5 Reasons Format Matters In Your Writing

By:  Stacey J. Haseleu

usability 3

This is a picture of the A/C controls in David Cole’s car.  In his article entitled “Proximity in Design: Why I Can’t Use My Car’s A/C” he outlines how his daily commute to and from work is filled with frustrating moments of artctic blasts  or desert-like heat blowing “his beard off,” as he puts it.

Cole goes on to attribute  the drastic climate changes in his car to the proximity of the A/C controls on his dashboard.  He can’t afford to take his eyes off the road to find the control he’s looking for, and for some reason, the controls never seem to be where they should be.  He blames this on poor proximity.

There are several usability heuristics in the design principle world, and proximity is one of them.  The proximity heuristic suggests that similar objects should be placed closer together.  Cognitively, the human brain functions by discerning patterns and associating specific functions that are similar to one another.

So in Cole’s case, the “temperature” dial  is separate from the “A/C” dial which causes him to turn up the fan rather than cool down the temperature in his car.  As you can see in the figure above, in order to cool down his car, Cole would need to hit the A/C button furtherest to the right, then use the dial furtherest to the left to change the temperature to “cool.”

Although Cole has driven this vehicle for many years, his brain is somehow wired to hit the A/C button and turn the same control to cool down the temperature.  His brain is wired with the proximity heuristic.

Don’t look confused.  This article is about writing and format for writing, but I had to tell you the story about David Cole and his car to make my point.  If car controls, machines, and computers use the heuristics of usability, shouldn’t writing also use these same principles so that it’s easier for us to cognitively digest?  I’d say so… and that’s why formatting your content is just as important as making sure the content you write is high quality.

Without further ado, here are the top 5 reasons formatting matters when you write:

  1. Your audience is “King” — This is  Nancy Duarte’s statement in her “5 Rules for Presentations;” but it applies to writing too.  If your writing doesn’t resonate with your audience then your piece failed.  I know that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.  Your writing is only successfull if it affects your audience in some way.  With this in mind, if your audience is anything like David Cole (or any other human being), then the proximity heuristic is important.  How you organize your information will make it easier (or harder) on your audience.  If you use proper formatting, then you are cognitively feeding your audience little treats.

  2. Organization/Flow — How many people have read a user’s manual that makes them flip back and forth between multiple pages to find out how to complete a simple task?  Why isn’t this information put closer together?  Why didn’t the writer employ the usability heuristic of proximity?  When you write, if you don’t use proper formatting (ie headings, subheadings, bullet points) then the flow of your document suffers.  If the flow of your document suffers, you’ll find your audience skipping back and forth, frustrated that they can’t find the information they want to know.

  3. Aesthetic Appeal — Who wants to read boring, fifteen-sentence-long paragraphs?  If you were tasked with the responsibility of writing a one-page list of instructions teaching someone how to brush their teeth, would you write it in all paragraphs?  If you answered “yes” to that question, please keep reading this article, then go back and re-read it again.  No one wants to read a narrative on how to brush your teeth.  People want to be able to see the specific steps for brushing your teeth.  People want to view a document that looks like this.

  4. Usability — OK, so this ties back in to your audience.  You want your writing to be used, not just read and discarded.  If you write a piece and the length starts to drag on beyond 3 pages, you might want to consider adding some formatting.  Headers and subheaders give a document easy reference-ability (yes, I made that word up).  Instead of having to read through each paragraph to find the information needed, someone can easily reference specific points you make if you add headings and subheadings.  If you want to get real fancy, add a table of contents.  I know, I just blew your mind!

  5. Because it’s a rule — I’m not joking.  MLA, APA, and just about every other style of writing gives you guidelines on how to format a document, so why wouldn’t you follow them?  These formats were established because they make the documents you write easier to read and easier to reference.  So use these guidelines.  Follow them. Period.

You could, of course, choose not to format your writing.  But then you’ll run the risk of every one of your audience members turning into a David Cole.  Keep your readers’ beards on.  Format your writing.

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