A big block of text can be impenetrable to the reader. When that paragraph contains instructions, or lots of details, it can be even harder to read. But there are techniques we can use to make the prose easier to take in. They’re techniques advocated by the Plain Language principles for this very reason.
- bullet lists
- flow charts
Who Breaks up Paragraphs
All of these techniques aid skimming, and they all help the reader orient to the content and the message. Spotting where these techniques can be used is the domain of the developmental or substantive editor—a stage that is one or two steps before copyediting. In some workflows, however, breaking up lengthy paragraphs and using these techniques can be the job of the line editor or the copyeditor. As usual, check the scope and expectations in the job brief or clarify with the client/boss.
Uses for the Alternatives
Tables, flow charts, and diagrams can present reams of data and their interrelations visually, literally taking the place of a thousand words. Just picture an anatomical diagram, and how many words it would take to describe the shape, size, and relative location of each organ, versus how quickly the reader can take that in by looking at a drawing. There’s a great example of that in the braille (or alt text) translation of a map: it requires an entire booklet to explain what’s going on in a single small map.
Bullet lists make it quicker to take in the scope of information and the quantity, just by judging each point’s length and the overall length. And if they’re point form, the prose in a list can be even more succinct.
Flow charts suit a sequence of steps or interrelated aspects.
Pictures, the adage goes, are worth 1000 words. That may be related to the space they take up in a newspaper column, or the rate of pay, but it should also hold true for the information they convey. In fact, some say that if the picture doesn’t do the work of 1000 words, it shouldn’t be there.
Headings help break up the text, chunking it. And they help the reader predict the nature and flow of the content, navigate the text, and recognize the important themes. Think of them like the aisle markers at the hardware store.
Putting it all Together
Using all of these techniques together in an appealing layout with white space can have the greatest impact. Think of the pages of a magazine, an elementary school textbook, brochure, or a book of world records: the layout makes them appealing as well as easy to skim and navigate. Readers can take in a great deal of information at a glance.