6 Directions for Visual Display of Content

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Whether you self-publish online or in print, or submit to publications in various media, consider not just the cognitive impact of the content but also the visual presentation.

1. Sentences

Concise sentences are effective. They convey much information in few words. But a succession of several such sentences is wearying. A string of short sentences is like stop-and-go traffic.

Elegance and eloquence in language usage is a key consideration in composition, but so is the flow of language. Be aware of how sentences roll along. You’re likely to find that you are most pleased to read something demonstrating a variety of sentence lengths.

2. Paragraphs

Paragraph length is also a consideration. The traditional rule of essay writing is to present a topic statement followed by three supporting sentences and a conclusion. The model essay, according to a similar rule, is formatted in the same way: a topic paragraph, three paragraphs that illustrate the point, and a summarizing paragraph.

No composition need be composed so rigidly, and the publication medium must also be taken into consideration. A single-column book format is more forgiving of long paragraphs, but a two-column book layout or a magazine’s page design merits more frequent breaks. Scan-friendly paragraphs, meanwhile, are more suitable for newspapers and for online writing. (Nothing is more off-putting on the Web than a full-width slab of unbroken writing, unless it’s a full-width slab of unbroken writing in red type on a black background.)

The argument-support-conclusion is a valid ideal, but consider also the visual esthetics of a paragraph.

3. Subheadings

What else can you do to give readers a break? Insert one or more levels of subheadings — an especially useful strategy for procedural content like a construction or assembly guide (in which case the subheadings should also be numbered to help the reader follow the sequence).

Publications generally vary the style for various levels, as well, so if you’re self-publishing, whether in print, or online, consider capitalizing top-level heads, initial-capping those at the next level, and using italics for the third level, for example.

4. Lists

Introduce vertical lists — numbered, unnumbered, or bulleted, as appropriate — in applicable contexts. Again, this approach is especially useful for instructions or materials lists, but it can also be applied when you introduce concepts you will discuss in more detail later or to enumerate other points.

5. Dialogue

When you write dialogue, set each person’s speech off in a new paragraph. Make exceptions for such instances as rapid-fire exclamations in a crowd scene or a quick back-and-forth between new characters, but generally follow this convention for fiction and nonfiction alike; doing so also obviates the need for continual attribution (“he said,” “she added,” and so on).

6. Graphics

When you self-publish, you can also employ graphic elements — photographs or illustrations, or visual information like charts, graphs, figures, and the like — to help break up the written content. Another solution is what’s called a pull quote — a memorable or trenchant statement from the narrative or a speaker’s quotation. (If the latter, place in quotation marks and identify the source of the comment.)

Graphics and pull quotes can take up a full column width or can cut in to one partially, depending on the column width, the point size of the type, and the size and nature of the element, or type can be wrapped around a large visual element.

Also, consider inserting a thin rule (line) or a signature object (a flower for an essay about gardening, or an illustration of a hammer for directions about how to build a deck), but don’t crowd such elements too closely with subheadings or other devices suggested above.

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