Scannability is king

6 October 2020
6 Oct 2020

Formatting your writing so key info can be scanned easily and read quickly is an extremely underrated skill.

Often, but not always, whether a text is formatted for scannability determines whether 10% or 100% of readers understand your main points.

The information formatting rule of thumb

In general, people visually scan text in the order:

Top of document > Start of sections > Bolded words > Start of lines

This implies that, for best scannability, we should place an overview at the top so the readers' eyes can jump to the right section, then have every section/line starts with the key points, or bold them otherwise.

Writing scannable texts

I think good formatting needs to coexist with being concise. My m.o. is usually:

  1. Write the shortest thing I can reasonably write.
  2. Group text into sensible visual chunks.
  3. Bold keywords only if they’re at risk of being missed otherwise.
  4. Make a 1-2 sentence summary at the top of the document.

In longer pieces, headers and horizontal dividers are effective ways to do (2).

This note is an extended version of this Twitter thread on the same topic.

Next: What do we need to know to start making a difference?