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When my coworkers send their emails, some would diligently line wrap the body text into lines that are at most, say 78 characters wide, others would use no line break in a paragraph, and the editing/viewing window will automatically provide line wrapping for the paragraph of text.

With your trained eyes and good sense of UX, is there any reasonable rational that can be constructed to support either formatting style?

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I suppose that line breaks are (were?) meant to deal with email clients (local and web based) that did not wrap the text. However, I have no deeper knowledge in this area, thus no background for giving a real answer. –  Dominik Oslizlo Apr 7 '13 at 0:12
    
No exactly, it not only "deals with email clients that did not wrap the text.", but also provide shorter lines for easier reading. I actually don't know any clients that chops off or hide the rest for a long line. –  qazwsx Apr 7 '13 at 0:26
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I meant old times email clients, especially the text based ones. However, manually breaking text into lines also makes the text easier to read and, moreover, it makes the text wrapped the same way in different email clients. I have found a reference, though, stating that manul wraps are obsolete: campaignmonitor.com/blog/post/3780/… –  Dominik Oslizlo Apr 7 '13 at 0:32
    
Maybe interesting in this context: The format=flowed FAQ –  Marco Apr 7 '13 at 15:17

2 Answers 2

Manual line wrapping stems from the old days when editors were more "line based" and had no WYSIWIG features. You had to take care of formatting the text yourself. This meant manual line endings and adding empty lines to separate paragraphs.

With the advent of automatic line wrapping (and better/quicker) hyphenation to support it, life for text editor users became easier, though we still had formatting tasks in separating paragraphs of texts, paragraph headers etc.

The rise of WYSIWIG word processors meant all this manual control was no longer necessary, but many people are still in the habit of doing it. It is far quicker to add an empty line than to change the style for a paragraph to provide enough white space to separate them visually. And many people are of course used to some type of mark down editor (like the one used on SE) that still require empty lines to separate paragraphs.

UX-wise I'd say you need to support automatic line wrapping. If only to provide a better experience when entering text. I'd hate to have to go back to manual wrapping. It already irks me enough that I have to do this in the comments I write when coding and that I have to manually reformat the comments when adding or removing text. Plus, supporting automatic line wrapping does not make it impossible to do it manually...

Reading UX is another matter. Manually wrapped paragraphs have their formatting severely broken when viewed in a narrower screen. On the other hand auto-wrapped paragraphs become almost unreadable when viewed in wider screens because the line length increases indiscriminately and many people always have their forms maximized. Personally I find the broken formatting of manually wrapped paragraphs a bigger problem than the line length getting too long as the latter is easily fixed by resizing the window, while the first requires me to manually reformat the paragraph to get a better reading experience...

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Nice answer. Wouldn't the solution to wide screens be a max-width element in the line wrapping algorithm? –  JohnGB Apr 7 '13 at 11:19
    
@JohnGB Thanks. Yes, it would. Developers/designers just need to think of applying it and that's probably something they often forget... –  Marjan Venema Apr 7 '13 at 12:06

Reading lines that are very long is hard. So it's always wise to limit the column width to somewhere around 600 pixels wide (using a normal sized font). This goes for reading as well as writing of course, you need to be able to read what you write.

Some people want to have a lot of control over how what they write looks. Apparently some even go so far as to do their own wrapping. I don't see this as a question of needing to support one thing or the other. All modern clients properly wrap text and most pay attention to keeping the column within reasonable bounds.

I think you need to go over to these coworkers and talk to them about why they feel the need to put in all this effort. Perhaps they're still working on old knowledge and some education is in order: show them the futility of their manual wrapping by showing how their emails come out at the receiving end in a modern client. And try to find out if the editor they use to write their emails is doing something that doesn't support how they want to layout their emails.

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