Business English Quick Tips: text layout

Business English Quick Tips

Quick tips to help you write better for business

If you need to write for your job or business in English, these quick tips will help you succeed…

Before anyone angles a finger at me and says, “what on earth are you talking about?” I must make the point that text layout, despite the fact that some people feel it’s not as important as making the key verbal points in text, is – really – important.

Why? Because the way in which your readers perceive your text – whether it’s on paper or online – can, and does, influence the way people read and understand it, and perhaps even more to the point, indicates to readers what points are more important than others.

The key elements of text layout

Laying out text – whether in a document or an online manifestation – is not difficult. All you have to do is ask yourself how the options available to you for layout can be used to support your text to the best advantage.

What you don’t want to do, however, is overuse different fonts, type sizes, etc. All this achieves is to complicate your text and possibly make it harder to read and understand. Considering the fact that somewhere around 99 percent of online communication is text-based (never mind that substantial amount of communications which are still print based) how it’s laid out really does matter, and too much variation in layout styles is as bad as not enough.

It’s important to understand, too, that many people reading your text won’t read it all word for word – at least not to begin with, anyway. What they do – especially, but not exclusively, online – is to scan through it, picking up on points you have emphasised. Then, if they are sufficiently interested, they will tend to go back to the beginning and read through all of it.

So not only does a good layout help your audience read your text more easily; it also may help sell them on your idea, product, service, or whatever.

What works

Bold type. If done sparingly, putting certain words and phrases in bold will attract the reader’s eye to the elements you want to emphasize.

Indented first line of a paragraph. Some people indent each and every paragraph even if it consists of one short sentence; personally I think that can look messy. However if your paragraphs are quite a bit longer, an indented first line helps to locate the reader in time and space.

Cross headings (sub-headings). There is nothing harder to read than long blocks of uninterrupted text, even if paragraphs do start with an indented line. Cross headings serve two purposes; one, they break up the text into more visually digestible chunks and two, they can be used as a means of getting over key points. This latter benefit means that if you use, say, 7 cross headings throughout your text which in sequence tell the bare bones of your story, you can focus the reader’s attention on your core message even if they don’t read the small print. If you don’t want to write the cross headings in the first instance, you can pick out key sentences and use those. They should be at least in bold in your main body text font, or bold in a few
point sizes larger, pulled out visually so they look like headings (see below).

White space and simple fonts. Especially now that the majority of text in business is read on a screen, cluttered, wall-to-wall text can be hugely irritating. Make sure that you use fairly wide margins, 1.5 spacing if you can, and a decent, readable font. This is particularly important when your text may be read on small handheld smartphones and other dinky devices. They may be boring, but fonts like Arial and Times New Roman are universal and translate into readable prose in all but the most obscure email clients and readers.

Pull quotes. These are often used in newspapers and online news features and consist of a sentence or two short sentences pulled out visually from the main text, almost as an illustration. They work quite nicely to emphasise key points as long as you only include one, or maybe two in a long section of text. Most blogging systems have a pull quote feature whereby you highlight the section of text in question and then click the tab.

Bullet points. Useful to break up lists within long text sections, but don’t use too many.

What doesn’t work

Underlining. Using this to create emphasis just seems to clutter things up, especially on a screen – and don’t forget that an underline in online text often indicates a link, which just adds to the confusion. It’s better to use bold for emphasis (and not too much of it, either.)

Capital letters. Obviously you’ll use capital letters in their grammatically correct form (see Day 5) but never use them to create whole words and sentences as a means of attracting attention or emphasis. At best this looks amateurish, and at worst you’ll be accused of “shouting” – a real no-no in terms of internet etiquette. The only exception here might be if you’re working with a plain text only set-up that doesn’t offer a bold facility or different font sizes – then all you have to work with as a headline and cross heading style is all caps.

Different font sizes in body text. You may think that you can emphasise a word in a paragraph by bumping up its font size, but believe me it looks weird, even if you put it in bold as well.

Long paragraphs. Whether online or offline, long paragraphs are awkward and tedious to read. Break them into shorter ones. Unlike essay writing for school or university where you have to keep all information pertaining to each key point in one droning, never-ending paragraph, the business world is much more sensible. The easier your text is to read, the more likely you are to gain your readers’ approval.

For a really useful 200-page guide to business writing in English, check out “Business Writing Made Easy” – you’ll find it very, very helpful! Click here

And for something a bit different, try the exercises associated with this article in my “30 Day Business Writing Challenge” – Click here

More in a few days … and if you have any questions about business writing in English please add them here in the comments section; I will try to answer them as well as I can!

Suze

photo credit: Robbert van der Steeg via photopin cc

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