How to make your documents look professional

If you’re at all like me, you spent your entire college and law school career writing papers with required formatting: double-spaced, Times New Roman, and one-inch margins. You put two spaces after each sentence because that’s how you were taught to type. You hit the tab key at the start of each paragraph because how else do you get that nice big indent?

Many of us carried this formatting into the professional world. The problem is that it produces memos, emails, and reports that look like homework, not professional analysis.

The look of your documents matters for the same reason wearing a suit to court matters.

Wearing a suit to court is a matter of decorum, professionalism, reputation, and respect. It means you take the matter seriously. It won’t win you the case, but the judge isn’t going to berate you because you’re wearing sweatpants, either.

Legal documents need to appear in formal attire, too. With only a few changes, you can dress up your writing and make it that much easier for your reader to hear you.

Here’s how to start.

1. Use only one space after each sentence.

Like many, I was taught to hit the spacebar twice after each sentence in my middle school typing class. This is a holdover from the days of typewriters. In today’s world, it is objectively worse than using only one space.

Matthew Butterick—your friendly neighborhood typographer-lawyer—lays down the law:

Always put exactly one space between sen­tences.

Or more gen­er­ally: put exactly one space after any punc­tu­a­tion.

… [O]ne space is the well-set­tled cus­tom of pro­fes­sional typog­ra­phers. You don’t need to like it. You only need to accept it.

I have no idea why so many writ­ers resist the one-space rule. If you’re skep­ti­cal, pick up any book, news­pa­per, or mag­a­zine and tell me how many spaces there are between sen­tences.

Cor­rect—one.

That last bit is, humorously, exactly what converted Bryan Garner himself. He tells the story as a vignette for the ABA. His first secretary at LawProse told him that he had to stop putting two spaces after each sentence, or “[o]ur coursebooks are going to look amateurish.” As proof, she told him to look at his two books that Oxford University Press had published. Garner: “I went through an extensive reference library to prove Ruth and Oxford wrong. But every reputable source I could find, including The Chicago Manual of Style, supported them—not me.”

2. Start your paragraphs with either a first-line indent or a space after the previous paragraph.

From Butterick:

First-line indents and space between para­graphs have the same rela­tion­ship as belts and sus­penders. You only need one to get the job done. Using both is a mis­take. If you use a first-line indent on a para­graph, don’t use space between. And vice versa.

He also admonishes not to approximate a first-line indent with the tab key. In Word, set it as a paragraph property. Why? Because paragraphs with tabs are hard to keep consistent or reformat. In other words, it will allow you to use Word’s styles properly.

3. If you justify your text, turn on hyphenation. Otherwise, left-align.

Much of the legal and professional world seems to like justified text. It has that bookish, formal look—until gigantic spaces appear between words. That’s why hyphenation exists, and you should turn it on. It’s under the “Layout” tab in Word. For a nice side-by-side illustration of the effect, see Butterick.

If that’s too much of a bother, left-aligning the text is fine, too. Many people find it easier to read. It’s especially appropriate for webpages, where the width of the text will vary with the reader’s device.

4. Use appropriate line spacing.

Double-spacing is for drafts; it isn’t meant for reading. You’ll never see a book, newspaper, or magazine double-spaced. Single-spaced text is hard to read, too. It takes a bit of work, but setting the line spacing between 120% and 145% of the point size of the text is best.

5. Consider a different font, if you can.

Times New Roman is the king of default fonts. It’s okay (Butterick thinks it connotes apathy), though not ideal for readability. Using it won’t hurt your credibility or distract the reader (unless your reader is a font snob). So using a different font is something of a judgment call.

If you can make that call, though, you have the chance to present something fresh and interesting to the reader. Rather like choosing a tie, you can show something of your personality in your choice of font. Butterick’s list of acceptable system fonts is a good place to start. One of my favorites is Charter, which is even available for free (Medium notably chose it as their text font).

6. Increase your side margins to 1.5 inches—or 2 inches if you dare.

This produces one of the most immediate and dramatic improvements to the look of any Word document. It takes some courage, because people are so used to 1-inch margins that they’ll notice it immediately. But once they’re done noticing it, they’ll realize it’s better.

