Posted December, 3, 2019
The most effective document or message is one the reader can consume and absorb quickly and accurately. Yet, the actual writing – the content itself – is only one part of creating clear, effective communications. Writers can produce the most grammatically correct, impactful, and cogent content and still fail to produce the desired results, if the writing is presented in a way that makes it difficult to read.
For example, solid blocks of text are reader unfriendly.
Lengthy, unbroken sections of text are difficult for the eye to parse, and readers often end up skimming or even skipping such content. And readers definitely prefer document layouts that are more visually appealing. For instance:
- Adobe, the company behind the PDF format, found that nearly two out of five (38%) people will simply stop engaging with website content if either the copy or the layout is unappealing.
- The Nielsen Norman Group found that people look at lists with bullets more often (70% of the time) than lists without bullets (55%).
Reading is tiring, and readers will minimize how much they do.
Reading consumes brainpower. On a biological level, that means calories, so people are hardwired to take shortcuts in their information consumption. That’s partly why people scan content so much: they’re looking for quick visual cues highlighting important information rather than diving into deep focus for extended periods. So, make writing easy on the reader by using visually appealing formatting that helps the reader focus on the most important information. That effort may include:
- Shorter paragraphs
- Heading and subheadings
- Bulleted lists
- Boldface, italics, and links
- Callout quotes
- Visual imagery
A couple of warnings though:
- Know your audience. While the average consumer is going to be attention-challenged and will skim or scan rather than deeply read most documents, certain populations may be used to – and may expect and require – longer, in-depth texts.
- Don't overdo it. Formatting should not come at the expense of coherency or professionalism. Formatting, layout, and visual elements do more than just make information easier to consume; they themselves communicate something about your organization.
In this article, for example, we’ve used headers, short paragraphs, bullet points, bolded text, and hyperlinks. However, we also had to strike a balance to make sure we got all the salient information into the available space in a coherent and informative way.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations. Links: Adobe, Nielsen Norman Group