by Jody Bruner

Business readers are impatient and often scan when they read, so writers need strategies to make important information leap off the page. The most important thing to remember is that if you try to stress everything, you end up stressing nothing.

Here are a few strategies that will help make your documents scannable:

Lists: A bulleted or numbered list stands out on the page and draws the reader’s eye. Some writers love lists so much that they use them exclusively. We caution against this – when everything is a list, nothing stands out and the list loses its power.

Underlining: We recommend you avoid underlining. More and more, we associate underlining with a hot link.

All upper case: One good reason to avoid all caps is that it’s associated with flaming, or shouting. Also, it slows down the reading process because we read by recognizing the shape of a word, not by sounding it out letter by letter. When you write in upper case, you take away that important piece of information and its slows the reader down.

Italics: Use italics to indicate the stress of a word in a sentence. Italicizing text won’t make it stand out on the page, but adds clarity and intention in its sentence.

Bold face: This is a great way to stress something important. Again, use it with restraint.

Informative headings: Using informative headings is a great way to make your document scannable. If your headings capture the gist of what they head up, readers can decide which sections they want to deep read.

Contrasting typeface or color: This can work well, as long as you use restraint.

White space: Use white space as an active design element to set off key information or show the shape of an idea.

Are there any other tactics you use to emphasize parts of your writing? Please share in the comments!

  1. When using headings should they be in bold or distinguished in some way from the rest of the email content?

    • Hi Giancarlo, great question. I like to distinguish the heading from the body text by changing the typeface and using boldface. But how you differentiate a heading depends on how many heading levels your document needs.

  2. My best practice: Don’t bury the lede. A good number of email recipients tune out if we don’t tell them immediately why we’re emailing. While my inclination is to create context before getting to the “ask”, I’ve learned to add a brief, clear sentence at the *start* of my email before hitting send. What a positive impact it makes!