Use layout to help readers grasp your messages quickly

Josh Wilson | July 21, 2022

A black and white dog jumps over a blue and white hurdle. A woman in the background runs alongside, directing the dog.

Use document layout to clear the first hurdle and help you make a good impression. Image by Ryan Pugh-Roberts / Unsplash Licence

You don’t get much time to make a good impression these days. Readers will judge your document on the way it’s presented long before they understand its main messages. You could have written fantastically engaging text, but if it doesn’t look inviting, you’re not clearing the first hurdle. Laying out your document well also makes it more accessible and clearer.

Read our blog post about how bad layout can lead to calamity

Make an impact with your document by using:

Contrast helps your readers navigate the document

Contrast and colour are important aspects of readability. Readers with colour blindness or limited vision can struggle with grey text or coloured backgrounds. We recommend sticking with black text on a white background unless you have a pressing need to do otherwise.

Contrast also involves giving your headings a visual hierarchy, so that readers can clearly see which ones are at a ‘higher level’. This will help headings stand out clearly from the body text, and from each other.

Learn to format your headings like a pro from our blog

Image displaying the difference between Title case and the different levels of headings

The heading sizes in this heading hierarchy are clearly different, allowing you to see the headings and their ‘levels’ immediately. Image by Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

Aligning text to the left makes it easier to read

Align text to the left. Justified text, which aligns to both sides of the page, is harder to read. This alignment creates lines of identical length by adjusting spaces between words. The adjusted spacing forces the eye to work harder, as readers don’t know exactly where the next word will start. It also causes unsightly ‘rivers’ where these uneven spaces line up vertically.

If you indent text, use the same indent throughout.

Diagram showing the difference between left-aligned text and justified text

The text on the left is easier to read because it is left-aligned text and gaps between words are consistent. The justified text on the right is more challenging because of unnatural spacing between words. Image by Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

Repetition makes your document look consistent

Help your readers grasp your information faster by repeating elements in your document. For example, use consistent bullet points, and the same font for the same type of information.

Repetition also helps your document look professional and cohesive. Cohesiveness is especially important in large documents with many contributors, such as proposals or annual reports. Without a consistent look, these documents can look ‘thrown together’.

Diagram showing the importance of having matching elements within each style

The example on the left uses the same font, colour, and indents. The example on the right uses different heading styles, indents, and bullet points. Image by Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

Proximity ties information together

Make it clear which parts of the document are related by keeping them close together. For example, keep headings close to the text they introduce, with more space above the heading than below. This stops the headings looking like they ‘float’ between paragraphs, and makes it easier for the reader to understand how the parts of the document relate to each other.

Diagram showing why it's important to keep text close to the heading it's related to

The proximity of the headings on the left helps readers see straight away what information is related. On the right, however, headings are too far away from the paragraphs, so these elements seem less related visually. Image by Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

Density keeps readers focused

Have you ever looked at a document that felt like a wall of text? That was because the text was too dense. This is where breaking up your document with some empty space comes in.

Aim to keep each paragraph to 6 lines or fewer. Aim to keep each line to a maximum of 15 words, fewer still on a webpage.

Image showing why it's better to break your text into short paragraphs than a daunting wall of text

The text on the left feels easier because it’s broken up into manageable chunks. The text on the right gives readers a lot of information without giving them a chance to catch their breath. Image by Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

If you follow all of these tips, you’ll create an inviting document that draws your readers in. After that, it’s much easier to get them to act on your messages.

Use our document layout checklist

Use our handy tips to ensure your documents have a polished look every time.

Download our free document layout checklist

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