Are Your Documents Reader Friendly?

Printer proofs for a catalog, presentation handouts from last night’s lecture, a white paper to proof on my morning commute...whatever became of the “paperless office”? The reality is that print on paper is still the chief means of communicating our ideas and business messages. Many times it is also the chief headache for those of us reading it. However, we have become so used to the abbreviated world of electronic writing that we don’t even stop to consider whether our printed documents are reader friendly.

Have you ever slogged through a manual that comes apart in your hands because a paper clip is all that’s holding its 20 pages together? Have your eyes felt 80 years old from trying to read type that is tiny and crammed on a page? And what about that document so illogically structured that you’re sure it was translated from Egyptian hieroglyphics? When those printed sins rear their ugly head, I entertain thoughts of drowning its creator in a bowl of alphabet soup!

Let’s examine the top 10 sins of the printed word, and ways to correct them to make sure your documents are read instead of tossed away:

  1. Too small type – this is the cardinal sin! Unless someone insists it MUST fit on a certain number of pages, don’t be afraid to use paper. Even with glasses, font sizes that are below 9 pt are hard to read. Depending on the font style go for something 10 – 12 pt. Your older readers will thank you.

  2. Too many font styles – All those fonts in your computer’s font list just begging to be used. But should you? Too many different styles are hard on the eye as one scans the pages. Stick with 2 styles: a serif and a sans serif. Use a third for special emphasis only.

  3. Not enough white space – One of my favorite TV shows, “Star Trek” had as its tagline “Space, the final frontier”.  They could have been talking about some of the documents that have crossed my desk. For some reason I haven’t been able to fathom, empty space in a document avoided at all costs. And the cost is to lose your reader. No one wants to read a page that is nothing but text. When your eyes have no place to rest it’s hard to keep concentrating on the content. White space, that empty space known as margins and as line breaks between paragraphs, gives your eyes a chance to pause.

  4. Graphics that break up the text or distract from it – I realize that not every document creator has a graphic artist at his or her disposal. So you use clip art or stock photos to illustrate your point. Nothing wrong with that. Just make sure you leave...white space...around your graphic, that you don’t overload the page with too many graphics (remember that old saying, a picture is worth a thousand words? “a picture” not many), and that the graphics you use truly add to and not subtract from the meaning of your text.

  5. Too long or too short paragraphs – E-mail and IM has created the short word and the abbreviated sentence. Great for those mediums but not the printed page. Cutting verbiage that adds nothing is always a good practice, but paragraphs are usually 2 or more sentences. Why else would we call it a “Paragraph”?

  6. Over use of jargon and acronyms – Less is more. Especially if you are writing for readers outside of your industry. And always define your acronyms the first time you use them. (This is the sin that I call the alphabet soup syndrome)

  7. Poor Table of Contents or none at all – Any document that has many sections could benefit from a table of contents. It gives your reader an overview when the document is opened, and it allows the reader to chose where to go first by need or curiosity. OK, don’t go overboard and create one for a single page or 2 page document. But if you are finding yourself lost in your document trying to locate a section, create a table of contents! Last word on this: Make your entries descriptive of your section’s contents.

  8. A useless Index – To index or not to index that is the question! Index creation is an art. I find nothing more irritating than documents that have an index, promising me the ability to locate specific topics, then when I check the index it is sparse and very poorly crafted. If you don’t know how to create an index that adds value, then don’t or else find someone who knows how.

  9. Poor binding – The paper clip, the clasp, the staple...which one should I use? Rule of thumb: If it’s going to fall apart as you are trying to read it, go for the next method. Paper clips are great for 2 – 5 pages, staples for maybe 10, clasps – stay away from them. You usually have to take them off to turn the pages and that means your pages can go flying to the floor. Spiral bind, punch hole bind, or for really large document, professionally bind. 

  10. No page numbers – So what do you do if that paper clip slips off and the pages aren’t numbered? Every word processing program has made this function easy to carry out, so don’t cut corners, your reader will appreciate this detail more than you can imagine.

You can have the best offer, the greatest ideas, but if your document commits any of those 10 sins, it could wind up in the circular file. Eliminate those sins before they cost you wasted time and money. Remember it’s not just what you say (the contents) but how you say it (the format) that gets your message read!


                                                                                                                         © 2006 Leona M Seufert