How to deal with double-spaced formatting requirements?

SebastianK's picture

This might seem like a weird question, but as a university student I regularly get assignments in which, instead of a simple word count, requirements à la "5 pages, double-spaced" are stipulated by the professor. Sometimes a point size is given, sometimes a margin width, but that is actually unusual (rendering the commandment toothless as a length limit, of course).

I understand that they're just trying to avoid having to read assignments in 8-point Comic Sans, but I'd much rather submit something like this than this for obvious reasons.

Since I'm not a document designer myself, does anyone have suggestions on how to best deal with the above "5 pages, double-spaced" assignment? (I have one coming up.) Links to successful layouts, suggestions for fonts (I assume larger x-heights work better?), suggestions for the treatment of subheadings, lists, blockquotes etc.

(Some will say I shouldn't bother and just conform, but I'm genuinely interested in how designers usually work with weird constraints.)

Thanks everyone!

JamesM's picture

There can be a variety of reasons why your professor gives those constraints, such as to avoid weirdly formatted papers, or to allow room for the professor's comments, or to make it easier to compare the lengths of reports by different students.

> I'm genuinely interested in how designers
> usually work with weird constraints

I talk to the client and ask the reason for the constraints. Sometimes the constraints turn out to be reasonable after I learn the reasons for them, but if they still don't I try to convince the client that changing them is a good idea.

If the client has constraints I consider unreasonable and won't budge after a discussion, sometimes I'll prepare 2 layouts, one using the client's constraints, and one without, and hopefully they'll see that my way is better.

In your situation, I'd make a sample page 2 ways — using their design and using yours — and then have a private conversation with your professor, show them both designs and politely ask if yours is acceptable. Worst they can do is say no.

David Vereschagin's picture

You’re over-thinking the situation. What the prof wants is example number 2. Use the Word defaults and make it double-spaced.


Joshua Langman's picture

I have a different take on this dilemma, and in fact I don't think it's a dilemma at all.

I am a book designer. I am also a college student, and when I write academic papers, I type them in Word, 1 inch margins, Times New Roman, double spaced. Because this is the accepted manuscript format. There are things that should be "designed" — like published papers — and things that essentially should not — like manuscripts of papers. In fact, designers typically hate it when authors try to "format" or "design" their manuscripts: that's not their job.

I think it's great that you want to make your assignments as attractive and readable as possible, but you're really confusing two different things — manuscript guidelines for typists and typesetting as executed by typographers.

Designing within constraints is always a good exercise, but this particular constraint is one that you will never encounter in the realm of designing published work. In fact, part of the whole point of the constraint is to prevent authors from trying to design their manuscripts and interfering with their uniformity.

Sure, you pose an interesting question: what sorts of typefaces work best with large amounts of leading? But I really would stay away from trying too hard to design academic papers. I fully expect many people on Typophile to disagree.

hrant's picture

Sorry David, but to me that's better than the under-thinking you seem to be promoting...

Requirements like this are meant to dumb people down to make certain other people's lives simpler. In contrast James's valiant approach aims to make people's lives better.

Joshua, ideally every document should be designed. To me dumbing-down is not a "design constraint".


John Hudson's picture

Double-spaced text layout became the norm for 'copy', i.e. pre-publication manuscript, of which academic essays are a subclass, in order to facilitate editorial comment and correction.

HVB's picture

Sebastian - you are not submitting camera-ready material for publication, but, in effect, the contents of a manuscript. From the professor's point of view, having all submissions in a consistent format eliminates all conscious and sub-conscious positives and negatives related to "how it looks" and leaves only the important part, which in this case is the content.

Requiring double-spaced submissions is very common, including legal briefs in many jurisdictions as well as submission of magazine articles.

- Herb

hrant's picture

leaves only the important part, which in this case is the content.

The form cannot be divorced from the content. They are important together. Many college professors need to be educated concerning this important subtlety.


SebastianK's picture

I didn't expect this much input so quickly, thank you all!

I hope it's clear that my typographic worldview is reflected enough that I understand the intention behind the requirement, and that I have no interest in convincing my professors that it is, by whatever haughty dogma, wrong.

I'm simply wondering if you have any practical tips, or if maybe in the back of your head you remember that book/article X had huge leading, but because of Y and by using Z, that actually worked surprisingly well, and would be willing to share.

John Hudson's picture

The form cannot be divorced from the content.

