On Using a Two-Column Format

In MSCD, at 12.20, I say “the need to distinguish between sections, subsections, and enumerated clauses and sub-clauses means that using columns is not an option.”

We’ll, it’s time to rethink that. I’ve been experimenting with a two-column version of the MSCD format, and it isn’t half bad. Click here for a PDF of one-page examples of the same text in the standard MSCD one-column format (using Arial 10 point) and in the two-column format (using Arial 8 point). (I used Arial because I’ve been working on commercial agreements for a company in a technical industry, and like many such companies they prefer Arial over a serif font such as Times New Roman.)

Using Arial 8 point allows you to preserve the distinction between sections, subsections, and tabulated enumerated clauses. It would be a little awkward to use tabulated enumerated sub-clauses (in the MSCD numbering scheme, “(A)” and lower), but you don’t often need them.

Using Arial 8 point also allows you to cram in the words. The single-column example contains 522 words whereas the two-column example contains 967 words—an 85% increase.

When would you use this format? When space is truly at a premium. This is often the case with lengthy commercial contracts—business people can be relied on to plead for fewer pages. I wouldn’t recommend using the two-column format as your default format—8 point text is too small for that.

For the sake of simplicity, the examples contain only text from the body of the contract. If I were doing an entire contract in two columns, I would retain the one-column format for the title (obviously), the introductory clause, the recitals, the lead in, any article headings, and the concluding clause. Whatever the format, signature blocks can be placed one above the other or side by side, as I mention in MSCD 5.21.

The “Templates” page of my site was already limited, even before I came up with this format. For one thing, it doesn’t include any templates using Arial. I could be convinced to add Arial 10 point single-column “articles” and “no articles” templates, as well as an Arial 8 point two-column template.

I’ve asked myself why it took so long for me to recognize that there might be a role—albeit a limited one—for a two-column version of the MSCD format, and I came up with the following reasons: First, like many corporate lawyers in private practice, I didn’t work on commercial documents but on deals, where the two-column format is a real rarity. Second, I didn’t think much of those two-column documents that I did encounter, so I threw the baby out with the bathwater. And third, it never crossed my mind to try a font size as small as Arial 8 point. A few days ago I found myself revising a client’s draft contract that used Arial 8 point in a two-column format—that’s what made me realize that using that font size was not as extreme a notion as I would have thought.

If you have any comments regarding my two-column format or my templates, I’d be pleased to hear them.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

11 thoughts on “On Using a Two-Column Format”

  1. I have often pondered the psychogical message one delivers to the other side when using 2 column format. It seems to suggest a “don’t mess with this” attitude, while single column 12 point Times suggests “let’s talk.”

    I am reminded of insurance contracts, with their “form” part versus their “manuscript” part, the latter being the place where negotiations take place on single column format while the former is sacred text set in small type 2 column format.

    I do not suggest that the “message” is always 100% successful, but it can tilt a negotiation in my experience.

  2. Michael: I believe that you’re correct that a two-column format is used when the drafter hopes or expects that the parties will be doing little or no negotiating.

    In the case of commercial agreements I’ve been working on recently, the client’s intent in using a two-column format wasn’t to dissuade the other side from commenting on a given draft, but rather to downplay somehow its significance by shrinking the number of pages it occupied. But the effect is the same.

  3. Ken,

    Some things have been well known (or assumed) in document design:

    1) Shorter line lengths improve readability, making two column formats easier to read.

    2)On paper, in smaller sizes, serif fonts (such as Times) are easier to read than sans-serif fonts (such as Arial). Arial is best on screens and for headings.

    3) Two columns does give the appearance of being “boiler plate”. For most documents the boiler plate is less likely to be custom written and more difficult to modify.

    Although MS Word makes two column format easy to produce, few people use it. Therefore the “this isn’t going to be changed” impression remains common. However, it can also gives the impression that the document is a form and not necessarily appropriate for the particular circumstances.

    I don’t work with contracts as often as I work with standards, specifications, and other documents. However, I expect the above observations apply to contracts as well as to the other documents.

  4. I’m not sure if the negotiation deterrent effect is due to dual columns or small type. I find that the smaller the type, the less negotiable the contract feels.

    I always view formatting tricks like dual columns, small fonts and (worst of all) reduced margins as a shell game–a way to move words around without reducing the substance. My goal has always been to use the fewest number of words possible, i.e., to legitimately reduce the document’s length. I find that short documents just make everything go faster, so I fight for every word in advance. If my client decides to engage in formatting games after that, it’s their choice.

    On the other side, when I get a Word document in small font, I just increase the font size myself before I review it (and sometimes in the return document). Where I can, I get rid of dual columns too, but this can screw up the formatting. I do get ticked when I’m asked to review a PDF document with small font and dual columns. Arial 8 is borderline, but I wouldn’t be too upset to get your mock document so long as the margins were wide enough for writing comments.


  5. Eric: No argument that 8 point is borderline (although the two-column format offsets somewhat the small font size).

    But my principal feeling regarding the two-column format is not that it’s somehow an improvement on one-column formats–it isn’t–but rather that I’m pleasantly surprised that I was able to come up with a two-column format that I can live with, if necessary, rather than simply rejecting the notion out of hand, which is what I have been doing.

    In the context of commercial agreements that essentially aren’t subject to negotiation, businesspeople will sometimes insist on a two-column format–anything to make the document shorter. When a document is to be negotiated, I certainly wouldn’t use two-columns, and I’d be peeved if someone sent me a two-column draft.

  6. Agreed. But even if a commercial contract escapes negotiation 95% of the time, that other 5% of the time can be a pain for the reviewers. And, if a dual-column contract hits my desk, it’s because we’re one of the exceptions, yet I still have to deal with the dual columns. I’ll also add that, in the pursuit of faux brevity, I’ve gotten commercial contracts from the other side in dual columns that I know most/all of their customers negotiate. Eric.

  7. The columns don’t bother me much, but the idea of long contract language sentences and paragraphs in 8 point font does. That’s just too small and too crammed together, unless making it hard to read is the goal.

  8. Hi,
    I waa referring to FIDIC conditions of Contract and was interested in applying the same formating i.e. the headings should be freely flowing in LHS column and the all the texts are similialy limited to RHS column – both texts flowing freely (as in a table).
    I am avoiding table for the obvious reasons of it not giving the freedom of desired formatting. Is there any way to make the columns take such texts.


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