Document Design for Readability

By Kelly Tabbutt

Photo by Kaushal Moradiya on Pexels.com

What Is Readability?

Readability refers to the ease with which your readers can read and understand a document. Making your document readable ensures that it can be comprehended easily, both visually and cognitively.

Improving the readability of your writing makes communication more effective. It ensures that your message will be better understood.

The most readable documents guide readers to the key points of the text, priming readers’ understanding along the way. Three keys to readability are short sentences and paragraphs, straightforward word choice, and visual organization. Keep reading for advice on ways to make your writing more readable by applying these principles to your writing.

1. Make Writing “Skimmable”

Your writing should be skimmable; that is, it should be easy to understand just from a quick scan of the page. Someone reading your writing should be able to get the main point just from reading a few sentences of intro and the main headings. Making your document skimmable increases its readability, upping the chances that someone will understand the message you are trying to communicate.

Authors often hope their audience will read their work completely, but that doesn’t always happen. Most people do not have time to read a long treatise on a subject, and may only have a couple of minutes to get the main takeaways from something they are reading. This is especially true and important when dealing with busy, important people such as policymakers, to whom you need to convey an impactful message, but have limited time (and words) to do so. So, write with these busy readers in mind.

You want to make sure that people who skim your writing understand your text’s main message. Headings and bullet points can make your document skimming-friendly and thus more digestible. Even those who read every word likely skim the document first to get an idea of what it is about.

Create a document that draws your reader’s eyes to the key ideas. Make sure that readers are not just presented with ideas, but also guided to understanding them.

Headings and subheadings

Headings and subheadings can be a great tool for skimming. They should show the reader what the main points of the article are. Headings (and subheadings) should provide the shortest summary – a few words, at most – of the main points discussed in that section. In this way, headings and subheadings prime the reader’s interpretation of the information. They also direct the reader to the key ideas in the discussion. Finally, headings are useful tools for jogging the reader’s mind, if they need to revisit the article later for key points.

Bullet points

Along with headings, judicious use of bullet points can also facilitate skimming. Bullet points provide both cognitively and visually digestible information. Essentially, these bullet points are slightly longer versions of headings – they provide a bite-size summary of the key points. Bullet points should only be used to emphasize the most vital information. They should also be used to convey information that does not require further explanation.

2. Guide Understanding through Emphasis

Emphasizing key ideas draws your reader’s attention during review or skimming. Introductions, conclusions, and stylistic markers are all means of emphasizing key ideas and shaping your reader’s understanding. Emphasizing key points draws your reader’s attention and primes them for comprehension. Finally, emphasizing key ideas also facilitates your reader’s memory by giving them digestible words or visual cues.

Introduction to prime the reader

Introductions are a form of signposting, informing your reader about the point of your writing. They prime your reader for what to pay attention to, and how to interpret its meaning. Introductions should offer a short statement expressing the significance of the topic(s) you will be discussing. If you have an easily-understandable, overarching key takeaway in your writing, include it in the introduction to guide the reader. Introductions should also include a “roadmap” explaining what you will talk about.

Visually emphasize key ideas

Beyond stating key ideas at the outset of your document (and building upon them or explaining them further later on), you can also choose to use visual emphasis by highlighting, bold-facing, or italicizing key words or phrases. Marking emphasis in this way can be a great tool to direct readers’ attention and make a document more readable. Using textual emphasis such as highlighting directs your reader to the most significant takeaways. It can also help show your reader how these ideas connect to the larger point. “Tagging” these concepts with visual emphasis also makes revisiting the text easier. Just make sure not to overdo it with the use of bold, highlight, or italics in the text, as that can become distracting and actually detract from the overall message.

Conclusions to tie it all together

Conclusions, like introductions, provide a summary of the key points and express the value of your topic. Unlike introductions, which serve to prime the reader, conclusions function to help the reader tie all the ideas together. Conclusions should provide the reader with a summative narrative that presents the main ideas as a coherent whole. Like introductions, conclusions should function as stand-alone, bite-size versions of the key points of the paper.

3. Don’t Overfill the Page

Readability for comprehension is about facilitating the reading process. Beyond making your writing “skimming-friendly” and editing your text so that your key ideas stand out, it is also vital to use white space wisely. Imagine a document without heading or paragraph breaks. This would be overwhelming for the reader. Breaking up sections signals shifts between major ideas and makes these ideas more visually and cognitively digestible.

Avoid long sentences and paragraphs

Vital to making your writing reader-friendly is to make your sentences digestible. Each sentence should present a single idea. Sentences should also be as short as possible. A good rule of thumb is that each sentence should be short enough to be spoken aloud without leaving the reader winded. Shorter sentences are not only easier to follow and quicker to read, but they are also easier to recall.

Break text into short sections

Like shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs are also easier to understand, read, and recall. More than that, breaking paragraphs apart into bite-size information chunks is also organizationally wise. Breaking up paragraphs creates white space which makes the document more appealing. It also makes the different sections of your writing easier to skim. Overall, creating shorter paragraphs facilitates organization and makes your writing less daunting visually.

Conclusion

Document design for readability increases the impact of your message by making it easier to understand. Readability is about making writing that your reader can easily follow, quickly and comprehensively digest, and easily recall. It is about not overwhelming your reader. Facilitating skimming, guiding understanding through textual markers, and wise use of white space all increase readability. Key to these techniques is a focus on directing your reader’s attention to the most important idea and guiding them toward understanding within and throughout your writing.

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