If you mean that all texts are instantiated and, hence, have form, that's a fair if tautological statement. But it doesn't imply anything about the particular form of any particular content, which may indeed have an entirely arbitrary relationship such as that required by any standardised document format. For example, Hollywood screenplays are expected to conform to standardised formatting, and this doesn't vary whether the film in question is a romantic comedy or a sci-fi thriller. It is a standardised format that has little to recommend it to any typographer, but it is functionally useful for the people who have to work with the script: it provides ample space for annotation, and by requiring all screenplays to follow the same standard it enables accurate predictions about timing and length. Likewise, the double-spacing of pre-publication copy and academic essays is functionally useful to the people have to work with that copy. These days, this might not be very evident in the context of college essays, but that is because most teachers are overworked and don't have time to provide detailed copy feedback, and at the undergrad level most students are not involved in seminar situations that require them to give such feedback to their peers. Now, one might argue that the formatting requirements of college essays should change to reflect the current realities of academic life, but isn't that just a different kind of dumbing down: making documents look nicer typographically to compensate for the fact that no one is engaging with them at a text-critical level?

John Hudson's picture

Sebastian, the typography of the romantic period tended to favour large leading. I believe this was done to compensate for the verticality of the Didot, Bodoni and related type styles, which benefit from looser leading to make the individual lines of text easier to follow contra to the vertical emphasis of the letters. While I don't think this logic can be reversed to suggest that such types counter the looseness of the leading in any functionally significant way, they are at least forms that are aesthetically at home with large interlinear spacing. Take a look at Robert Slimbach's Kepler type: it is stylistically within this tradition, but is not so extreme in its treatment of stroke modulation as most digital versions of Didot, Bodoni, etc.

SebastianK's picture

but isn't that just a different kind of dumbing down: making documents look nicer typographically to compensate for the fact that no one is engaging with them at a text-critical level?

It's besides the point of my question, but I think this is a fantastic question. Although in my experience generous margins are more beneficial; I only ever see annotations cramped into 1-inch columns, often sideways, but rarely in between lines.

Edit, in reply to your second post: thank you! That is an interesting piece of information. I'll take a look.

John Hudson's picture

Here's a useful illustration of the copy editing process as applied to different document formats at different stages of publication. The academic essay submission shares the format of the initial stage, and for the same reason, so that significant text edits can be clearly indicated.

While copy editing of typeset text is possible, using marginal markup, it is much more arduous both to do and to review.

SebastianK's picture

Your illustration confirms my point: college essays aren't manuscripts, and professors or high school teachers aren't editors. They ignore typos and wording, but leave comments like "this contradicts what you said about X two paragraphs above", "great example, you could elaborate on Y more" or "interesting point, this could be linked to the concepts discussed in class about article Z". The one-inch-margins-double-spaced mantra is counter-productive to that; for all intents and purposes, students really are directly publishing their work to the one-man audience that is their professor.

charles ellertson's picture

Johnathan, would that were true (maybe). I'm a book typesetter. Now that the vast majority of editors work on the author's computer files, we see a lot of varying formats with manuscripts -- from the old double-spaced Courier (or Pica) to slam-it-tight Times. That is, 1200 characters per page to over 2800.

Far as I'm concerned, the most important thing is to use Unicode. Let's skip the little drawings and instructions that say "make it look like this ---", and the invented codes, when the proper character is available in Unicode.

For texts in the humanities, the best typeface has been either Charis or Gentium. Gentium has a few more characters, Charis has bolds. There are Scholarly Journals (esp. those in areas that have romanized scripts) that require Gentium for article submission, as the correct Unicode character can usually be found within. Of course, I prefer Charis, as I've said before, we have a version that has been used for books selected for AAUP book show (which is a juried show). But that does require font modification for that level of quality...

Here's a thought: I downloaded & took a look at John Hudson's The Brill, and for manuscript preparation, it should be great. I think it a beautiful typeface, but as a commercial typesetter, I'll only get the opportunity to use it (1) if I again become an author, or (2) wind up setting another book for Brill. For that reason, I've not looked too closely at the character compliment, but likely it's broader than Gentium (John?)

In any case, read the license thoroughly, but I believe it's OK with Brill to use the fonts in the context of thesis/manuscript preparation.

* * *

To the original poster: David pegged it. Word or Open Office defaults. Open Office is free, BTW. And if you want it to be typeset, use InDesign, or learn TeX. Word doesn't cut it.

John Hudson's picture

They ignore typos and wording

Yes, but they didn't use to, and that is the context in which the format requirements developed. As I said previously, an argument can be made that formatting should change to reflect current realities, but I think understanding the context of those realities is important. In the case of college-level papers, it is worth bearing in mind that while the majority of students at any given time are undergraduates, almost everything about academic practice is geared to graduate students and faculty, and hence formatting requirements tend to follow those of journal and book publishing submission requirements, since that is what graduate students and faculty are working towards.

