Writing style, vocabulary and idea flow are major determinants of the readability of a document, but don’t forget that organisation and appearance are also important.
Organisation of documents
A manuscript usually has an accepted order and title of sections: Introduction (or Background), Methods, Results and Discussion (+/- Conclusion). Whilst the order may vary a little and some disciplines have additional sections, we don’t usually have to concern ourselves with manuscript structure.
However, for many other documents such as a report, review or thesis, the way the document is organised is critical. Good structure allows readers to follow the story/argument easily and to ‘dip out’ and find their way back in easily. Poor structure makes a document hard work and readers may not grasp the importance of your work or understand your arguments. Here are some key thoughts when organising longer documents.
Sequence of chapters/sections
This is probably where you will start when planning to write. As your document evolves, your chapters, sections and subsections will change name and sequence. A good planning tool such as MS Word Outline View or electronic mind-mapping may help. Whilst a deadline may be looming, the more time you spend planning the organisation of a document then the easier the writing becomes.
Headings and subheadings
Use headings and subheadings unless guidelines advise otherwise or the type of document you are writing does not typically have them. They rapidly tell the reader what’s coming, and they quickly allow readers to find the place in a document again after they take a break.
Use useful headings – ‘The motion detector’ is not as helpful as ‘The motion detector: how its sensor works’, which is more specific.
When considering how to format your titles and subtitles, always follow a journal’s ‘Instructions for authors’ or a style guide on capitalisation. Journals often ask authors to use ‘Title Capitalisation’ for titles and subtitles. However, if you are free to decide for yourself, consider the following:
- Sentence capitalisation is easiest to read and kindest to your readers
- Title Capitalisation is More Difficult to Read and Can Lead to Inconsistencies in capitalisation
- ALL CAPITALS IS MOST DIFFICULT TO READ AND BEST AVOIDED
Particularly for slides presented at a conference when your audience has only seconds to read the title of your slide, ALL CAPITALS is certainly best avoided. Many argue that sentence capitalisation is the best format whatever the circumstance: consider your readers!
Vertical (bulleted or numbered) lists
We all know how much easier it is to read and remember information when presented in a vertical bulleted or numbered list. Typically, such lists do not appear (and are not needed) in standard manuscripts, journal reviews and theses. However, think if they may be useful for reports, book chapters, websites and many other documents. I have used many such lists in this material on scientific writing.
This technique helps readers move from one topic/section to another. Typically, signposting is used at the beginning or end of a section – giving a brief summary of where the reader has been and where the reader is now being taken. For instance:
We have now discussed the place of this new motion detector. The next section describes how it works and the limits of its detection abilities.
Note that this is different from the unhelpful practice of wasting words – phrases or sentences that do not help:
Three problems arise. Firstly… Secondly… The third problem to consider is…
Introducing the third problem with an unnecessary phrase has wasted words and not been helpful. ‘Thirdly..‘ is sufficient.