Effective layout and formatting make documents easier to scan, read and use. Effective document layout improves your reader’s first impression of the document, expectations, ability to quickly and easily find what they need; and their ability to use what they found.
7 Steps to Clear, Useful Documents
- Write and edit your content.
- Then review your document, looking for places where lists will increase clarity and decrease word count. Insert as necessary.
- Review again. This time you’re looking for places where a table, image or link can replace a lot of text. Can any content be moved to an appendix in the back of the document?
- Add headings and other text treatments such as bolding, color or italics to increase scanability and guide the reader.
- Now it’s time to layout the document. Use lots of white space. (White space is the blank parts of a document that directs readers and lets them rest their eyes.) Use large margins, and break up big chunks of text by including space between paragraphs and around headings. Avoid clutter by using clear, simple fonts, and only images and graphics that present information efficiently. If you feel that arrows, lines or boxes are necessary, use the fewest possible. Don’t depend on them to fix unclear writing; if something is confusing, edit the text.
- Test your document. Ask 1-5 people who are typical of your reader to read your document, or one section if it’s long. Ask:
- Did they want to read it/expect it to be useful?
- What was clear; what was confusing?
- Was it useful/informative/interesting?
- Review & refine. What can you add, remove or change to make your document even more approachable and useful?
Make Tables More Useful
- Lighter, thinner lines and borders are usually better. Let your readers see the content first, not the lines.
- Organize rows and columns in a logical progression.
- Group related columns as appropriate.
- Row and column titles should be brief, informative and clear.
- Make the row and column titles visually different from the rest of the table. They might be bigger, bold, or a different color.
- Keep the contents of each cell brief. (Overly large tables are unusable.) Place extra information in a separate table, at the back of the document, or in a different document.