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  • Tom Brooksher

Writing Beyond Words

Which of the two documents below would you rather read: Document A (on the left) or Document B (on the right)?

Most people would say “Document B.” Of course, the difference is in the presentation. In Document A, other than the headline, everything seems to be of the same importance. As a reader, the only clues you're given to help you sort out the information being presented are:

  • the sequence of the material (in our culture, we expect to read left to right, top to bottom)

  • paragraphs (leading you to assume the words in each paragraph are somehow related)

  • the headline (which suggests the words summarize or introduce the rest of the information)

As a result, you have to work harder to interpret the information, and it will be much more difficult to go back later to find something you remember reading. Also, the expectation that it will take a lot of concentration to read and comprehend the material may dissuade you from reading it at all.

While Document B may not be as visually inviting as a well-designed web page or a spread in Architectural Digest, to most people it looks more engaging and provides many clues to help the reader interpret its meaning more easily—bullet points, a table, a numbered list and color in the headline. Simple stuff, but more helpful and informative than undifferentiated words.

Are you a helpful writer?

Now, before you dismiss this as obvious, go back and look at the things you’ve written this week—emails, reports, proposals, curriculum, etc.—and ask yourself: "What did I do to help the reader understand what I’m trying to communicate?"

Too often when we’re writing something, all of our effort goes to getting the words down. Unless we’re preparing an important report or a special document, we seldom think about helping the reader interpret the words more quickly and easily. But all the work we put into getting the words right will be lost if the document looks so dense and difficult to plow through that the reader moves on without reading it, or abandons it a few sentences in.

Use some visual clues

Visual clues and formatting also take some of the pressure off the words to convey all the meaning to the reader. A good novel may not need bullets, lists and tables to hold the reader’s attention, but few of us write well enough to depend on our words alone to pull a reader in and keep them engaged until the last period.

So, the next time you write something, think about the visual organization and presentation. You can go well beyond Document B with subheads, photos, diagrams, boxes, rules, judicious use of color for words as well as graphic elements, typefaces and typographical emphasis (bold, italic, etc.). Note our emphasis on the word “judicious.” Don’t overdo it with color, and stick to no more than two complementary typefaces unless there’s a very good reason for more. Also, avoid typefaces that are difficult to read, even if you’re feeling especially flowery that day.

I'd also recommend staying away from using all caps or underlining. Though it may seem counterintuitive, all caps are harder to read than upper-and-lower-case style. Research shows that we use the shape of words as clues to help us identify them, and writing in all caps takes away much of the variation in the word shape. Online usage has also come to associate all caps with anger and disagreement, which may confuse your message.

Online usage has also come to change the clue you receive from underlining words. Back in the days of typewriters, there were not many ways to emphasize words, and underlining them was common. In the online world, underlining most often is a visual clue that a word is hyperlinked to additional information. So you could be sending a mixed message.

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