Tips for formatting your Word documents
First impressions count and we base our initial judgement of how easy a business document will be to read based on the way it looks.
Strict length requirements sometimes encourage writers to do crazy things to the layout such as reduce the font size and change the margins. I have seen a two-page risk paper with just one heading, numbered paragraphs and no line spaces. It was impossible to read.
Tips for formatting your Word documents include:
- Use templates
- Create balance through white space
- Choose the best tools for your message
- Use bold, italics and underlining appropriately
- Use initial capitals sparingly and consistently
- Use consistent and modern styles
Templates are useful for branding and they provide a consistent reading experience for your readers.
Use your organisation’s templates
Most organisations have templates that you must use – even if you don’t like them, you shouldn’t change them. That includes using your organisation’s preferred fonts, margins, justification and colour palette.
Develop your own templates
For most internal documents, you can create your own Word templates and set heading styles using Microsoft Styles – a Google search will show you how to do this.
For external documents, you may wish to use online graphic design tools such as Canva or Easel, or hire a designer (my preference). Some people also use Fiverr or UpWork for cost-effective design services.
If you are developing your own templates, consider:
- Fonts and font sizes
- Hierarchy of headings
Fonts and font sizes
If you are setting up your own templates, consider what fonts and sizes to use – Arial and Calibri are common in business documents. Many organisations use the Microsoft default for line spacing (leading) between sentences, but some writers are now using 1.5 line spacing.
In the past, many organisations used Times New Roman because it is a serif font and serif fonts are easier for prolonged reading. I seldom see Times New Roman used today because it doesn’t look modern.
If your documents are going to be read online in PDF form, you may wish to use a different font. For instance, in this template that I had professionally designed, I am using Franklin Gothic Body, a sans serif font.
Hierarchy of headings
If you’re using your organisation’s templates, the hierarchy of headings should be set for you.
If you are developing your own templates or having them designed for you, I suggest you set styles for three levels of headings. Colour helps distinguish between heading levels, but they should still be obvious if printed in black and white.
I am not crazy about headings in italics or underlined because they are harder to read. I used to dislike headings in full capitals for the same reason, but have relented on that because they can create variety and help distinguish between levels.
The argument about whether to make text justified (both sides of the text are even) or unjustified (the right side is ragged, like this page) continues to rage. I prefer unjustified text for internal documents because justified text can create large spaces between words. It’s different, of course, if a designer is laying out your work in design software, such as InDesign, but most of us are not writing documents using design software.
The Australian government style guide, Style manual: For authors, editors and printers (John Wiley & Sons, 2002, sixth edition), recommends left-aligned and right-ragged stating:
In terms of readability, there is little difference between unjustified text and carefully formatted justified text. In fact, most readers will not notice until asked, and then their preference is usually for justified text because it looks ‘neater’.
In spite of this, unjustified text is generally not recommended because there is no completely satisfactory typesetting program for desktop production that automatically produces justified text with even word spacing. Preparation of satisfactory justified text requires a considerable amount of design and editorial intervention.
If you work in an organisation, stick to your organisation’s colour palette. Many organisations also have branding guidelines.
My only advice on colour is to keep it simple so your content is the hero of your document.
Create balance through white space
The easiest way of creating balance on a page is to have an attractive amount of ‘white space’. Whatever your length restrictions, white space is a necessity, not a luxury. Take a look at a page of dense text with no subheadings, and it looks dense and difficult to read.
You can create white space by having short paragraphs and subheadings. Your template may dictate your main headings, but most templates allow you to use subheadings.
Use short paragraphs to create white space
Short paragraphs not only look more attractive; they are also easier to read. As Jason Fried, software entrepreneur and author, says:
Short paragraphs get read, long paragraphs get skimmed, really long paragraphs get skipped.
The length of your paragraphs will vary depending on the formality of your writing. More formal writing tends to have slightly longer paragraphs than informal writing. In academic writing, I hear of paragraphs being up to 10 lines, but in business writing, I am not seeing many paragraphs longer than six lines. Of course, there are always exceptions, and occasionally a longer paragraph may be appropriate.
Use one-sentence paragraphs occasionally
Some people were taught at school never to write a one-sentence paragraph, but they are useful at times. For example, you may want to emphasise a point, or comment briefly on a graph or table.
You wouldn’t want a whole page of a Word document consisting of one-sentence paragraphs – unless it was a page of instructions – because the page would look bitsy. In emails, however, all paragraphs can be single sentences and they look fine.
Number your paragraphs?
Some templates have numbered paragraphs. The rationale is that if the document is being discussed, then the numbers are useful. Even if the paragraphs are numbered, there should still be some space between them. (I often see numbered paragraphs with no spacing!)
Vary the opening words of your paragraphs
If the opening words of several consecutive paragraphs are the same, it is visually distracting, and you know before reading a word that the document will not flow well.
We all fall into writing habits, and often writers are not aware that they are using the same words. A common culprit is ‘The’.
Use subheadings to act as signposts
Subheadings break up the text and provide signposts for the paper. Effective subheadings are short and use specific, key words. A reader should be able to skim-read the subheadings and get an overview of the content.
