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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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.

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