Experimenting with short lines of text: the ideal width for whom?

/ Commentary

Mary Dyson explored recent research on line length and reading speed, drawing the fairly controversial conclusion that long lines do not make for slower reading – in fact, they may make reading quicker. This matched findings from her own earlier research.

I wrote about the obvious consequence – that anybody designing texts should consider using longer lines in the interests of reducing reading times. I think it’s probably worth experimenting, with the proviso that fast doesn’t necessarily mean more comfortable.

In a response to my post, Sveinbjorn argued that his ADHD meant he prefered a shorter line width, as this made it easier to remember what he’d just read and parse whole lines, thereby reducing distracting saccades. For Sveinbjorn, longer line widths would definitely prove problematic:

… the only books I’ve managed to finish reading have been on [an] iphone, just because of fewer flow disruptions… the idea of popularising longer lines of text fills me with considerable unease.

Sveinbjorn raises the question of context. Who are researchers observing in their experiments? What are the subjects reading? What are they reading from? What is the environment like? Dyson’s own fascinating research concludes that longer lines facilitate quicker reading, but while we know what the subjects are reading, and its typographical details, we don’t know much beyond their age:

Forty-eight participants, the majority between 25 and 34 years old and fairly frequent computer users, read passages of about 800 words taken from the Microsoft Network. Reading rate and comprehension were measured and six line lengths compared, ranging from 25 to 100 characters per line. The text was set in 10point Arial with a consistent interlinear spacing of 12 point. How physical text layout affects reading from screen, p.382

Oddly enough, as a result of reading Mary Dyson’s article I’ve reduced the line length on this site, both in terms of the number of characters per line and the proportion of the screen each line uses. This is not to question Dyson’s conclusions about reading speed, but Sveinbjorn’s points ring true for me, and provide enough reason to experiment with shorter lines.

And as I pointed out in my previous article, reading speed is not the sole measure of how easy to read a text is. Indeed, Dyson’s own research indicates that shorter lines make texts more comprehensible:

However, Dyson and Haselgrove (2001) found that line length influences readers’ comprehension with documents at 55 characters per line producing better comprehension scores than the longest line length (100 characters per line). ibid., p.383

To me, short lines still feel more comfortable, and if they do make reading easier then I’m going to persist with them for the time being.

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Richard Carter

I think there’s much to be said for making writing slower to read. By which, I don’t mean making it more difficult to read, but more difficult to skim-read.

Present me with a long paragraph full of long sentences, and I’ll automatically start skimming. Breaking the text into smaller chunks makes it easier to read, but harder to skim (due to all the breaks).

But you can take…

That sort of thing…

Too far.

Leon

@Richard,

Yes, it depends what you’re reading/writing, I think.

For example, if we’re writing a page about how to sign up for a library card at work, that really should be chunked up (to use a fairly ugly phrase) as the reader just wants to know how to do something. We broadly follow a tabloid style of one sentence/short idea per paragraph.

If I’m writing an article about how wide lines should be on a screen, that’ll be different, although I might bear in mind more casual readers who will just scan to get a sense of what I’m writing about. It can depend on how confident I am that the subject’s of interest.

Whatever style I’m writing I’m erring toward shorter lines at the moment (not shorter paragraphs). But if I was going to experiment with longer lines, it would be with more “academic” texts.

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jayelessjayeless

@leonp Yeah, measuring raw reading speed alone feels like the wrong approach if it means a lot of rereading lines because comprehension suffered!