Well Dressed Writing: Tips For Effective Page Design

Writing is a complex process with a seemingly endless array of choices. What kind of document will you write? What is your purpose in writing it? What point do you want to get across? How will the beginning, middle, and end of your writing be organized? How will you structure each sentence? Which words will you use?

Writers make all of these choices – and many more – although some of the choices are practically unconscious. (If they weren’t, not many writers would have the endurance to get past page one!) Given the overwhelming number of decisions writers have to make, it is understandable that many times they don’t pay attention to page design. Perhaps you are one of them. You may say, “Page design!?! Give me a break. I have enough to worry about with getting the words right, never mind whether the words look pretty on paper.” Fair enough. You’re a writer, not a designer. But ignoring layout may be doing your writing a real disservice. Simple design elements, when used thoughtfully, can give your readers a better experience, which will enhance your message’s effectiveness. More importantly, twenty-first century readers are quite sophisticated interpreters of subtle visual clues. Using layout, your piece can communicate a great deal more without adding a single word. Conversely, flawed page design can significantly damage the impact of high-quality written content.

What can good page design do for your writing? Page design can strengthen a document’s structural elements, such as organization and arrangement of ideas. It can also provide emphasis where you want it, drawing the reader’s attention to your document’s main points and minimizing the need for weakifiers. Finally, the aesthetic component of solid design can amplify a reader’s positive reaction to your work. Page design thus represents an opportunity for your writing either to shine or to stumble. Consequently, it makes sense to consider page design decisions as you write rather than after you write. Just as you do with writing, you’ll evaluate design options based on what the readers would prefer. The following are some simple design elements to consider when you’re constructing your next proposal, economics paper, novella, or blog post.

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Building Relationships With Your Readers

I stared out at a wall of glum faces. “What’s going on, you guys? Didn’t you like the reading?” The essay at hand was a masterpiece of nuance, one of the most influential pieces in the modern conservationist movement, and I had hoped it would spark a lively and spirited exchange.

“I read it,” said a student in the second row, shrugging. “But I just didn’t relate to it.”

“Unrelatability,” as I have come to think of it, is the kiss of death for many pieces of writing. If your reader can’t relate to what you’ve written, your great ideas and beautiful phrases are moot. But “relatability,” like flow, is a difficult concept to pin down. It took me a five-post series to explore flow (In case you missed them, here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ), and I certainly could write five more.

So, what do readers mean when they say that that “can’t relate” to what you have written? And how can you get more of your readers to relate to what you write?

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Guest Post for The Urban Monk

I just contributed a guest post to The Urban Monk entitled, “Following the Path to Writing Excellence.” In it, I discuss the intersections between Buddhism and the writing craft. If you’re interested, please check it out at

Following the Path to Writing Excellence » Personal Development – The Urban Monk.

Thanks for your support!

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How To Write An Effective Conclusion

Relatively inexperienced writers tend to walk around with a mental list of writing rules, which they have painstakingly gleaned from high school and college English and writing teachers. A snippet of such a list might read:

1. Don’t use personal pronouns such as “I” or “you” when writing a paper.

2. A good thesis statement lists the three items the author will discuss, and each item in the thesis corresponds to a paragraph in the body of the paper.

3. A good paper should be organized as follows: tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

4. A conclusion should summarize and restate.

There is no problem with a list like this in theory. Guidelines help make order out of chaos and help us learn which writing structures are preferable to others. The problem with this list is its inflexibility. The list of writing rules becomes The Writing Commandments, with all the attendant fear and trembling.

The academic writer is faced with some puzzling questions as assignments become more complex. What happens, for example, if your thesis statement doesn’t lend itself to the three-item list format? And what if you can’t adequately explain each point in only one paragraph? Doesn’t this conflict with Commandment number 2?

Given this conflict, what are the options? The writer could jettison the more complex argument in favor of one that fits more comfortably into the five-paragraph model. Or, the writer could defy the Writing Commandment, which would be a cardinal sin, of course. Hmmm…

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Become An Academic Writing Rockstar

This is it: you’ve been assigned your first paper of the spring semester. It’s due in two weeks, and your palms are already sweaty. It’s not that you hate writing. You enjoy creative writing – poems, personal narratives – when you have the time. But writing papers for school has always filled you with dread. The ram-a-pencil-through-your-frontal-lobe kind of dread.

Or perhaps it has been years since high school, college, and graduate school. You’ve finally gotten the hang of How to Write Well – how to write college papers well, that is. Yet now that you’re out in the work world, the same qualities that made your English professor rave are the ones that make your boss rant. What is going on here?

The problem is that there are many kinds of writing situations: creative writing is distinct from academic writing, and academic writing is distinct from professional (business) writing. Each kind of writing has its own criteria for quality, and many of them do not overlap. (For example, I recently devoted an entire post to demystifying criteria for one specific kind of writing: the summary.)

