Narratives are written documents used to present clear thinking. Narratives enable readers to quickly understand the author’s ideas in order to drive robust conversations and decisive decision making.
Details matter when it comes to printing narratives for others to read. Sloppy presentation of the written word detracts from content and shows the author lacks obsession about his or her customer (the reader). Authors must apply a very high standard for making it easy and pleasing for the reader to understand ideas. This post contains tips for ensuring written narratives are well read when printed.
Using overwrought presentation style in narratives is the same as using hyperbolic adjectives: Fancy styling is a sign to the reader the document may lack substance and clarity of thought. It distracts versus illuminates.
Minimalist and consistent formatting makes documents easier to read. Less formatting allows the reader to focus on the words. Consistency throughout the entire document reduces the readers’ mental burden. Here are some specific tips:
- Use a single typeface and size. Text should be big enough so that readers don’t have to squint; nominally this means a font size no smaller than 10pt.
- Do not use color. Well written words do not require color, and if graphics are required to explain the idea, the idea hasn’t been simplified enough yet.
- Use whitespace between paragraphs and sections to separate ideas. Horizontal indenting can be effective in guiding the eye, if simple and consistent. Two spaces after a period are not needed; all modern typography systems do the right thing with a single space.
- Page margins should be no smaller than .75″. Do not make the margins smaller in an effort to make the document seem shorter. The reader will not be fooled and reading extra long lines is more work than short lines.
- Make sure the document title, the date of last edit, any relevant confidentiality notices, and the page number are in the headers and footers of every page.
- Numbers in narrative form should be consistently presented. Numbers less than 10 should we written out (e.g. nine). Numbers above that should be in numerical form. Use commas (e.g. 34292 is harder to read than 34,292). Be consistent on how you abbreviate orders of magnitude (e.g. pick either M or MM for million as in $10M).
- Date formatting should be consistent (e.g. don’t mix “September 10, 1996” and “9/10/66” in the same document).
- Use Word’s line numbering feature as it makes discussing the document easier. Change the line-numbering style to use a lighter shade of gray than normal text to make the line numbers less distracting.
- Likewise, numbered headers (e.g. FAQs) should be numbered continuously through entire doc; this way when discussing the document readers can refer to those numbers without ambiguity.
- Be diligent in ensuring you have no spelling, grammar, punctuation errors, or inconsistencies in the document. Readers will appreciate not being distracted by sloppiness. For example, read every sentence and every word out loud, have someone else proof-read the document, and always do a test printing before final print.
- The ideas presented in a narrative document matter more than anything, even the details discussed in this post.
Much has been written about Amazon’s culture of the written narrative (aka “Jeff Bezos outlaws PowerPoint” and “The Beauty of the Amazon 6-pager”). This post is not about why narratives are so powerful, nor is it about how to actually write well. But it does provide tried and tested tips on how to ensure the narratives you write meet a high standard for readability. Maybe someday I’ll write up my own thoughts on why the written narrative mechanism is so powerful, but for now I’m going to assume you have already drunk that particular flavor of Kool-aid.
UPDATE: Literally the day after I posted this, Jeff Bezos posted the 2017 Letter to Shareholders. In it he used narratives as a way of illustrating what it means to have high standards. It’s a great read. I did not know this would be the topic of the shareholder letter when I wrote this post (really!).