Formatting and Visual Clarity

Visually appealing documents are easier to understand. Consider how your documents look: Layout, formatting, and visual aids can help you connect with your readers and better communicate your message.

On the six cards below, learn about how to use layout and formatting. You can flip the cards over to see more, too. The navigation bar above will stay with you, and you can click on it at any time to move to another topic.

Let them skim

Most readers will glance over a document before they start reading to try to find the information they're looking for. Their eyes will move quickly down the page, drawn to any visual clues about what's there.

Readers on the Web, in particular, will move on to something else if they don't find what they're looking for quickly. You can make your document more user-friendly by providing cues that promote skimming.

Sample of text formatted on a page.

Visual elements like bolded words, lists, and headers help readers skim over your document.

Skim this Web page. What elements catch your eye? How are those elements set off from other content on the page? Why is some content set off while other content is not?

People interacting with tablet computers.Thinkstock/shironosov

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

— Steve Jobs, inventor, entrepreneur

A visual aid should clarify

Sample of an infographic showing that about 1 in 9 youth or 11.4 percent of young people aged 12 to 25 used prescription drugs non medically within the past year.

Visual tools can help explain your content. (Flip for more examples.)

Infographics can provide a clear visual representation of data, relationships, or ideas.

Tables can make complex information easier to understand. They're useful for making comparisons and showing relationships without using a lot of text.

Lists group similar items. Lists are much easier for readers to skim than paragraphs. Numbered lists are ideal for items that are sequenced or ranked; other lists may be bulleted.

Other examples include inserts, charts, maps, and checklists.

Make sure the tool you use matches your content and the needs of your audience. You can't explain everything with a pie chart!

Make your organization clear

Show your readers how your document is organized. Headings help your readers scan your document to locate the information they need. In longer documents, add a table of contents at the beginning, too.

These devices improve readability because:

  • They make it easier for readers to find what they want.
  • They make your content less intimidating by dividing it into "chunks."
Thought balloons that say where? what? who? how? why? when?Thinkstock / Vlad Kochelaevskiy

There are several ways to write a heading:

  • Question. "What are the two types of breast reconstruction surgery?"
  • Phrase. "Two types of breast reconstruction surgery"
  • Declarative sentence. "There are two main types of breast reconstruction surgery."

What type of typography?

Typography refers to fonts and other visual elements in a document, such as bullets and italics.

Some styles of typography are easier to read than others. Choose a style based on readability, not fanciness.

Comparison of several decorative, serif, and sans-serif font styles for legibility.
The letters A, B, and C repeated in a block pattern.iStock/kjohansen

You can change the typography in your document to emphasize or set off certain words or phrases:

  • You can highlight key ideas in bold to catch the eyes of a skimming reader.
  • You can italicize new vocabulary words and underline the main part of a definition.

The importance of white space

Sample of a document making good use of white space.

White space in your document breaks up your text and makes it easier to understand.

You can create white space by providing adequate margins and space between sections. Headers and design tools like lists also create white space.

Where would you like to go next?

Ready to start writing in plain language? Download this checklist to refer to as you write.

This page last reviewed on August 4, 2015