Quick tips for better looking documents

Use this checklist to help make your everyday work look more professional and easier to read

1 Avoid headings falling at the bottom of a page or column with little or no body text beneath. Aim for a minimum of three lines of text between heading and page bottom.

2 If a heading falls at the top of a page/column, make sure you lose the blank line that normally separates it from the preceding text

3 Avoid having only the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page/column. Edit the text to make it at least two lines, preferably three. Similarly, avoid having only the first line of a paragraph at the bottom of the page. Make it two or three lines, or pad the preceding text to push the start of the paragraph to the top of the page.

4 Avoid paragraphs in which the last line contains only one or two words. Edit the text to fill at least a third of the line or wrap back on to the previous line.

5 Paragraphs are an aid to reading. Don't make them too long. Do separate them visually by indenting first lines or increasing the line spacing between paragraphs. But only one or the other, not both.

6 Don't make body text too wide. Lines that are long in relation to font size or the gaps between lines are hard to read. Why? Because it is harder for the brain to keep track of where the eye is and where it should go next. And the more effort that has to put in, the less comfortable and receptive your reader will be, even if it is at a subconscious level.

7 Maintain consistency of writing style. Professional editors use stylesheets that set rules for things that are open to variation. For example, the stylesheet might specify that numbers up to ten are spelt out in full and figures used thereafter, except at the start of a sentence. It might say that book and other titles should be italicised, and that a 'onto' must always be 'on to', that it's always 'disk' rather than 'disc'... and so on, for several pages. You don't have to use those particular rules; the point is to have reasonable rules and to hold to them. Consistency lends itself to a clean, calm and convincing style. Inconsistency and ugly usages look amateurish and diminish credibility.

8 Use a spelling checker and pay attention to grammar and punctuation.

Test it and see

Don't believe it matters? Build a couple of documents with identical content. Deliberately commit all the sins mentioned above in one of them. Lay out the other strictly according to the guidelines. Print them out.

Now ask a bunch of people which version looks best at first glance. Ask them which job application would make the most favourable impression, which report they would be better disposed to, which magazine or brochure they would prefer to read.

Editing tricks

Publishing professionals routinely use little editing tricks to make text precisely fit a space and remove faults such as those described above.

To lose lines or shorten text:

  • Merge very short paragraphs
  • Condense/reword so that a paragraph becomes a line shorter

To gain lines or pad a short line:

  • Split long paragraphs, perhaps turning two longer paragraphs into three shorter ones.
  • Reword so that a paragraph becomes a line longer

You can also add, move or remove headings and tinker with the sizes of illustrations and text boxes.

And finally... adjust the margin size, text size or line spacing by a small amount. Small changes may not be perceptible but can make a significant difference to text length and the way it falls.

This approach is frowned on in professional publishing. Or worse than frowned on – depending on who you are working with and the level at which you are operating, this may be a real taboo.

For a letter or report or one-off brochure you do not need to apply the standards of a professional designer. Just ensure that you don't go too far and compromise appearance or readability, or introduce noticeable stylistic inconsistencies.

Footnote: Text in an HTML document will flow differently according to the browser and its settings. There is no point trying to perfect the final lines of paragraphs on the Web, as they may be presented differently on other computers.

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