One of the most frustrating challenges of lettering and calligraphy is producing a nice, well-balanced composition.

Have you ever wanted to throw your pen out the window when you try to center two different words on top of each other and it just doesn’t feel balanced?

How about that sinking feeling you get when you’re adding the final line and you realize that the word you’re writing is going to go too far to the right, resulting in a lopsided composition?

A lopsided composition

If so, this post is for you.

How to Center Your Work

Precise centering does not come natural, but once you deliberately practice centering your compositions, I can assure you that it does become easier.

After enough practice, you’ll be able to eyeball where you need to place your letters.

However, you won’t get to that point as quickly without a system. Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple system that will change the way you lay out your compositions from here on out.

Step 1: Dissecting Letter Widths

One of the most important things to keep in mind when centering multi-line compositions is that not every letter occupies the same amount of horizontal space.

Consider the following scenario:

You’re writing the phrase “light speed”. You plan to lay out your composition by stacking one word on top of the other, evenly centered. You write “light” on the first line. Then, you start writing “speed” directly underneath figuring both words will line up perfectly since each word contains 5 letters.

A lopsided composition that says Light Speed

As you can see, this is actually an incorrect assumption. Even though the words contain the same amount of letters, the letter themselves differ in size. As a result, the word “speed” occupies more space.

In studying the alphabet, you’ll find that you can place each letter into one of three distinct categories of width units:

  • 1.5 units: m, w
  • 1 unit: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, k, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, x, y, z
  • .5 units: i, j, l

The letters “m” and “w” are the widest letters in the alphabet, so they take up more space than any other letter.

Aside from these 2 wide letters and three thinner letters (“i”, “j”, and “l”), the rest of the letters in the alphabet occupy the same amount of space. Bottom line, the letters “m”, “w”, “i”, “j”, and “l” are the culprits that will throw your composition off balance if you don’t plan ahead.

Step 2: Determining Word Widths

Now that you understand how letter widths differ, you can use the unit system to accurately determine how much space each word in your composition occupies.

Going back to the example of “light speed”, we know “light” contains 2 thinner letters (“l” and “i”). If each of those letters represent a half of a unit, we know that “light” is 4 width units long. (.5 * 2 + 1 + 1 + 1). This makes a total of 4 width units.

“Speed” on the other hand only contains full unit letters and since it contains 5 letters, that makes it 5 width units.

Step 3: Laying out Your Composition

Now that we know that “light” is 4 units wide and “speed” is 5 units wide, we can confidently lay them out confidently knowing that there is a 1 unit difference between the 2 words.

This means that “speed” is going to start .5 units to the left of where “light” started.

A perfected centered composition that says Light Speed

Not so complicated, is it? The phrase “light speed” is a simple one used for demonstration purposes. However, the system scales flawlessly when you start to add more words and lines.

Don’t Overthink (Optional)

That’s really all there is to it. Of course, things might get a little more complicated when you begin factoring in flourishes, letter spacing, punctuation, or capital letters (you might find it more appropriate to group majuscules into a separate width unit system).

It’s up to you to decide how much planning you want to put into your piece. Every composition is uniquely organic, so it might be worth experimenting even if it means doing the piece over 2 or 3 times. On the other hand, if you want to systematize it even further and draw guides, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that either!

Personally, I like to plan the units mentally and get them on paper. If it turns out I need to refine my piece with a second iteration, then so be it. Practice makes perfect, right?