Think long-term and be kind to readers with well-formatted documents

It’s something of a paradox. But the space you leave blank in your documents matters.  Compare these two forms discussed in an article about the importance of white space by the Nielsen Norman Group. (They help clients make users of their websites, applications, and products happier.) As the article says,

The recreated Walgreens.com registration form (right) is easier to complete than the original (left) because related fields are grouped together, making it seem like 3 short forms.

Source: Nielsen Norman Group based on a Walgreens web form

Source: Nielsen Norman Group based on a Walgreens web form

Now you may say that the difference between the two forms is too small to worry with. But, if your reader has to stop to think about what you mean or what to do, they may quit reading.  Small changes matter when you’re competing for readers’ attention with everything else available to them!

If your audience must read your document, then you haven’t been kind. And they’ll reciprocate. Trust me.

White space — along with other categories of document format like typeface — is briefly explained in Chapter 10 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to identify and fix problems with document format. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with helpful resources.

Sample Document

Review the glossary on page 6 of this technology consultant’s report. The document was created by me based on a sample from David A. McMurrey’s Online Textbook for Technical Writing to show ineffective formatting.

  • Writer: a technology consultant
  • Readers: managers for the client, a brewing company
  • Bottom line message: a specific product is recommended for the company’s use

Here’s a revised version of the glossary, with more effective format.

 

Video Tutorial

The glossary (along with other examples from the consultant’s report) is included in this ~13-minute video about format in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with format . Just enter “format” or more specific terms (e.g., typeface or white space) in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, there is a wealth of possibilities. You might begin investigating with the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Reichenberger et al. (1995). Effective presentation of information through page layout: A linguistically-based approach. Proceedings of ACM Workshop on Effective Abstractions in Multimedia, Layout and Interaction, San Francisco, California.

Riley & Mackiewicz (2010). Visual composing: Document design for print and digital media. Prentice Hall Press.

Schriver (1997). Dynamics in document design: Creating text for readers. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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