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Five Optical Illusions To Make Your Writing Look Smarter, Sharper

Aug 17, 2007
*The artwork of M.C. Escher shows crazy worlds in which staircases appear to go nowhere and people "sit" upside down or sideways.

*The plywood pillar at your local museum is painted a creamy, mottled white, with deep grey veins and other imperfections so it looks like real marble.

*When you put your dinner on a 12-inch plate instead of a 17-inch one, you eat less food and feel more satisfied by it.

What do these three facts have in common? They are all optical illusions. Illusions are important in writing, too. A piece that looks great will read better than one that is visually dull or confusing.

I'm old enough to have attended college when students commonly submitted essays written by hand. But even back in those dark, pre-computer ages, I learned pretty quickly that typewriting my work guaranteed a grade that was at least 10% higher! Anyone who doesn't pay attention to presentation is like the college student who insists on writing by hand -- or the chef who slaves over a luscious five-star meal and then slops it onto a blue plastic plate. But here's the good news. It's easy to improve your writing presentation. Let me give you five simple tricks you can adopt.

1) Use short paragraphs. When I was in grade 7, Sister Miriam Claire tried to convince us that paragraphs were defined by their content. She used scary words like "topic sentence" and "unity" and "coherence." Then, when I became a journalist, I learned a much easier rule: Paragraphs have nothing to do with content -- they are simply a visual tool. Those lovely white indent marks not only give your audience a space to rest its eyes -- they make it easier for readers to find their place. Think of your indents as little life preservers floating in the stormy sea of grey type. Use one every four sentences or so. (Note: If you are writing for a very narrow column width, or if your sentences are very long, indent even more frequently.)

2) Use subheads.Subheads are mini-headlines That appear in the middle of stories. They used to be common in newspapers and magazines but seem to be out of favour now. But they are ubiquitous on the web -- and for good reason. Subheads provide extra entry points for skimmers and scanners. Just be sure to do them right. I see too many subheads that are simply "labels." A good subhead is both interesting and specific. And it also uses a verb.
Boring, label subhead: Snorkeling
Better subhead:Swim beside jewel-hued fish

3) Highlight key words or sentences. If you're a woman of a certain age, the salon adds highlights to your hair for a darn good reason -- they make you look younger, richer and more interesting. Likewise, boldface and italics can help infuse your copy with extra appeal. Just don't make the common mistake of over-using the highlights and becoming the literary equivalent of a bleached blonde. Many writers fail to appreciate that italics and boldface are actually harder to read than regular Roman type. These specialized typefaces should be used sparingly --a few words at a time-- and not in great swaths of copy.

4) Use bullets or numbers. We human beings are hard-wired to appreciate parallel thoughts and good organization. If you provide bullets or numbers, your audience will likely continue reading until the end. Giving your readers a list is a bit like setting a bowl of pretzels in front of them. You can relax knowing that they'll keep eating until the bowl is empty. (You may have noticed that today's column has both bullets and numbers.)

5) Use white space generously. In addition to indenting, add other white space whenever you have the opportunity. You can use it between paragraphs, between sections, before and after graphics. Just as a mat and frame help make a photo look better and more significant, so, too, white space will dramatically improve the look of your words.

Optical illusion? Or smart writing? You decide.
About the Author
A former journalist, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach who helps people writer better, faster. Visit her website at http://www.publicationcoach.com where you can sign up for her free weekly newsletter on power writing.
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