Software

Five tips for avoiding Ugly Document Syndrome

Whether you're generating an internal memo or a lengthy report for national distribution, your message may be lost if the document is shoddy-looking or difficult to read. These basic design tenets will help ensure polished pages.

Tastes differ, conventions vary, and the purpose of a particular document is likely to influence its appearance -- but certain design principles are immutable. Or they should be. Here are five problems that commonly plague Word documents -- and how you can avoid them and improve the effect.

1: Too many fonts

Just because we have access to a zillion fonts these days doesn't mean we need to throw them all together in one document. Select an attractive, easy to read, readily supported font and stick with it. (Hint: Comic Sans is generally not a good choice for a serious business document.)

If you want to set some text elements apart from the body text of the document, it's okay to use a second font. For instance, you may want to use a sans serif font, such as Arial or Calibri, for your body text and a serif font (such as Times New Roman or Cambria) for titles and heading text. (There's a general rule claiming that sans serif fonts are easier to read online and serif fonts are easier to read in print, but Word's built-in styles seem to flout that notion.)

Some folks will argue that it's possible to comfortably blend several more fonts in a document -- to which I'd counter, why bother? Unless you're creating a brochure and using varied typefaces to drive its design (or creating marketing copy and using varied typefaces to drive your readers into a font-drunk purchasing frenzy), extra typefaces will only detract from the effect and readability of your documents.

2: Erratic font size

Along the same lines, it's a good idea to use a consistent scheme for the size of your text. For example, your body text might be 10 points, with primary headings that are 14 points and secondary headings that are 12 points. Don't stray from your standard scheme and arbitrarily (or inadvertently) allow some text to be larger or smaller than the same type of text elsewhere in your document. Using Word's built-in styles, or creating and applying your own, will help keep size (and other attributes) consistent.

3: Dense text

Even the most stalwart reader is going to be put off by a page that's a solid wall of text. You might need every word of that text in the document, but if you don't make it more palatable, few people will consume it. Basic readability suggests the use of headings and subheadings, which break up the page and serve as friendly design elements. Good headings also act as signposts that help readers navigate through the text.

In addition, consider various ways to add white space -- such as between paragraphs -- to lighten the text burden. This is easiest to do using Word's Before and After options in the Paragraph dialog box. It's better to add space via those settings than to randomly hit [Enter]. Empty paragraphs scattered throughout a document make it harder to control or modify your layout.

Another trick is to increase the space between lines of text (via the Line Spacing options in the Paragraph dialog box). And you might try increasing the size of your left and right margins to reduce the text area on the page. Shorter lines generally enhance readability.

4: Overuse of font styles

Overusing font styles, such as italics, bold, and underlining, make documents ugly and hard to read. In fact, any formatting that differs from surrounding text can potentially distract or trip up your readers. Used with great restraint, those formats can provide clarity and emphasis. For instance, book titles are traditionally italicized to identify them as book titles. But the constant or haphazard use of these formats (or all caps or quotation marks, for that matter) will make your document look messy and detract from your message.

5: Crowded page elements

You can improve document design by adding a variety of graphic elements, from simple bulleted lists and tables to pictures, charts, and photographs. But it's easy to go overboard with these flourishes. The goal is to reduce clutter, make the information accessible, and make the page more inviting. Be conservative in your use of these kinds of elements and give their placement on the page careful consideration. You want sufficient space around them. (Word's text wrapping options can usually help here.) And be on the lookout for any collateral weirdness, like text that's been squeezed into a narrow column or bad line breaks.

Other concerns

I've focused on the design angle here to highlight problems that make documents look ill-conceived or carelessly thrown together. But your discerning readers are going to jump on other inconsistencies, stylistic issues, and errors in content as well. For example, documents often include titles, headings, labels, captions, and terms within body text that don't follow any standards of capitalization. That doesn't suggest much attention to detail, and it might make readers question the legitimacy of the material in the document. You're better off finding some guidelines on capitalization and sticking to them.

