By Roger C. Parker published October 8, 2012

7 Readability Tips for Designing Engaging Content

If your content isn’t being designed for easy readability (the measure of how easy it is for prospects to read the words in your message), it could be what’s standing between you and content marketing success.

With so many competing messages available just a click away, our print and online messages must be as easy to read as possible.

Readability is not something that can be reserved for formal publications like annual reports or four-color brochures. All of our content marketing messages should be easy to read.

Here are seven easily implemented design tips for easy reading.

Your readers aren’t reading!

The starting point is to recognize that your prospects aren’t reading, they’re scanning! Their eyes are rapidly moving from left to right, looking for recognizable word shapes.

As Microsoft’s Bill Hill described in “The Magic of Reading, a 1999 Microsoft report based on more than 15 years of research, reading is based on a complex neurological process called serial pattern recognition. (You can download Bill’s report here.)

As you’re reading this, for example, your eyes are scanning clusters of three or four words and instantly “translating” their shapes into meaning.

When your eyes encountered the word “instantly,” for example, your brain didn’t “sound out” the letters i, n, s, t, a, n, t, l, y. Instead, your brain recognized the distinctive shape of the word — i.e., its outline — and assigned it a meaning.

After “decoding” the first group — or cluster — of words, your prospect’s eyes jumped to the next group, and then the next, making their way across and down the page.

Serial pattern recognition, the process described above, has significant implications for the way we design and lay out our content marketing messages.

Here are some simple steps you can take to improve the readability of both “everyday” word-processed documents, as well as monitor the design of “formal” content marketing projects such as eBooks, reports, and white papers.

Although intended primarily for print publications, the following tips can also be applied to projects intended for online reading.

Best practices for easy reading

1) Give text room to breathe
Pay particular attention to line spacing. Provide enough inter-line spacing, or leading, to make it easy for your readers to recognize the distinctive shapes created by the letters in each line. Add additional line spacing beyond the default, or suggested, line spacing your word processor or page layout program suggests. Provide enough white space above and below each line to highlight the ascenders (the parts of characters that stick up, like “T” and “I”), and the descenders (or parts of letters that extend downward, like the tails of “y” and “g”).

2) Use uppercase type with care
Headlines and subheads set entirely in capital letters slow your readers down because they are harder to recognize — there are no word shapes! (They also take up more space than words and phrases set in a combination of uppercase and lowercase type.) Although words set entirely in uppercase text are appropriate for titles and logos, they are less appropriate inside your reports and white papers.

3) Avoid long lines of text
Long lines of type (i.e., lines of type that extend from the left-hand to right-hand margins of a page) can be fatiguing to read because the reader’s eyes have to make multiple jumps from word group to word group across the page. Worse, long lines of type increase the chance that readers might get lost at the end of a line, and either reread the same line (called doubling) or accidentally jump down two lines and lose the idea you’re discussing.

4) Build contrast into each page
There are two ways you can keep readers engaged and guide them through your message. When laying out your pages, build white space into each page by using a multi-column format. A popular alternative is to combine a narrow column of white space with a wider text column. Then, add typographic contrast by using headlines and subheads that are noticeably larger or darker than the type used for adjacent paragraphs. Subheads need to stand out from the paragraphs in order to guide your readers’ eyes through your paragraphs, announcing upcoming topics.

5) Avoid text wraps
Avoid anything that can interrupt your readers’ rhythmic, left-to-right eye jumps as they scan your paragraphs. Text wraps occur when a photograph or graphic is inserted within a text column, reducing the line lengths of the adjacent text. This forces readers to readjust to a different scanning rate, only to have to return to the original rhythm after the interruption.

6) Keep subheads short
Limit subheads to one line. Avoid using full sentences (i.e., subject-noun-verb). Use the minimum number of words to tease readers into wanting to read the text that follows.

7) Monitor the details
Edit text to avoid widows and orphans — when words, or sentence fragments, are isolated at the top or bottom of a page or column of text. Often, rearranging a couple of words is enough to eliminate the distraction. Watch out for formatting problems that can cause confusion. Inadvertently splitting a person’s name over two lines, (i.e., first name at the end of one line, their middle initial and last name at the beginning of the next line) can be enough to distract your readers.

Become a “readability connoisseur”

Train yourself to take a second look at the eBooks, reports, and white papers you encounter. When you encounter a PDF that projects an engaging, professional image and is easy to read, analyze why you find it engaging and easy to read. Analyze it from the point of view of the seven points described above.

Likewise, when you encounter a boring or hard-to-read PDF, try to figure out why it’s hard to read. Are the lines of text packed together too closely? Are the lines of text too long?

Consider creating a scrapbook of well-executed design projects or, perhaps, consider using Evernote to create an online scrapbook of good and bad examples of readable design. (For more on Evernote’s web clipper, see the discussion in Improve Your Productivity: 6 Ways to Use Evernote for Content Marketing.)

Design literacy isn’t just for designers! Share the basics of readable design with your staff and freelancers, so that all of your print and online communications — not just the fancy ones — are easy to read and project a professional image. You can also download my free report for more easily implemented tips on readable design.

Want more content marketing inspiration? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.

Author: Roger C. Parker

A lifelong content marketer, copywriter, and author, Roger enjoys helping clients write books and simplify their content marketing. Follow @RogercParker on LinkedIn at ContentMarketingHelp. Download a free copy of his 4-page 8 Commitments of Content Marketing Success.

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  • Deb

    I’ve been saying this for ages… clients get so married to their content, they think visitors are actually reading every word. Thanks for the good tips for making it better for the reader to scan.

    • Roger C. Parker

      Dear Deb:
      Thank you for your comment and your kind words.

      BTW, did you look at the Bill Hill’s Magic of Reading, linked above?

      It’s one of my favorite documents about design and writing, right up there with Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style.

      Best wishes on your “design to scan” efforts!
      Roger

  • http://allmarketingsolutions.co.uk/social-media-marketing-services Ayaz

    Hello Roger! great post and tips and certainly making the readability is crucial for the designer and content producer point of view and I think if we use proper fonts with the neat and clean small images within the posts that can also give a great impression to the reader of the site as well.

    • Roger C. Parker

      Thank you, Ayaz, for your comment and kind words.

      I agree with you about using the proper fonts–which leads me to ask, What are your favorite fonts for online or offline use? Are they the same, or different, for online and offline use?

      Best wishes for your content marketing success!
      Roger

  • Angela Booth

    Excellent advice. I’ve got into the habit of creating one and two sentence paragraphs, just for scan-ability.

    It’s awkward to break the habit when I’m writing for print. :-)

  • Christian Inostrosa

    Thanks Roger!

  • @knownotten

    Thanks for the tips on “best practices for easy reading.” Most folks don’t have time to read every word.

  • Rickenbacker74

    It’s distressing that people who are in the content-creation field need to be taught these very basic concepts. Why are we hiring people who lack such essential skills and training?

  • http://www.incion.com/ profesional web design

    Nice post. Content is king in SEO and search marketing, which is why it is so important that it is up to scratch.