Writing to Assist the Reader — Part 2



Click here for ‘Writing to assist the reader — Part 1‘.

Unlike fiction books, people often read non-fiction books for a purpose other than pleasure: for example, to learn a new aspect of a hobby, to make money, to understand a technique, or to gain insights into their own behaviour and, with those insights, behave in a more positive manner.

In other words, they are likely to want to access information quickly and easily. Significantly, they may look for information in a different order to which it is presented. For example, a person who trades on the stock market and who knows a bit about technical charting, but does not know how candle-stick charting works, will go straight to that chapter. So there must be a lot more visual signposts provided for the reader so they can navigate the information without getting frustrated.

The most common visual aids to assist the reader are as follows:

  • table of contents
  • list of tables
  • list of figures
  • list of plates (photographs)
  • part, chapter, section and subsection headings
  • part, chapter, section, subsection and paragraph numbers
  • page numbers
  • indexes
  • list of definitions, list of shortened forms, glossaries
  • font styles (bold, italics, underlined)
  • font sizes (e.g. 10pt, 12pt, 14 pt)
  • footnotes
  • headers and footers
  • margin notes
  • flagged information (e.g. ‘Dummies Guide’ symbols)
  • hotlinks
  • numbered points
  • bullet points
  • maps
  • timelines
  • illustrated timelines
  • graphs
  • illustrated graphs
  • figures
  • diagrams
  • tables (detailed or summary or both)
  • flowcharts
  • sidebars or text boxes
  • factsheet format of rhetorical questions, followed by answers.

Lastly, the concept of ‘white space’ is vital. This is the space on a page that is left blank (the unprinted areas of a page) which can be used to ‘open up’ the text and make it more inviting. White space can also be used to:

  • rest the reader’s eyes and make the page less intense or ‘busy’
  • provide emphasis on specific pieces of information (such as headings)
  • provide contrast between text and images (such as tables and graphs)
  • direct the eyes to grouped information (such as bullet lists and tables).

White space is vital to a document’s readability and a general guide to the amount of white space needed on any given page is 20-40% for printed text and 40-60% for web pages.

The three main methods of creating white space are to: (1) use more, rather than less, headings and subheadings; (2) use bulleted lists instead of paragraphs which list information; and (3) vary the spacing between paragraphs and other compositional elements, such as headings, bulleted lists and header/footers, though in a consistent manner across the document.

IMAGE: Totem Poles, Butchart Gardens, Canada (2013) © Yelsel International Pty Ltd

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