Some old-school readers will judge you because you used a single space after punctuation. Supporters of the prevailing one-space standard will criticize you for using two. Regardless of your stance, try to stick with one or the other.

And typos, misspellings, and grammatical mistakes are all waiting in ambush. These articles may help:


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About

Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

12 comments
stapleb
stapleb

As an older person who produced documents on a typewriter, the supply of fonts initially became a "wonderful toy". With even a limited artistic soul, the temptation became almost too much to bear. One look at the mess I had created was enough to stop me. Thank goodness for Ctrl + Space to remove all character formatting. I also believe that we have forgotten how to be succinct. In a world where we are time poor, clear, concise documents will get the message across. Too much information is enough to turn off many a reader, and where does that leave the author.

Excelmann
Excelmann

Bag the Calibri, Times New Roman, and Cambria. Verdana is much easier to read. At size 10, its letters are the same size as the other fonts at size 12. Try it. In Excel, it makes your work visually appealing.

a.portman
a.portman

"There?s a general rule claiming that sans serif fonts are easier to read online and serif fonts are easier to read in print, but Word?s built-in styles seem to flout that notion" Until my paycheck has "Bill Gates" on the signature line, Word is a default not a guide. Choose a font set that you find readable online and one for paper. If you make a few changes in a blank Word document and then save a s normal.dot, you will have those same changes available every time you open word. Fonts I stay away from: Times New Roman, Arial, and Comic Sans. Fonts I like: The Lucinda family, Verdana, Bookman Old Style, Century Schoolbook and Century Gothic. BOLD and Italics are for EMPHASIS. If you are bolding more than one or two sentences per page, maybe you should rethink your message. Also, be consistent with emphasis. Don't bold some things and italicize others. AND IF YOU GOT THIS FAR, I SHOULDN'T HAVE TO TELL YOU WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS SENTENCE.

NexS
NexS

I relate to point 5 particularly. Take, for example, this forum; Some questions have no paragraph placements/breaks and I am put off almost completely. As another point of interest, these tips also can translate to webpages to a certain degree. I have seen some dreadful websites in my searches...

SirWizard
SirWizard

I'm a Technical Writer, and even if Bill Gates signed my paycheck, I'd still use my own well-formatted document styles rather than the oddments in default Word templates. Microsoft software designers don't always have a sound idea of what goes into good writing--or good software. [My usual rant against the ribbon (scion of infernal demons) begins and ends here for this discussion.] The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications defines (usually well thought out) rules and details for good writing, especially technical writing. Yet I often see Microsoft messages and dialog boxes that flout both the details and basic sense of their own corporate standards. Why don't the people at Microsoft follow their own rules that recommend, for example, against filling a dialog box with bad news and placing a button labeled, "OK" as the only control, when the content is clearly NOT okay. I'd be astounded to see Microsoft software that followed recommended corporate formatting and labeled a bad-news box with a "Close" button. By the way, the choice of serif vs san-serif is less about the medium and more about line length. Serifs help the eye stay on track while reading long lines. If the lines are short, whether on the web or in print, san-serif fonts generally are readable enough and provide a clean look. In long lines, even on the web, serif fonts generally are easier to read. Any preeminence of san serif on the web is probably because a reader can zoom in for reading, which is much harder to do with printed text.

Rick_from_BC
Rick_from_BC

If you are using Word's styles, you have access to a great organizational tool: outline mode. Using outline mode, you will see your heading styles indented and thus much easier to check for consistency of form and general content. You can move subheadings to higher or lower levels, and moving the headings in outline mode will take along the body text as well, allowing you to easily re-arrange your document for increased clarity.

NexS
NexS

I'm not a Blogger for TR. I merely replied to Jody Gilbert's article before anyone else. My post was my own thoughts on the article, just as your post was your thoughts on the article.

Rick_from_BC
Rick_from_BC

I thought your article was about making written work look better and read well. I use almost everything you proposed in the article, and have found that using another view (in this case - outline) helps me get a better article. I guess I agreed strongly with your article, and my enthusiasm carried me beyond the borders of your scope.