Within some sections of your document, you may want to use the same structure for subheadings and a quick visual check will pick up inconsistencies.
Use title case or sentence case for headings?
The modern style for headings is sentence case rather than title case.
In title case, all the main words take initial capitals and the small, joining words are in lower case. In sentence case, you just need initial capitals for the first word and proper nouns.
Title case: How to Punctuate
Sentence case: How to punctuate
This style is in keeping with the trend towards using fewer initial capitals to signify respect, for example, the bank rather than the Bank
Choose the best tools for your message
Your choice of prose (paragraphs and sentences), lists or a visual, such as graph, table or image, should be dictated by your message and your audience. Many people prefer visuals, but there may also be readers who would rather read prose. You need to cater for both. That does not mean repeating verbatim what is in the visual, but rather providing succinct commentary.
Use a balance of prose and lists
In my opinion, a mix of prose and lists works well in most documents. Prose is useful for stating opinions and developing a logical argument, and lists are useful for backing up statements, and for conveying factual information. Some organisations tend to develop a preference for prose or lists, but you need both in your writing toolkit.
Make your lists short and to the point
Tips for creating attractive and easy to read lists include:
- Keep your lists short. People tend to skim-read long lists. If you have a large number of points, break them into categories.
- Make your first few words count, so someone running their eyes down the list knows what the list is about.
- Use consistent punctuation in your lists. I have written a blog on this topic.
Make your visuals easy to read and integrate them with your text
Data in tables and other visuals (e.g. images, charts, diagrams) must be legible. That sounds obvious, but I have seen small font used to squeeze in as much information as possible. I’ve also seen several tables on the same page with no prose. In one board paper, I saw all the tables in one section, and all the commentary in the next. This was visually unattractive, and also meant that you had to go back and forth to make sense of the information.
Too often, visuals appear to be plonked at random on a page with no context. You can integrate your visuals into your text by:
- Alerting your reader with a sentence or two that the visual is coming up
- Writing a clear title for the visual
- Providing brief commentary about the relevance of the visual
Use bold and italics when appropriate
Bold is the most common form of highlighting for headings and subheadings. You can also use bold to highlight key words, but I would use this technique sparingly. But bolding key words at the beginning of some lists or paragraphs can work well.
For example, here are a couple of points Pamela Wilson, Rainmaker Digital, makes about your visual call to action:
Make it larger and bolder. Look at the size of your body text. For your call-to-action headline, use at least subhead-size text. For the body copy where you share details of your offer, consider using larger-than-usual text, or making it bold. Warning: it will not be subtle and beautiful like the rest of your page. And that’s a plus.
Surround it with space. Be careful not to bury your call to action inside your page copy. Add space above, below, and to the left and right of your call to action so it floats in the middle of open white space. Doing this will put your call to action on a visual pedestal and help it stand out.
Use italics for the titles of books, plays and movies. In Australia, we use italics for full titles of Acts of Parliament, but subsequent mentions without the date don’t need italics.
Energy Efficiency Opportunities Act 2006
Avoid using italics for large chunks of text as they are hard to read. If you wish to quote a large amount of material, either use quotation marks or indent the text as a block quote and use a slightly smaller font. If you indent text, you do not need to use quotation marks as well.
Today, underlining is mainly used for hyperlinks. Avoid using underlining for headings as it cuts off the bottom of letters and makes the writing harder to read.
Use initial capitals sparingly and consistently
The overuse and inconsistent use of initial capitals is rife in business writing. We need initial capitals for titles, proper nouns and defined terms, but many writers use initial capitals for generic words, such as ‘call centres’ and ‘strategy’. The problem is compounded by inconsistent use – ‘call centre’ on one page and ‘Call Centre’ on the next.
Although the unnecessary use of initial capitals is one of my pet hates, I am aware that the battle about some initial capitals is not worth fighting. For example, I have never worked with an organisation that uses a lower case b for the ‘board’.
Use consistent and modern styles
The eye is drawn to spaces and that includes spacing between sentences. The modern style is one character space between sentences, not two. Two spaces hark back to typewriter days, but some people insist two spaces looks better. Whatever your personal opinion is, one space is here to stay. Style manual says:
In typewritten (as distinct from typeset) material, it was customary to place two spaces after a colon, semicolon, full stop or other sentence-closing punctuation. Programs for word processing and desktop publishing offer more sophisticated, variable spacing, so this practice of double spacing is now avoided because it can create distracting gaps on a page.
There is no universal agreement on all styles. For instance, Australia and New Zealand use the international date style (5 February 2018) and the US and the media put the month before the day (February 5, 2018).
To complicate matters, styles are not static and some evolve over time. For example, traditionally there was a space between the number and abbreviation for time (6 pm), but many writers now close this gap (6pm). What’s your preference?
Consistency is paramount. Glancing over someone’s shoulder at a workshop, I saw millions referred to differently in the same sentence ($6m and $6M). I immediately made a judgement about the quality of that document!
When you design with words, the content shines.
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