John Hudson's picture

Charles, I've not done a close comparison of character coverage between the Brill types and the most recent version of Gentium, but yes, I think the Brill types cover some stuff not in Gentium, but vice versa is also the case (Gentium covers extended Cyrillic, whereas the Brill types only support Slavic languages (reflecting Brill's publishing needs)). Also, the Brill family includes Bold and Bold Italic fonts, which are not present for Gentium. The Brill non-commercial license does indeed permit thesis/manuscript preparation.

oldnick's picture

Your illustration confirms my point

No, it does not: John’s example of how copy-editing works clearly shows that you had no idea of what you were talking about in your original post. In a learning environment, practical reasons trump “aesthetic concerns,” period. And, from what I remember, lo these many years on, English professors most assuredly do not ignore either typos nor wording.

students really are directly publishing their work to the one-man audience that is their professor

Yes, precisely—except it should be “the one-man audience who is their professor…”

charles ellertson's picture

Not to pick on you unmercifully -- he said, picking on you unmercifully, but

but I'd much rather submit something like this than this for obvious reasons.

Your preference is pretty flawed, from my perspective. The initial paragraph suggest three points, and you enumerate them, 1, 2, 3. But in the text, instead of using numbers, you use alphabetical characters (A, B, C). Why?

You've chosen to set justified. But in the first paragraph, you've got four line-ending hyphens in a row. Usually not allowed. In the third paragraph, you've also got improper hyphenation (ma-lice, s/b mal-ice). If you're not going to set justified copy correctly, set it ragged, without hyphenation. Perfectly acceptable in a manuscript.

Why boldface for the headings -- if they are headings? Boldface breaks up the text. Very useful in travel books, where reading is not continuous. A reader can be expected to read first to find a hotel. After they have perused & finally booked their hotel, the might want to look at all the restaurants. When satiated, they might want to concentrate on night life.

But if reading is continuous, the blank line above and the identifier A (or 1) is sufficient. Boldface is for a reason, and that reason is never to borrow authority. The authority comes from the writing.

Graphically, you're sort of going flush left, which is fine. But it's "sort of" due to the way you've done that first headblock. If you want the gutter in that element to have even space, OK, but set "From" flush left. In any case, the gutter is too wide.

Personally, I don't like such deep paragraph indents, but you can argue that. In the monospaced manuscripts on 8.5 x 11 paper, five characters was common. Typeset is usually either an em space (about two characters), or a pica (usually about an em + an en). The deeper your paragraph indent, the more trouble you're going to have getting even spacing on that first line (unarguable), and the large space causes the reader to slow down (again unarguable). Why do you want them to slow down? The last, at least, is arguable. I'd say if you've done a good job writing, they shouldn't need to slow down.


Combining good form with good thinking isn't easy, and probably isn't required for a term paper. But if, as John suggests, this is preparation for writing professional articles, you'll be a lot happier with the editor's markup if you learn early. And you may wind up doing a better job of presenting your text than the eventual designer does. Sad, but all too often true.

In any case, good luck with it.

Nick Shinn's picture

How does one edit one’s own writing?

The advantage of double-spacing is that one can see both “before” and “after” adjacent to each other, which provides perspective.

And it may be that, upon reflection, the original text one crossed out is better than the revision, hence the editing mark for “stet” (let it stand).

These days, if one edits directly in a word processing application, on screen, this facility vanishes (although one might have previous versions of a document saved for comparison).

When I’m doing serious writing (as opposed to this frivolous Typophile stuff), I always typeset it double spaced (in one of my fonts), print it out, and edit/rewrite on that, between the lines.

On the other hand, I suspect the prolific Boz had productivity in mind when he limited the space between lines, giving himself less space to dally:

JamesM's picture

Nick, I believe Microsoft Word has the capability of showing the edit history of a document, but like you I find edits easier when they are on paper in some situations.

Ernest Hemingway's famous quote on the subject of editing: "The first draft of anything is s***."

SebastianK's picture

Thanks for all the comments, gentlemen!

No, it does not: John’s example of how copy-editing works clearly shows that you had no idea of what you were talking about in your original post. In a learning environment, practical reasons trump “aesthetic concerns,” period. And, from what I remember, lo these many years on, English professors most assuredly do not ignore either typos nor wording.

