I generally dislike the emails I receive from my professors.
Subject: Midterm grades released
Message: The class average was 50%. You scored three standard deviations below that.
There was one particular professor I had who was an exception though. It wasn’t because of the content per se, but rather, its readability. In all of his emails to the class, his messages would rarely exceed a width of 250px. It was like reading a newspaper or magazine, where the text are neatly organized in narrow columns.
Why isn’t every email I receive like this?
Intrigued, I sent him an email seeking the secret to his trick. Here was his reply:
Thanks for your message.
You’re right about readability;
that’s why I write narrow email
messages. If you think about
newspapers and magazines,
which are supposed to be
readable quickly, they typically
have narrow columns, too.
There’s a little writeup on
typography and readability at
But there’s no magic to how I
do it. I just hit Return every
8 or 10 words. It’s pretty natural
for me to hit Return at the end of
every line because I learned to
type ages ago on an actual
typewriter, where that was just
how you did it; automatically
word-wrapping at the end of
each line is a technology that
came with word processors,
If most Email readers presented
messages in a narrow window by
default, (a) they’d be more readable
(at least plain text messages would;
heavily formatted ones might not
look right in a narrow window) and
(b) I’d feel more comfortable relying
on word-wrapping to display my text
to most people in a readable way.
But as it is, most Email readers have
a layout with the message headers on
top and the current message below,
which displays a particularly wide
(and thus less readable) window.
Interestingly enough, when I type on
my phone I do rely on the word-wrap
and I don’t shorten the lines by hand,
just because it’s too much of a pain
to do that on the phone (because
after the user hits Return, the phone
assumes a new sentence and
capitalizes the next word).
Probably more than you wanted to know!
Not exactly the answer I was looking for. I had hoped that there was some hidden setting in a particular email client like Gmail, Thunderbird, or Outlook that would permit you to wrap words automatically within a fixed-width column. It would certainly be a feature I would use without hesitation.
On a similar note, there are a plethora of tools online that converts any webpage into a more readable format, free of clutter. I use Readability, which also lets me save articles to read later or deliver them to my Kindle. There’s also Clearly by the makers of Evernote, which integrates highlighting and text to speech.