word craft


What should the page of a manuscript look like?

You may not know it but there is such a thing as the “Gold­en Ratio,” which sug­gests the best way to cre­ate a writ­ten page lay­out. This Gold­en Ratio comes to us from very ancient Greek geom­e­try and math­e­mat­ics, in par­tic­u­lar the work of the philoso­pher and math­e­mati­cian, Pythago­ras, born about 570 BCE. But the first known ref­er­ence to the term comes hun­dreds of years lat­er from Euclid. These are names you may recall from your high school Geom­e­try class. You might think they have noth­ing to do with mod­ern book pub­lish­ing, but they do. 

Golden Ratio

The stan­dard def­i­n­i­tion of this “Gold­en Ratio” is achieved when you set page mar­gins of 2.23″ on all four sides of 8.5″ × 11″ paper. That seems to be close to the gold­en ratio. 

I got to think­ing about this because I was print­ing out a new man­u­script, prepara­to­ry to read­ing and edit­ing it. While I do com­pose my work on a com­put­er, and there­by end­less­ly read and reread the text on a screen, I find I need to go to a text print­ed on paper to do my fine editing. 

When I do that, I am always—rather mindlessly—setting up the mar­gins. This time—for no par­tic­u­lar reason—I thought about that “Gold­en Ratio.” 

Does it matter? 

A digres­sion. Years ago, a good friend asked me to read a man­u­script some­one they knew had written. 

Out of friend­ship with that per­son, I agreed. 

When I pulled the man­u­script out of its enve­lope I found (this was before the com­mon use of com­put­ers) it was about a hun­dred and fifty pages long, sin­gle-space typed, with page mar­gins at about half an inch on top, bot­tom, sides. 

I think I audi­bly gasped. It was all but a sol­id block of words—as far from the Gold­en Ratio as one could get. 

It was, to my eyes, unreadable. 

I returned it to the author and sug­gest­ed it be, at least, refor­mat­ted in Gold­en Ratio format. 

I nev­er saw it again. 

Grant­ed, an extreme case. But I do know that when I ran­dom­ly mean­der through a book­store (or a library) the way a book is pub­lished influ­ences what I choose to read. 

So it is, over the years I have exper­i­ment­ed with page for­mat. I have (with a com­put­er) shaped my text so it has the dimen­sions of a paper book text. I have laid it out with dou­ble columns. As I have dis­cussed else­where here, I have used dif­fer­ent fonts. What I am try­ing to do is read my own work in a dif­fer­ent way, so that I am read­ing it, not just slip­ping, and slid­ing over a very famil­iar text. 

But guess what? I inevitably cre­ate a print­ed text close to the Gold­en Ratio. 

It tru­ly is much eas­i­er to read. 

Do I under­stand why? No. Nor have I explored the rea­sons as to why it works. I just know a text set forth in the “Gold­en Ratio,” is eas­i­er, and more pleas­ant to read. 

Good enough for the ancient Greeks. Good enough for me. 

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