... aaand the wrath of Typophile is upon me! :-) I may have to make a qualification: I'm in Engineering, not in the Humanities, and I can tell you with certainty that I've never encountered "old school" copy-editing, despite being often told that it's the reason for the double spacing. Manuscripts are submitted to journals as TeX files. But whatever the professors' (self-defeating) intentions are, I don't really care.
You all read my question as "how can I best circumvent this oh-so-arbitrary rule and show off my formatting skills to my oh-so-clueless professor." No. What I mean is very simply: "given that the only common denominator between all submitted essays will be double spacing, what are some good choices for all the other design parameters to unobtrusively maximize reading pleasure?"

Charles, thank you. The examples I linked to are from fellow typophile Matthew Butterick (Typography for Lawyers), and they were just meant as an illustration, but your unmerciful comments are quite insightful and much appreciated.

Nick Shinn's picture

Sorry, I was more interested in the tangent!

To answer your question: “Book” faces are generally considered best for wide columns and open leading. That’s because they usually have small x-heights and ergo long extenders. The long extenders mitigate the dreary effect of a plain page of text (nothing like the Butterick examples) seeming to be a stack of gray bars.

Traditional examples are Garamond, Perpetua and Bembo. If these seem too quaint and/or humanistic, perhaps Sabon (not Sabon Next), which is quite neutral in effect for a Garalde, especially with its Italic having the same character count as the Roman.

For a didone, Bodoni Book or my Scotch Modern.

For a sans, Avenir.

For a slab, Serifa or my Bodoni Egyptian.

All these have ample extenders.
Avenir would be my first choice.

oldnick's picture

whatever the professors' (self-defeating) intentions are, I don't really care

Which is to say, “I’m right, everyone else is wrong, case closed.” An Engineering major? Really? With such self-serving rationalizations, I would have thought Law, Business or Politics…

Chris Dean's picture

Best. Avoidance behaviour. Ever.

Worry about the content of the paper, not the font. Follow the guidelines to facilitate marking for the TA. If you had to pick one detail, argue against single sided as it wastes paper. I have chosen to accept an F instead and won. You can also reduce the margins to save some paper. 99% of the time it’s a grad student TA requesting your “this*” guidelines, simply following old departmental regulations, and they could care less. Provided, as you said, it’s not 8-point Comic Sans. Just ask them and show them an example. If they resist, at least you tried. If spending time on the design is not going to influence this, don’t waste your time. Get a head start writing your next paper instead. Think of the most efficient allocation of your’s, and the marker’s resources — primarily time — and let that guide your design decision making process. And always be mindful of the law of diminishing returns.

*Please use descriptive hyperlinks to assist visually impared readers using text-to-speech software.

SebastianK's picture

Nick Shinn: Thank you, that is fantastic advice and exactly what I was looking for.

Oldnick: You're quite hostile. When all I'm ever told is "because that's just how it's done, period" and/or "because it's easier to read" (compared to what? No leading, maybe?) and/or "because it's better for copy-editing" (yeah, according to my high school teacher six years ago, but then nobody ever copy-edits, so I'd dismissed this as nonsense), then yes, I'll readily conclude that their own requirements are at best outdated, and at worst legibility-impairing. Since I'm not the one grading my essays, I don't really care enough about their intentions to argue about them. If that qualifies as self-serving, fine. But I didn't come to this forum to argue about the requirement. I came to ask how to best deal with mandated double spacing. I have now learned that, in other disciplines maybe, professors still copy-edit their students' essays. Fault me for not being specific enough from the start if you want, but what does all that have to do with my question?

Chris: Of course you're right. Look, people, I've submitted double-spaced papers for many, many years, and will continue to do so. Of course I know that using 150% spacing instead of 200% looks fine and will always make everyone happy. All I was hoping for was a post like Nick's above, because I've always wondered how to best make double-spaced work. (Also, the screen reader thing is an interesting heads up. I'll keep that in mind.)

hrant's picture

Sebastian, hang tough. A bureaucrat will die a bureaucrat, and even before the casket starts leaking he will be forgotten.


Chris Dean's picture

hrant speaks the truth. There is certainly something to be said for at least trying to fight the good fight. For example, the following year the TA I refused to give that single sided paper to petitioned his department and actually got the standard changed.

That said, having worked with government for a few years, the metaphor someone once used to describe my passion for trying to change the system (when I was 20 years younger) was “like beating your face into a brick wall until it is a bloody pulp.” True story.

The effort yields its own rewards.” (0:45)

oldnick's picture

I came to ask how to best deal with mandated double spacing

Simple: Comply. And, next time, choose your fights more wisely…

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