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Gary B. Larson

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Garbl's Plain Language Writing Guide


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Creating an enticing design

Spacing| Headings | Highlighting | Type | Color | Graphics

A well-written document can be hard to read if it is laid out or designed poorly. How your document looks can make the difference between your message being understood or lost. A well-designed document also can entice readers while a poorly designed document could deter them.


  • Leave space between paragraphs, but then don't also indent the paragraphs.
  • Divide your documents into sections of related information, separated by headings.
  • Don't print on every inch of space on your page.
  • Be generous with margin space.
  • Use left-aligned and ragged-right margins. Avoid justified alignment, when both right and left margins are even; it can reduce readability.

Informative headings

Headings are useful for breaking up long, gray blocks of body copy. They add contrast to a page. If you can place a dollar bill on the page without touching any headings (or other graphic element), the page is probably too gray. But make sure your headings say something. They should provide some useful information about what's next or help guide your reader from point to point in the document. Use clear, consistent capitalization and type styles for headlines, headings and subheadings, so readers will recognize their hierarchy within the document.

Questions make effective headings: What is the next step? What are the relevant facts? Try to ask and answer questions the reader might have. See headlines, headings in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual for more advice.


Use sidebars and boxed text to separate important information or less significant information from the rest of your text. Or use bulleted or numbered vertical lists to call attention to important related points.

Highlight individual words or phrases sparingly in print documents; such highlights are useful on the Web. If you emphasize too much, nothing will be emphasized. Bold type--and a combination of bold and italic type--is best for titles, headings, headlines, key words at the beginning of paragraphs and hyperlinks on web pages. Use italic type alone to highlight words within paragraphs; however, italics can be difficult to read on computer monitors. Large blocks of italic or bold type are difficult to read. Avoid underlining words, especially on web pages. Underlines cut through the bottom of some letters, and they can be confused with hyperlinks in web browsers. Also see boldface and underlining in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

Type style and size

Choose a solid, plain typeface that is easy to read. Don't combine more than two different typefaces on the same page because it will give a busy, confusing appearance.

Make sure the typeface is big enough for your readers. Twelve-point is a good size for most writing. Consider that some people may prefer a larger type size.

Don't use all capital letters, because they are harder to read. Mixing capital and lowercase letters makes easier reading. Also see capitalization in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

Think about creating contrast between your headings and your body text. A serif typeface (such as Georgia, Century Schoolbook or Palatino) makes large blocks of text (body copy) easier to read because it guides your eyes from letter to letter. A sans serif typeface (such as Arial, Helvetica or Verdana) is good for titles, headings, headlines and large-print documents (14-point type or larger); it's also recommended for web pages and other documents read on a computer monitor.

Color of ink and paper

  • Use dark ink (blue or black) on light paper--white or cream.
  • Avoid color combinations with low contrast like yellow on white.
  • Avoid large passages of reversed (white) type on a black background.

Graphics and illustrations

Place all graphics and illustrations as close as possible to the text they refer to. Make sure the link between the pictures and text is clear. They should support and help explain the text. Place graphics on the page in a way that does not interrupt normal reading patterns.

Make sure all graphics and illustrations are clear and the captions are easy to read. Be wary of relying on charts to explain information. People with poor math skills can find charts hard to understand.

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