Justified vs ragged right edge text
As a writer, I do a lot of reading. As a reader, one of the first things I do is look at the text. Not read the text, look at it. How is it set up? What font and font size are used? How big are the paragraphs? Are there headers? Charts, tables, or pictures?
One of the bigger headaches in reading text (sometimes literally!) is text alignment.
Some text is “justified”. The spacing of letters (and sometimes the letters themselves) are stretched or shifted in such a way that the words of the paragraph will reach from one margin to the other, generating a column of text that looks nice and even on both sides. I know people who love this setup (but I don’t think a lot of them do much serious reading…). (Note: the people who love justified text don’t seem to work at WordPress! This paragraph was written in justified text originally, but WordPress doesn’t offer that option.)
Other text has a “ragged right edge”. This text is easy to spot and “justified” people hate it because the right edge of the column shifts around all messy. That happens because the characters within the text and the spaces between characters are consistent. In ragged right edge text (aka “ragged right” or rag right text, consistency within the line’s spacing is more important than making sure the text stretches all the way across the column; there is also a preference to avoid hyphenating words.
But here’s the question, which one is really better? It depends on what you’re trying to do!
Justified text “looks cleaner”. You have nice consistent sides on the columns. If you’re just looking at a page rather than reading, it the paragraphs all look consistent. Unfortunately, if those paragraphs are long enough, you also get the “wall o’text” effect (Which can be offputting to readers).
Text with a ragged right edge looks “messier”. Perhaps you’re “wasting space” at the end of each line. The catch is, using that space means spacing out the words and characters within the line (not really saving you anything) or hyphenating words.
Hyphenation might save you space on the page, but there’s a cost to it. You have to move all the way to the other end of the next line to finish read- ing the word. Which makes the reading part harder. And reading performance matters.
By some arguments justified text optimizes the number of words per line (at least in two column per page text). What it really doesn’t do is to optimize the readability of the words themselves.
As I’ve said, justified text brings in more hyphenated words. Which means you have more breaks within words, which makes reading those words slower and harder. You have to put your reading “on hold” in the middle of a word to shift lines.
Justified text messes with the spacing between words and characters, and sometimes even messes with the size of the characters. When the spacing isn’t consistent, it’s easier to stumble in reading. The flow isn’t as smooth, and comprehending takes more effort.
Sometimes when the “justification” really messes with character size and spacing it seems like you’ve shifted to a different font, which not only looks bad (the opposite of what justified text is meant to do), but it can through you right out of reading.
Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally use shifts in text foremphasis. But if you’re only doing it to make your margins pretty, is that really effective? You might emphasize things you didn’t mean to (along with making the reading slower and more complicated).
A place for both?
So, ragged right edged text is easier to read… If we want people to read what we write, then the “rag right” wins. Right? Not always.
Again, it depends on what you want to do. Most of the time I go with ragged right because it’s easier to read (takes less effort). But sometimes I want things to look a bit more formal, justified text is good at that.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to use both in the same project. For example, if you’re using a large quote and most of your text is ragged right, it’s worth considering using justified text for that big quote.
Why? It helps you identify what you’re quoting, and separate it from your own words. You also usually pull in the margins around your large quote, but the shift from rag right to justified adds further clarity. You might also choose justified for long captions for pictures and tables or sidebars, anywhere you’re wanting to create a visual separation from other text on the page and don’t want to use a font change or italics. (Naturally, if your main text is justified, you could flip things and use ragged right for your separated text. The same principles apply)
In the world of writing, there is a place for both “Justified” and “Ragged Right” text. Knowing which to use is a matter of knowing what you’re trying to achieve and making good choices. (Note: if you’re writing for an audience or publisher who expects a particular format, go with that format. It’s the same principle: go with what gives you the effect you want. And in this case, the effect you want is to be published.)
It seems like a small choice. Does it really matter whether your text stretches all the way across the column or that the right-hand edge shifts back and forth? It might not, but then again, it might. It’s one of many choices we make as writers. There are bigger ones (don’t get hung up on rag right versus justified to avoid larger issues), but getting published can depend on the little things. So, when the time comes, make sure you get the little things right.
That’s it for this one, dear reader. Keep planning, keep writing, and I’ll see you next post.