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Evaluate Your Writing: Formatting

Posted on: July 12, 2009

When you evaluate your document, ask yourself if its appearance helps your customers easily learn what they need to know, or whether it makes their job harder (or even impossible). Formatting affects how your customers perceive your product.

Bad formatting (on a printed or a web page) tends to push the reader away, while an attractive layout and legibility pull the eye through the text and graphics.

In many cases, depending on the document and its purpose, you will need to work with a good graphic artist. After all, the writer and the graphic artist each have different talents, and both make important contributions to the overall success of a document.

When you check page layout, look at each page with a critical eye, and put yourself in the reader’s shoes: Does material crowd the page? Or make generous use of “white space” (margins)? Is there enough space between lines and paragraphs? Pages should not look like a binary stream.

As a rule of thumb, call out key ideas as headings, and limit supporting paragraphs to six to eight lines. Put procedural steps in a numbered-list format. Help the reader by highlighting important points.

Select a typeface that is appropriate for your medium (print or online, for example) and your audience. Be sure the print quality is readable, so that readers will be able to easily see the typeface you choose  — if you have ever tried to read very light or smudgy text, for example, you know what I mean.

Figures, tables and other artwork should be located as near as possible to the corresponding body text and, in most cases, should be numbered and captioned.

If you or your reviewers notice these (and similar) problems in the evaluation phase of a project, then it’s time to revise the “look and feel” of the document. No matter how great the content, it’s just got to have “curb appeal.” The right appearance can make all the difference in the world.

By the way, whenever you find a document that contains appealing, well-formatted pages, make a copy of a page or two and save them in a file. It won’t be long until you have a stash of handy formatting ideas ready and waiting for your next writing project.

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