Tips for writers: Writing reports part 1. How to improve visual appearance

In their headlong rush to communicate as much information and data as possible to their readers, many authors of reports often neglect to pay sufficient attention to how they communicate the facts and figures to their audience. Some of the factors that lead to poor-quality output include:

  • cluttered and fussy visual appearance
  • inconsistencies of style
  • poor presentation of data.

In this first part I will concentrate on visual appearance.

Visual appearance

An easily readable document is vital – it gives the impression of good organization and that you have set out your points and arguments clearly, that you are professional, clear thinking, and authoritative. This can be achieved through:

Margins

Leave wide margins so that is plenty of ‘white space’. This will focus attention on the text. Use an unjustified (unaligned) right-hand margin, which makes the text look friendlier and approachable, and avoids the problems of wide word spacing and end-of-line word divisions that can occur with justified (aligned) text.

Spacing

Consider using one-and-a-half or two-line spacing – the less text there is on a page the easier the reader can concentrate on it.

Headings

Use these to break up the page into smaller chunks for reading. If the reader is short of time they can skim the document to get the gist, or just concentrate on those sections they are interested in. They also help the reader refer back to a previous section to clarify a point. Also use subheadings whenever it would be useful.

Sections

In a long and complicated document, it is often useful to summarize each section rather than have one gigantic summary at the end of the document. Sections can be numbered if the sequence is simple and logical, but using too many numbers can cause confusion.

Paragraphs

Use a fresh paragraph for each new point or thought and try to limit the length of each paragraph to three or four sentences. Rather than indenting a new paragraph on the next text line it is more visually appealing to have a line space between paragraphs.

Lists

These are a useful way to set out a collection of facts or points rather than them being lost in the main text. They can be of various styles such as round or square bullets, numbers (either roman or Arabic), dashes, or icons. However, do not get carried away using several styles where two would suffice – for main levels and sublevels.

Fonts

Stick to one main font or typeface for text and headings, although using a second font for headings and other special features can add to visual appeal. For instance, a sans serif font such as Arial could be used for text and a serif font such as Times New Roman could be used for headings. Others might suggest the other way round. Just because your word-processing program has numerous features and options does not mean you have to use them all in the same document!

In part 2 I will look at using a consistent style, and part 3 will consider the presentation of data.

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