Is there a reason or is it arbitrary/tradition?

  • Interesting that the words 'optimal amount of text for print material is ~60 characters per column' is written here in a fixed column, >100 characters wide - and I'm finding it perfectly 'comfortable' to read.
    – user780
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 1:20
  • To make it impossible to read them comfortably on e-readers?
    – user3885
    Commented Jul 23, 2012 at 9:38
  • If it is easier to read you are more likely to agree with the findings. Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 11:10
  • I think this question would be better if it was changed to "newspapers but not books"
    – Andrey
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 22:02

9 Answers 9


Long lines of text can be hard to read, so doing multiple columns breaks the lines up to something more optimal.

  • 2
    Wouldn't this logic apply to every writing?
    – juan
    Commented Feb 2, 2011 at 22:41
  • 3
    yes, and that's probably why HTML5 is supposed to include the idea of wrapping columns Commented Feb 3, 2011 at 1:48
  • 9
    @sjohnston: Novels don't use this format because they tend to have smaller pages and/or larger fonts. Hardcovers usually have large fonts and paperbacks have small pages. Contrast with newspapers or magazines, which have relatively wide pages and small fonts. Commented Feb 3, 2011 at 18:25
  • 1
    I had a history book in college which, while the size of a novel (but thicker) was printed in two columns, interestingly enough. I suspect it's as much tradition as anything else in academia, I haven't seen as much of it outside scholarly work.
    – atroon
    Commented Feb 3, 2011 at 20:19
  • 3
    In typesetting there is actually a sweet spot between too short lines (eyes have to constantly jump lines) and too long lines (when jumping a line it's hard to figure out which line is the next one and not accidentally skip a line). The exact ideal is a function of the font-size as well as other properties of the font such as it's x-height and proportions. Commented Feb 5, 2011 at 0:36

It was shown, by experiment, that optimal amount of text for print material is ~60 characters per column. This was calculated by the ratio between font size and leading which were picked by humans as most comfortable to process. Higher amount of characters per column interferes with brain's ability to scan through text easily, much like you need to break text into paragraphs for same reason.

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    A citation for the experiment(s) would be awesome. Commented Feb 4, 2011 at 21:14
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    +1 for citation too :) I've heard about that in the early 90's when I made my first steps into DTP and asked the same question. Answer was given to me by older repro/plate photography guys that did print layout manually without computers.
    – Keyframe
    Commented Feb 5, 2011 at 19:34

Also when writing mathematical equations, there is a tendency to have a lot of free space on the sides. Using two columns not only to make text reading more comfortable, but it also allows to make a better use of the space on the page, by reducing the white space on the side of the equations.

  • Unless your formulas are long, then it is quite the pain to get the formulas wrapped properly, which is the case for many of my formulas...
    – Make42
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 8:58

There's long-standing rules of thumb, and now quite good psychological research, to indicate that ease of reading requires limited line length. The rule of thumb is somewhere in the neighborhood to 43 to 60 characters per line, or around ten words per line in English.

Newspaper and magazine print is usually around 10 pitch, ie, 10 characters average per inch. Printable space on a page is usually around 6 inches wide in a letter-sixed page, 4.5 inches in a digest, 10-12 inches wide in a newspaper (tabloid vs the other format whatever the hell it's called) and the number columns of print is somewhere around (inches × pitch)/50.

(Speaking of references, the wiki page is actually quite good.)


My guess would be that it is to counterbalance a cost-saving measure. They needed to have the words be below a certain size so they could fit more of them per page; and in that quantity a single column would just look like a big chunk of text. So the reasons are two-fold; one, they reduce the size of the words to save costs by using fewer pages, and two, they partially offset the visual problems associated with having text that small by breaking it up in a way that's easier on the eyes.

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    Having changed papers from single-column journal article format to two-column I'd say that a single column 16+ page article would end up as less than 10 page double column (not counting the effect of smaller pictures) Commented Feb 6, 2011 at 14:45
  • Sorry, end up as less what? Words?
    – Adam Gurri
    Commented Feb 7, 2011 at 2:39

The only source available for the 60 characters per line experiment that I could find appears to be from Tomás García Ferrari & Carolina Short done in 2002.

See Test 3 in this document.


I think when Keyframe says "optimal amount of text for print material" that this is related to scanning and absorbing key words, but not deeper reading comprehension levels.

I know that when I'm reading a novel or a even a non-fiction book I pay closer attention than when I'm reading the newspaper. It might be that ~60 characters per line is optimal for that level of casual reading.

  • It might be that ~60 characters is optimal for deeper reading too, and that one's subjective experience of comfort is misleading concerning what is optimal. Commented Feb 4, 2011 at 21:21

Earlier comments characterize 60 characters as being comfortable. I've believed it was to specifically increase reading ease and speed by enabling one to slurp in an entire line. For me, that is comfortable.

I tend to shrink the width of HTML windows that have reflowing text, so that I can gobble single lines. I find the width of an eBook line on a mobile device to be good.


For technical papers, a two-column format allows figures (e.g. graphs) to be large enough to understand, without taking up nearly as much of the limited page count. And similarly for equations, to pack as much info in a small area (without hurting the readability.)

  • 1
    My equations are often so long that they need to be wrapped in double column layout... this is a pain for me and the reader.
    – Make42
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 9:00

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