Word Processing

This article discusses methods of organizing and formatting information that facilitate communication. Topics include contrast, repetition, indentation and alignment, proximity, consistency, and the role played by changing word processing technology.

Making Documents Communicate

Organizing Information

Organizing information aids effective communication because it taps into humans' strong, and innate pattern recognition abilities.

Some ways in which information can be organized (Markel 152) include:

  • Chronological
  • General to specific
  • More important to less important
  • Comparison and contrast
  • Classification
  • Partition
  • Problem-methods-solution
  • Cause and effect

Formatting Information

Patterns of organization can be visually reinforced by the consistent application of appropriate formatting.

When formatting, we should consider these design elements: (Williams)

  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Indentation and alignment
  • Proximity


Contrast can be used to draw attention to important information by making it stand out. Ways of creating contrast include variations in font size, weight, style, and/or color.

Contrast can also be used to create depth and patterns in graphics.


Repetition of text or graphical elements not only alleviates boredom, it can unify different document sections and create patterns which aid perception of underlying organization.

Repetition and alternation of graphics can create movement and rhythm.

Indentation and alignment

Indentation creates useful cues for readers.

  • First-line indents create visible demarcations between paragraphs and help readers keep their place
  • Hanging indented bibliographies make names of authors stick out and therefore easier to scan
  • Centered words denote title information
  • Centering and right-alignment can add interest and attract attention


Proximity is the degree of separation between document elements created by white space. Proximity is important because it helps readers make correct associations.

A common example would be headings, which reinforce correct associations by using less proximity (more whitespace) above, and more proximity (less whitespace) below.

Check: Headings employ repetition, proximity, and hierarchy to reinforce associations.

Documents incorporating text and graphics can use white space to create tension, balance, and counterbalance.

Check: The careful distribution of white space can dramatically improve the presentation of any one-page document.

Some ways of redistributing white space include:

  • Margins
  • Line spacing
  • Select more or less compact typeface
  • Vary font size

Check: When experimenting, use Undo and Redo to toggle back and forth between "before" and "after" settings..

Consistency: the Mantra of Good Document Design

Formatting should complement organization. The two should work hand-in-hand to foster effective communication.

This is a powerful concept, but its effectiveness depends upon consistent application. Lack of consistency creates distractions. Consistency strengthens patterns, inconsistency weakens them.

Most users utilize direct formatting when formatting their documents. Direct formatting is the method whereby one selects text and then applies directly to the selected text one or more formats, each one individually. Unfortunately, direct formatting does not give the best results: not only is it tedious, it's prone to inconsistency.

Luckily, modern word processors provide two powerful tools that assist in achieving consistency and also let us accomplish our work more quickly and easily.

  • Styles
  • Templates

Design and Changing Technology

A common error is to apply old technology (typewriter) techniques when using new technology word processors.

For example, many still use all caps to convey emphasis: a practice rooted in the inability of typewriters to use more than one font of one typeface.

Another common throwback to earlier technology is to insert two space characters between sentences to overcome the deficiencies of mono-spaced typeface.

Modern word processing technology provides a vastly wider range of formatting features, including:

  • Increased availability of typeface and fonts
  • Proportionately-spaced typeface
  • Increased availability of symbols
  • Ability to incorporate graphics and special effects
  • Availability of color
  • Precise, automated control over indentation, alignment and whitespace

Bruce Miller, 2005, 2014

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