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Can Lines in Email Be Too Wide?

The other day a client expressed frustration that people she works with send her emails with lines that stretch across her computer screen. "I can't believe they don't use wider margins," she said.

Wider margins?

I don't use any margins in the emails I send. If people read my message on wide screens, the lines will be long (wide). If they read on their phones, the lines will wrap to be short (narrow).  

If someone reading a message from me would like the lines to be narrower, the individual can resize his or her screen, I believe. With no margins, the lines can shrink or expand as the reader desires.

For me, the one exception is my monthly e-newsletter, which I send out in both HTML and plain text versions, based on reader preference. The plain text version requires that a line length be set, and I use a 60-character line. In Outlook, readers can remove the line breaks with one click to extend the text across their screen.

I have read many experts who have written about the length of emails, but not the width. Can you help by sharing your expertise and preferences?

In your organization, do writers pay attention to the width of their emails? If so, what do they do? Please shed light on this subject.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

7 comments on “Can Lines in Email Be Too Wide?”

  • If I were to make hard returns at the end of each line in an attempt to limit line width, my email messages would have extra short lines for any that wrap because of being read on a phone.

    It seems that those straggler lines would be distracting.

  • “I don’t use any margins in the emails I send. If people read my message on wide screens, the lines will be long (wide). If they read on their phones, the lines will wrap to be short (narrow). ”

    Lynn, I am not sure that is true. Within the program that sends out my plain-text email newsletter, there’s a function for viewing the newsletter on about 20 different email readers. Most of them end the lines exactly where I did with hard returns, but Outlook in particular (as shown within these previews, anyway) shows really long lines that I might find annoying, like the person you quoted.

  • Hi, Marcia. I am traveling, so I just looked at your excellent newsletter from yesterday on my phone (a Windows phone, by the way). When I view it, I see all your hard breaks, along with the text wraps caused by my narrow screen. So some of the lines fit nicely, yet others are just one or two words.

    I don’t think there is a way around that short-long situation when one uses hard breaks. Outlook, however, does give the reader the option of removing line breaks in one click.

    When I am back to reading my email on a full-screen computer, I will try a couple of additional experiments and report.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.


  • I place messages in a table to control the width. The table is set to a narrower width than full screen (600 pixels is our current standard).

    You should not use carriage returns for this. It just will not work as expected.

    Because most e-mail programs read HTML, use a table set to a narrower width to acheive a “margin.”

  • We also use a table to limit the width of our messages. We’ve done research on this topic and have found that the eye only scans part of the way across a full page; studies showed that shorter line length helps increase comprehension and retention. A table allows the wrapping to occur where we want on a larger screen but does not cause the shorter-line problem you mention with line breaks. We advise against using line breaks because of the unpredictable results.

  • Hello, Tetris and Michele. I appreciate your suggestion about using tables.

    I will experiment with your idea, along with a couple of others, and comment again soon.

    Thank you for describing your solution.


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