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How to compress a lot of text into a small space. (5/3/05)

At times a concern for wasting paper has motivated me to look for methods of fitting a lot of text onto a single sheet of paper. In grade school a friend and I used to annoy teachers by handing in homework assignments hand written with very tiny letters, so when word processors with a visual layout preview came along I lept at the opportunity to improve my abilities.

For our purposes today, and in celebration of Einstein's "Year of Wonders", I'll direct readers to Project Gutenberg's copy of Mr. Albert Einstein's "Relativity: The Special and General Theory". The Word form has images in it which would add another layer of complexity so I'm going to work off of the text version, opened in Word. In it's present form it is 111 pages long. In the examples below I've selected a specific section of the document which will remain consistent throughout the examples to allow the reader to focus on the task at hand. Here is the plan of attack:

  1. Remove line width settings (hard paragraph marks at the end of each sentance)
  2. Change the document's font to a more suitable font
  3. Reduce Whitespace
    1. Margins
    2. Columns
  4. Final Look
  5. Further things to try

1. Remove line width settings
At 12 point font the text is plainly readable:

Before we can do anything special we're got to prep the text because it has been formated for a smaller line width. Microsoft Word has a good search and replace ability so I'm going to use that. We want to preserve the section headings while eliminating the "enters" at the end of each line. Turn on the "Show/Hide special charcters" mode.

Ignoring the text we can see that the section headings will have two paragraph makers right next to each other; the one at the end of the heading and the one at the end of the blank space below them. The paragraph markers at the end of each regular sentence can go. Doing this requires a bit of a trick, in that the simple find and replace technology in Word can't handle something so complicated. Instead we'll replace the two paragraph markers with a special character unique in the document by having it search for two paragraph markers and replacing them with a ~ (a tilde).

The result:

Now lets get rid of those pesky single paragraph markers and put a space in their place:

and have a look at the mess we've made...

Finally, replace the tildes (~) with a single paragraph marker, rather than two, to get the section headings back:

and then hide the special characters to see how we've done.

2. Change the font
That changes reduces the document size from 111 to 58 pages. Now, for a better font search the net for a fonts used to display really small letters. A lot of the standard fonts aren't good for this application because they are rather wide or the little decorations on the letters just get confusing at really small sizes. Jason Kottke has a good one called Silkscreen. Install your new font and change all of the text in the document to that font.

Notice the document size actually goes up, to 75 pages. Now is the tricky part. You've got to reduce the lettering as small as you possibly can read. By default Word will only let you choose an 8 pt font. That is okay, type in a number and hit enter. I know I can read a font size of 2 but I'll choose 3 so I don't get a headache while reading.

Document size is actually 6 pages now, and with a good printer you will be able to read the text. For fun this is the 3pt text at 500% magnification:

I've been including the ruler at the top of these images for this reason alone. Notice the line "THE PRINCIPLE OF RELATIVITY" took up 2.25 inches when we started. It now takes up about .75.

3. Reduce Whitespace
3A. Margins
We can refine things even further. Have a look at the page as a whole:

All of that white space is wasting space. First, go into File/Page Setup, and set the margins as low as possible. This will take some trial and error on your part. By experimenting I know I can get away with .3 inches all over. Now we're down to 5 pages.

3B. Columns
We can minimize the white space around the sections by converting the text into columns. This way those little .75 inch columns will only waste the rest of the white space in the column rather than the entire page. If your down to 2 or 3 pt text, be daring and try 6 columns. I'm serious. It's under Format/Columns, and you'll have to type it in as their isn't a preset for it. After that, click in the "Width and spacing" section so Word will let you change the spacing. Again, it is more whitespace so reduce the spacing. Set it to .0 inches (which means the columns will be right on eachother, and check off the "Line between" box. The line will help the eye to see the columns without all that wasted white space. More room saved.option as it'll help the eyes track down the columns. Result? Just over 3 pages.

4. Final Look
For the final volley, if your printer can do it use double sided printing. Congrats. Had you printed the document normally it would have consumed 111 pages of paper, and you've just reduced it to 2, one of which even has a blank side for notes.

5. Further things to try
To improve readability you can go through the document and find the section headings, and bold them. It doesn't change the page size much because they'll still have whitespace to take up. Another thing to do is to add a few spaces before the first word of each paragraph. This will help your eye identify the start of a paragraph more easily.

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