The first step in creating a reader-friendly document is not writing style as many people would expect. It is the layout of the page or screen. If a document appears difficult to read because of the font, print density and lack of organization, you will immediately reduce its readability.
Based on research, reading tests and discussions within my writing workshops, here are some techniques I recommend to improve the readability of documents.
- Use a serif font, such as Times New Roman or Garamond, for body text. It helps readers’ eyes move faster thus improving readability. Most newspapers are written with a serif font. (Serif fonts have curls at the end of letters.)
If the document is a report or manual, change the headings and subheadings to a sans serif (without curls) font, such as Arial, Opus, or Verdana. You want to slow the reader down at these places. Never use more than two different fonts in a document.
- If the document is to be read mainly from a computer screen (an email or web document), use a sans serif font such as Arial. This is because it’s easier on the eyes. With screen documents, readers are reading light — not print.
- In terms of readability, most readers don’t like paragraphs longer than eight lines in a print document and longer than five lines in a screen document. Therefore, forget the academic rule of one thought per paragraph. It doesn’t work in the business world.
- One-line paragraphs are acceptable but make sure the sentence contains news you want the reader to focus on. It will get read. Don’t use too many one-line paragraphs on a page. This gives you what is called a “grey clouds” effect. It’s not good.
- Try to keep the first paragraph on a page short. This is a psychological technique. Most readers will read a short paragraph. Hopefully, you have made it interesting enough that the reader will continue with the rest of the page or screen.
- Indenting paragraphs is out of date in the business world.
- Writers love text that is justified on both sides. It looks attractive. However, skimmers tend to skip more sentences when the text is right justified. There is no place for their eyes to hook to the next line. Therefore, run a “ragged right” when doing letters, emails or reports.
- To make ideas look organized and to assist busy readers in finding key ideas, insert a “talking subhead” roughly every five paragraphs. Talking subheads tell a story. Think of them as similar to newspaper headlines.
- Readers love bulleted or numbered lists. However, there are rules to follow. Every list should be preceded by an introductory sentence. And every point within the list should be either a sentence fragment or a complete sentence. Never mix fragments and sentences. Semicolons are considered old fashioned with lists. Today, we place periods at the end of points that are sentences and omit punctuation after sentence fragments.
- Numbered lists convey the idea of a ranking with the first point seeming to be the most important. Bulleted lists convey the idea of an equal ranking. When it comes to lengthy lists, readers focus on the first four points and the bottom three. Try not to end with your weakest point.
- Always leave blank lines between paragraphs – especially in emails. It gives readers’ eyes a microsecond chance to rest and a microsecond chance to absorb the message.
- Bolding and italicizing are still popular. Underlining less so. (Sometimes, readers think an underlined word is a hyperlink.) But don’t overdo bolding and italicizing. You never want to produce a document that looks like a ransom note. Remember — the last words in paragraphs usually get read and remembered.
Jane Watson is a trainer, author, and consultant in the field of written business communications at Ontario Training Network.