By Ed Arnold
There was once a time when every educated person read every book that came off the printing press. For most readers 100 to 400 years ago, a book was not a monologue by the author. It was a dialogue between the writer and the reader. The reader added his (it was usually a he; women were discouraged from “unfeminine” arts like reading) part of the repartee in the margin.

“This isn’t true!” exclaimed a reader in an angry marginal scrawl. “This isn’t what Plato said,” exhorted another. “Absolutely! Absolutely!” was a terse verse.

To make it easier to write these addenda, the outside margin of a page was widened. This took some doing because paper, or vellum, was expensive and the printer wanted to get as many words as possible on a page.

That wide margin has become a popular margin technique. Appropriately, such a format is called “the scholar’s margin.” WRITING IN BOOK MARGINS; SIGNING ON THE DOTTED LINE

On an 8.5×11″ page, typically, the gutter “page margin” — the white frame that encloses the “print page” — is three picas, the outside margin is four, the head is four, and the foot six. These are very variable variables, though.

Then the basic “book” — the “narrative column” — is set at 28 picas, there’s a two-pica “alley” of white, and then the “scholar’s margin” of 13 picas. Again, the variables change a lot. The main thing to remember is that the narrow column is much narrower than the main one.

The scholar’s margin may run headlines or sub-heads, captions, sidebars or photos.

A major advantage to the scholar’s margin is the variety of picture widths it provides. An illustration can be as wide as the “narrative” — main — column; it can be as wide as the scholar’s margin. Or it can run clear across the page. More variations can be added by bleeding art to the gutter, the margin, the head or foot or any combination thereof.

The format is a highly versatile one. It can be used for books, magazines, catalogs and advertising pieces. Everyone who works with the printed page ought to try it a couple of times to see just how useful it can be.


I know I’ve recently discussed a great typo of my past in this space, but a tale about getting copy absolutely correct can be equally entertaining.

One day, decades ago, at a company I worked for, I was conferring with our in-house print shop manager about the latest issue of the company magazine, which I edited. We were interrupted by a self-important popinjay from the finance department who demanded that all other jobs be postponed until he was supplied with nearly 100,000 forms just like the one he forced upon the printer.

When the printer began to ask questions, he was cut short with: “Just print this form exactly the way it is. I don’t have time for piddling details.” Yes, sir! Yes, sir!

A few days later, I got a phone call. The voice said, “You’ll enjoy being here in five minutes.” I dashed down to the print shop as Mr. Stuffbottom came storming in. “You just sent 80,000 of these to my office and they’re all wrong!” he screamed. “I followed your instructions to the T,” observed the printer quietly. “You heard him say, didn’t you, Mr. Arnold, to print it just like the form he gave me?”

And he waved that form which, foresightedly, he had made Stuffbottom sign. The irate financier scanned the paper, handed it back and wordlessly scooted out the door.

I stood bewildered until my friend showed me the original copy. Underscored in red was the line “__________ 195_” and it had been faithfully reprinted on all those many, many forms … which were destined for use in the 1960s.

Ed Arnold is a consultant to the printing industry, specializing in design. He can be contacted at 3804 Brandon Ave. SW, #415, Roanoke, VA 24018.



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