Document “Optics”

How a document looks can be almost as important as what it actually says. It’s easier to read and absorb information that is presented in an attractive format, with easy-to-read fonts, enough space, and a design that leads your eye to the key information.  When something looks good, people credit it with being better than the same content when it looks sloppy.

Here are a few tips to improve the appearance of any document.


Strike a balance with fonts. Times Roman and Arial are the workhorse fonts, and that’s OK, but add another font for headers. Don’t go crazy though; using more than two or three fonts in a document is visual clutter.

Give Me Some Space

Pay careful attention to spacing. It seems simple, but having consistent and good spacing around a heading or a paragraph gives a professional appearance to a document. Use the Paragraph – Spacing Before and Spacing After options in Word to control spacing. Here are some possibilities:

  • Put 24 points before a major heading and 18 points after.
  • For minor headings, use 12 points before and 6 points after or 18 before and 12 after.
  • Always have a header closer to the material that follows than to the material that proceeds it.
  • Put 6 points after a paragraph.
  • For lists only, consider checking the Paragraph formatting option to “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style.” Or change the spacing to 3 points before and 3 after.
  • Use consistent line spacing. Word has a default now of 1.15 lines. Single spacing is more common in documentation. But whatever you use, use it consistently.

Caption Hook

Use Insert Caption on the References menu to add Figure and Table headings and to automatically number them.

Keep the caption close to the figure or table. Figure captions go below the figure; table captions above the table.

Table Settings

Tables are a great way to present information, so use them but be sure they look attractive.

Experiment with the Table Properties (right click to display it) and especially the margins you can find in Options. Don’t crowd the text up against the top gridlines or the sides of the table cells.

Always, always use the Header Rows Repeat setting on the Table Layout menu.

Color Wheel

As with fonts, you don’t’ want to go crazy with colors, but having one heading style in color is a nice touch. Fill colors in table headers can add a little splash of color too. Use colors approved by your organization—most organizations have an approved palette.

About Carol

Technical Writer for over 20 years--with a broad range of industries and material types. I love to get into the details about how a business works and figure out how to help people do their job better with well-crafted documentation.
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