During this time, many of you are sharing critical content with your community members. Make sure that your content is easy to skim or scan so that readers can find what they need.
People who have challenges with reading may struggle with tasks such as identifying the purpose of a document or identifying its organizational structure. Truth be told, even more seasoned readers can have trouble processing information in this stressful and confusing climate.
What may seem obvious to you might not be as obvious to your readers. That’s why it’s on us, as writers, to be as clear as possible with our organizational strategies.
Ready to learn how to make content easier to navigate for your readers?
We've assembled a few ideas to consider when you are creating documents to share:
Clear and consistent headings
Headings can be single words or longer phrases. Use the same structures throughout the entire document. For example, if one heading is Finding Local Food Pantries, maybe the next one could be Applying for Benefits (as opposed to just Benefits.)
Limit large blocks of text by breaking up paragraphs so they are less dense. Writing for the public isn’t the same as writing for a professor who is an expert on a certain academic discipline. Make sure everything you share is useful for your audience.
We have noticed a lot of “funder talk” making its way into emergency writing, which can be too complex for your audience. Cut out the language that is not for your audience and keep only what impacts or pertains to them.
Levels of headings
What are heading levels? We use different styles (font style, size, bolding, etc.) to group ideas together or “underneath” each other. For example, usually, the main heading is the biggest, right? In this post, each topic has a heading that is the same font and size. This is a clue that all of these items are related and similar in importance or theme.
In general, use 2-3 levels of headings to simplify how each section relates to each other and the document as a whole. Avoid having too many different types of headings that readers have to navigate. It can be too challenging if they must decipher what they mean or how they relate to each other.
Be reasonable with bullet points — 3-5 is usually a good goal. You can get away with a few more if needed, but don’t go too far beyond that. You probably need more sections if that is the case.
Stay away from sub-bullets, too, to avoid overwhelming readers. And if each bullet point gets a whole paragraph, it might be better to avoid using bullet points altogether. For example, we’d originally created this section using bullet points but realized it worked better as separate sections. Bullet points should be easy to scan.
If you are talking about something that should be done in a sequence, consider using numbers instead of bullets.
One more thing: It’s easy to just edit the format of each heading as you go, but using the pre-set heading tools is actually really important. It helps you stay consistent, and it makes the document easier for people to read who are using a screen-reader. Keep it accessible, too!
A few more things to think about:
Check out additional resources from PlainLanguage.gov on organizing your writing
Take a look at examples from the Clear Language Lab to see how we apply these principles to our own work
The Clear Language Lab is holding free consultations and reduced rate services to assist with your COVID-19 and emergency communications. Together we can ensure all people can clearly get the information they need in this uncertain time.
We hope organizing your writing brings you as much joy as organizing your closet!