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Is there a reason or is it arbitrary/tradition?

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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 Feb 10 '11 at 1:20
    
To make it impossible to read them comfortably on e-readers? –  user3885 Jul 23 '12 at 9:38
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8 Answers

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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. –  Mark L Feb 4 '11 at 21:21
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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. –  Mark L Feb 4 '11 at 21:14
    
+1 for citation request... shades of Wikipedia... ;) –  Zayne S Halsall Feb 5 '11 at 13:12
    
+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 Feb 5 '11 at 19:34
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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) –  Paul de Vrieze Feb 6 '11 at 14:45
    
Sorry, end up as less what? Words? –  Adam Gurri Feb 7 '11 at 2:39
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Long lines of text can be hard to read, so doing multiple columns breaks the lines up to something more optimal.

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Wouldn't this logic apply to every writing? –  jmfsg Feb 2 '11 at 22:41
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yes, and that's probably why HTML5 is supposed to include the idea of wrapping columns –  QuickerSnarkerBacker Feb 3 '11 at 1:48
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@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. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Feb 3 '11 at 18:25
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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 Feb 3 '11 at 20:19
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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. –  Jakub Hampl Feb 5 '11 at 0:36
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