Part 2: Three Additional Steps





Documents contain two kinds of information: content and structure. The content is, of course, the substance. Structural information is the relations among content units. You invested a lot of time and effort working out these structural aspects during the planning steps. Now you want to capitalize on that work.

Research has shown that readers use structural information to read more efficiently and effectively. If the document includes cues, such as headings, to signal structural relations, readers use them to advantage. If they are not present, readers must mentally construct analogous relations to understand what they are reading. But this takes time and the relations readers infer are often not those intended by the writer. So it serves everyone's purpose to include in the text explicit cues that provide important structural information.

Consider also the general appearance of your pages. Recall pages you have seen that were filled with dense prose. Did they seem more like a barrier than a channel of communication? Make the appearance of your page inviting. You also want to lead your reader's eye to the most important information on the page, just as a skillful artist draws the viewer's eye to the most important image in a picture.

All of these issues are aspects of formatting. Don't think of formatting as just the finishing touches. Think of formatting as an integral part of your document that provides important structural information. Plan for it from the beginning.




Think about formatting as you plan your document. From the start, setup conventions to mark descriptive headings according to the levels of your Tree. If you write with a computer, you might use conventions such HEAD1, HEAD2, HEAD3 to mark each such label. Later you can replace those marks with explicit formatting instructions, macros, or, perhaps, system-defined codes. The important point is to mark all headings on the same level of the tree the same each time one appears.

Use spacing, font size, and font type to signal visually the level of the heading. You can include or I.C.2.d.vii along with the heading to indicate its precise position in the hierarchy, but don't rely on the code to indicate structure. Readers must decode such markings linguistically to infer hierarchical position and relations with other sections. With formatted headings, on the other hand, readers see structural relations directly and respond to them intuitively. Perceiving and inferring are very different mental process. To assist direct recognition of structure, work out a system of conventions in which higher level heads appear more prominent than lower level ones.

Next, identify the logical types of information that your document will include. Perhaps most will be prose description or argument, but you may also have examples, definitions, equations. Mark each distinct type with its own format conventions. For example, you might center equations and display them in Italics or print a computer/human dialogue by setting it off from both left and right margins, print the computer's portion in bold, and the human's in typewriter script. Again, these convention will help your reader pick up distinctions intuitively while reading. It may also help later when your reader scans for some particular piece of information.

Third, direct your reader's attention. In a page that is mostly prose, a bulletted list or a dialogue set off and marked with different fonts will draw your reader's eye to them.

Finally, pay attention to the appearance of your document. Don't become so concerned with content and structure that you ignore the aesthetics of the page. Black, uninterrupted prose will hit your readers like a brick wall when they turn the page. A clean, clear, open page will invite them in to read what you have to say.

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