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    Eye Appeal

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    If you're like most of us, your first actions at a car dealership are predictable. You run your hand along the lines of a model that interests you; you open the driver's door and inhale the car's newness, taking in all of the gadgetry and options along the dash. You may then sit behind the wheel, envisioning yourself driving down the road.… If first impressions were all that counted, you'd buy the car on the spot.

    Your immediate reaction to a piece of business writing will run in much the same way. You'll show at least some interest in a letter or report, and see what it has to say, if it is stylistically pleasing to the eye. Of course, the opposite is also true: Unless you're initially attracted to the writing (and not expecting it), you may simply set is aside - or worse yet, just throw it away.

    To ensure that your own business writing receives the proper interest, pay careful attention to its appearance. Your company may have formatting and design guidelines to follow; otherwise, you can find plenty of help online or in any reliable business-writing handbook. (Check out Write for Business for a thorough coverage of formatting and design.)

    You already know many of the nuts and bolts of good design: Quality letterhead, standard formats (a letter should look like a letter), conservative font styles that are easy to read, and so on.

    Random Design Tips

    Here are a few tips about design that may be new to you and that you may not find in a typical resource. (I had to hunt many Net sites, such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab for this information.)

    • Remember the 25-second rule: Typically, you may have no more that 25 seconds of a businessperson's time, so first impressions in business writing are critical.
    • Keep typical reading habits in mind: No one actually reads every word in most business correspondence. In reports, for example, the conclusions or recommendations may be all that some people will read. So make sure that you clearly label key parts in your writing, if that is standard procedure for that form.
    • Use small chunks of copy: Smaller chunks of copy are much more pleasing to the eye than long, dense blocks of text, so use short paragraphs.
    • Consider adding headings: Well-placed headings and subheadings suggest that the writing will be easy to navigate. A different font style (san serif -without tails) and a slightly larger point size will make them more readable.
    • Be careful with columns: Columns may look nice, but limit yourself to two columns per page. More than that and your writing will appear busy.
    • Check the top and bottom of your pages: They should appear neat and clean. That means you should avoid…
      1. widows, or single lines of text that sit alone at the top of a page,
      2. tombstones, or headings or subheadings at the bottom of a page,
      3. orphans, or first lines of paragraphs at the bottom of a page, and
      4. split lists, or lists divided between two columns or pages.
    • Watch for balance: Business writing is effectively designed if it can pass the quadrant text, which means that the information on the page is balanced throughout the four parts of the page. However, know that readers typically read from left to right and from top to bottom, which means that readers will first look at quadrants 1 and 2.
    • Evaluate the overall design of your writing: A document works design-wise if it appears…
      1. organized (logically arranged),
      2. ordered (containing headings and subheadings),
      3. accessible (using bulleted and/or numbered lists), and
      4. varied (including special features such as columns and graphics).

    Final Thoughts: My hope is that this blog entry appears readable and is, in fact, easy to navigate. If not, please let me know what I could or should have done differently. Also, I would be interested in additional tips that you would like to share, especially those that may not be appear in the typical list of design do's and dont's.

    —Dave Kemper

    Photo by Podknox