The student in the example above likes the freedom of creative writing but finds academic writing intimidating. Conversely, the employee mastered academic writing but is struggling to make the transition to professional writing.

Like so many things in life, awareness is the first step toward improvement. If you’re a student, the following tips will help make you a more successful academic writer. If you’re not a student anymore, the following tips will help you realize which of your writing-related skills may need to be modified for workplace success.

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Hack Those Unfulfilled Intentions

One thing I like most about personal productivity/personal development/self improvement blogs is that they try to turn wishes and dreams into plans and actions. They work to remove the stumbling blocks that keep “someday I want to” from turning into “today I will” or, even better, “yesterday I did.”achieve anything meaningful, stumbling blocks are thick on the ground.

Often, we don’t work on important projects – projects that would benefit our lives on a large scale – because they seem too big, too complex, too much for us to handle. Despite these projects’ importance, or perhaps because of their importance, they intimidate us. Although we may not like to admit it, we’re scared.

Fear is a powerful adversary. It works to keep us from going after what we want, and many times we don’t even realize that we’re afraid. It’s easier to say “I’m too busy” or “I’ll get to it after I take care of X and Y.” But the fear gains power from our unconscious: in order to master it, we must acknowledge it.

Once we define what fears are keeping us from achieving our goals, it’s far easier to find the motivation to push those fears aside. The idea that we’re letting an often irrational fear dictate our actions is repugnant to many of us.

For me, one of the most powerful ways to go from “someday I want to” to “today I will” and “yesterday I did” is writing. The following are some simple ways to use writing today in order to conquer those fears and move toward your goals.

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Writing Power’s Links To Love: February 17

Each Sunday, Writing Power presents links that we think you might like.  Enjoy!

“If You Don’t Do It Now, You’ll Regret It Later” by David B. Bohl at Slow Down Fast.  This post is a great reminder of the ways living in the future can work against both productivity and peace of mind.  On a writer’s note, I am a fan of David’s straightforward, honest tone.   http://www.slowdownfast.com/blog/if-you-dont-do-it-now-youll-regret-it-later/  

“Gradual Organization: How To Go From Slob To Productive” by Scott Young for I Will Change Your Life.  I believe that writing is a habit you develop and work on, much like productivity and organization are habits that can be developed and improved.  Scott’s post is a great reflective overview of how he changed some significant habits in his life.  I think that these tips can easily be applied to “the writing habit” or, failing that, they can be used to help you get more time out of your day for — what else — writing!   http://www.iwillchangeyourlife.com/2008/02/15/gradual-organization-how-to-go-from-slob-to-productive/

“Does Your Brain Need An Oil Change?” by Alvaro Fernandez on Pick the Brain.  Alvaro argues that we should concern ourselves not only with our body’s fitness, but with our brain’s fitness as well.  The post explains the theory behind this assertion and ends with some helpful tips.  http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/brain-fitness/

“How To Grow Your Idea (While Staying Out Of Its Way)” at LiveDev.  Ideas are fragile things in their infancy: they can easily be killed by fears and doubts.  Whether it’s the idea for a novel or for a business, this post will help you keep your head on straight and give your idea a chance to thrive.   http://lifedev.net/2007/05/how-to-grow-your-idea-while-staying-out-of-its-way/

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How To Write An Effective Summary

 Writing is not one task with a specific, unchanging set of rules.  Consequently, it’s often counterproductive to classify writing as “Good” or “Bad” because doing so assumes an oversimplified view of what writing is.  Instead of aspiring to the title of “Good Writer,” I propose that each of us should strive to become a more effective writer.

Effective writers know that there are many different types of writing, from proposals to poems, from diary entries to legal defenses.  They realize that different types of writing have different requirements: the elements that make a good poem are not the same ones that make a good encyclopedia entry.  Moreover, effective writers know how to adapt their writing to suit their particular audience, genre, topic, context, and purpose. 

The ability to adapt your writing for maximum effectiveness is an immensely useful skill.  And learning how is easier than you might think.  You’ll need to focus on two things: 1) increasing your consciousness concerning what different types of writing require and 2) gaining the tools to respond to a given writing situation. 

Let’s practice these two components of effective writing using summary, an essential building block in many modes of writing.

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A Quotation From Jack London

“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”

— Jack London

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Learn To Wield The Mighty Semicolon

Semicolons are one of the most feared punctuation marks around. They’re an inexplicable mix of a colon and a comma, and they justifiably intimidate many writers. How does one use this strange tool?

Using semicolons can add an air of sophistication to any writing: because they’re so mysterious, semicolons are impressive to those who don’t know how to wield them. Kind of like a samurai sword.

But semicolons are more than fancy-schmancy punctuation. When used confidently and correctly, semicolons give you a range of options for connecting your ideas together in a clearer, more exact manner. And clarity and precision represent true sophistication, which impresses experts and novices alike. After all, a fine samurai sword is likely best appreciated by samurai, don’t you think?

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