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How to read a multi-column document on-screen?

Multiple columns are easier to read – especially when printed. That is a good thing. But when we have to read a multiple column document on-screen, it becomes more cumbersome. Here is how you can simplify the reading.

Please note. This article covers only PCs, Laptops and Tablets running Windows7. It does not cover reading on mobile phones.


What makes reading a document easier to read

This is a very complex subject. But for now, let us focus on what is most comfortable for our eyes to read. The answer seems to be – we need 12 words per line.

Usually a full page width of text will be much longer. Due to this, our eye has to use muscles to move the muscles around the eye and the neck to read long lines. When you finish reading one line, our eyes have to track back to the beginning of the next line. If there are too many words in one line, this process creates more eye strain and reduces the speed of learning as well as the comprehension.

That is why two column (or multi-column) documents are used. This is good. But while reading on-screen we have to read one column by pressing page down. Then again move upwards to the beginning of the next column. This is cumbersome.

What we want is the best of both worlds. Ability to read only up to 12 words per line – but in a single column. Obviously we do not want to change the base formatting of the document. We only want to make it more convenient to read.

This is possible. Here is how you do it…

Adobe Reader

Let us consider Adobe reader first. May types of documents like whitepapers, books, research articles, brochures, marketing collaterals, reports, case studies are usually written with two (or more) columns.

If the document contains images (scanned or otherwise), then nothing can be done.

If the document contains text, something can be done. This depends upon the version of Adobe reader. Therefore make sure that you have the latest version installed.

This may not work unless the document supports the feature. Open the PDF document and choose View – Zoom – Reflow option (CTRL 4 is the shortcut).


After reflow is applied, the entire width of the window will display the content without columns. This may not be convenient. Therefore, you will have to reduce the width of the Acrobat Reader window (don’t keep it maximized) and also play with the zoom level a little to get the optimal reading display in a single column.

Left side image shows a two column document and right side image shows the same document with reflow. For clarity of understanding, each paragraph is show in a different color.

image   image

If the page has embedded images or tables, the Reflow option may not work for that page. It works well with pages which have only text.


What I am demonstrating here is Word version 2013. However, most features described here will work to some extent in older versions of Word as well.

The obvious answer is reading view. What does this provide? Let us see with the same document. View Tab – Read Mode. The exact way in which reading view works depends upon the version. The best implementation is in 2013 version. It makes the document look and behave like an eBook – easy to read, scroll, swipe using touch and so on.


However, even in earlier versions of Word – the reading view will provide a single column of text and you can choose the number of words per line by simply zooming in or out.

image   image

In this reading view, the tables and pictures DO NOT zoom in or out. To view tables or pictures double click on them (or double tap if you are using a touch device). Now you can read the table or view the image in full detail. The rest of the text becomes less prominent. This is a very convenient feature.


While in the reading view, you can highlight important text and also enter (or write) comments.

We just changed the view – No formatting changes in the document. This is only a temporary visual change.

If the document uses styles, you can also use the Document Map / Navigation Pane.

Read the article Why do we still print documents? for more facilities you can use while reading documents.

Web view

There is another view in Word which deserves a mention in this context.

View tab – Web Layout converts the entire document to something like a single web page. There are no page breaks. You can zoom in so that you have optimal (12-14) words per line and the reading is easy on your eyes.

Pictures and tables will be unchanged. But you can read both the text and tables in the same view. This is how the web view looks for the same document.


Even in this view, the formatting of the original document is not affected.


Try this out and make your online reading experience simpler. Let me know your feedback.


One Response

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