and searches for the start of the next. Therefore, it is important for readability that the length of a paragraph is not too wide.

So, we have determined that a paragraph’s length can be too wide, but can it be too short? Yes it can, but this causes a different issue. If a paragraph’s length is too short, it interrupts the flow of reading as only a few words are read before the eye needs to travel back and search for the next line. As a result, the reading experience is not pleasant with the constant and regular line changes.

What is the Optimal Measure?

The optimal width of a paragraph is not as easy as stating an exact measurement in millimetres or inches. This is because every typeface has its own nuances that effect how many words or characters can fit on a line. Also, the size of a font is a major factor in determining the right paragraph width. Therefore, the optimal width is measured using either characters or words.

The optimal paragraph width is between 50-80 characters (including spaces) or 8-10 words per line.

Obviously when determining this width you can take an average of several lines within the paragraph as the number of characters per line will vary depending on the paragraph alignment.

How to Measure the Measure?

There are two ways to count how many characters are on a line. The first, using the traditional method of printing out the text (or looking at it on the screen, but you may get finger prints all over your monitor) and simply counting the characters by hand. The second is to use the character and word counting features of the software application you are using. If using InDesign, you can do this using the Info Panel (Window>Info). Simply highlight an entire line and the Info Panel will display how many characters and words are selected. Unfortunately, Photoshop and Illustrator don’t have this feature—another reason why you should be creating text intensive documents within InDesign.

Final Words

And that wraps up this month’s typography tutorial on paragraph width. I hope you enjoyed it and, more importantly, learnt something!