Increasing the margins increases whitespace, another characteristic of professional publishing. It’s all about line length. The longer a line of text is, the harder it is to follow and read from line to line.

How to search Wis. Stats. from your Chrome address bar

One of the things we can be proud of as Wisconsin attorneys is our legislature’s website. The statutes and administrative code are easy to access and free. People in other states aren’t always so lucky.

If you’re like me, you probably only go to the state legislature website to search for a statute or regulation. You probably have the site bookmarked, and every time you click that bookmark you immediately put a search in the box at the top of the site. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, you could put your search right in your browser’s address bar—without navigating to the legislature website first?

Of course, you can. Here’s how to do it in Chrome.

1. On your computer, open Chrome.

2. At the top right, click the three-dot menu button; select “Settings”.

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3. In the “Search” section, click “Manage search engines”.

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4. Under “Other search engines”:

Look at the bottom for an entry called “WisLeg.” This should appear if you’ve ever used the search on the legislature’s website while using Chrome. If it’s not there, try going to the legislature’s website and entering a search, then check again. You can also copy and paste this url into the third box on the “Add a new search engine” line: http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/search/results?q=%s&start={startIndex?}&rows={count?}

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Click on the middle column for the “WisLeg” entry. This is the keyword you’ll use to perform a search from Chrome’s address bar. Right now it should be “legis.wisconsin.gov”; if you typed that into the address bar and then pressed tab, you would search the legislature’s website. But that’s a bit long, so rename it to something you’ll remember and can type quickly, like “legis” or “stats”.

If you want, you can also rename the search engine from “WisLeg” to something else—but this won’t affect the search.

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5. That’s it!

Try opening a new tab and typing the keyword you chose into the address bar. You should see a message on the right end of the bar telling you that if you press tab, you’ll search the legislature’s website. Go ahead and press tab, then enter a search and press enter. You’ll be taken directly to the legislature website’s search results page.

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Now that you’ve set up this nice shortcut for searching the legislature’s website, you can do the same thing for almost any website that has search.

The semicolon vs. the em-dash—an eternal quandary.

Few marks of punctuation are misunderstood and misused like these two. Infinitely useful—both connect ideas without the break of a new sentence—yet vaguely understood, both the semicolon and the em-dash tend to be either ignored or overused. When used well, however, they help the flow of ideas like nothing else.

As for me, I’ve used semicolons and em-dashes liberally in my writing since college. Yet, I’ve never paused to consider how they perform similar functions or figure out when to use one over the other—until now.

Similar functions

First, let’s define the correct way to use these marks. I’m only interested in using them to connect thoughts in a sentence, so I’ll omit other uses. I’ll take my direction (and examples) directly from Bryan Garner, in both Modern English Usage and The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (yes, I own both).

The Semicolon. This is “a kind of supercomma.” It separates sentence parts that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to make into separate sentences. It is most commonly used to:

  • Unite closely connected sentences. Example: “But Shakespeare’s language appears entirely familiar to us, although it is almost 400 years old; the spelling, the vocabulary, the shapes of the words and phrases seem to have changed but little in that time.”
  • Give a weightier pause than a comma would. This use is discretionary. A comma (or perhaps a dash) would do, but you want a stronger stop. Example: “There is never anything sexy about Lautrec’s art; but there also is never anything deliberately, sarcastically anti-feminist in it.”

The Em-Dash. An em-dash is used to mark an interruption in the structure of a sentence. More specifically, it can be used to:

  • Set off an inserted phrase that, because of what it modifies, needs to go in the middle of a sentence. Example: “In America—as elsewhere—free speech is confined to the dead.”
  • Set off a parenthetical phrase that you want to highlight. Example: “They say—the astrologers, I mean—that it will get better and better for me as I go on.”
  • Tack on an important afterthought. Example: “It was June when we buried him—the summer solstice.”

Garner opines: “The em-dash is perhaps the most underused punctuation mark in American writing. Whatever the type of writing, dashes can often clarify a sentence that is clogged up with commas—or even one that’s otherwise lusterless.”

What’s the difference?

As you can see, both the semicolon and the em-dash introduce a weighty pause to a sentence. I think this is why I’m often unsure of which to use; I know that I want a pause (not a period), and that either a semicolon or an em-dash would produce the right rhythm.

Looking at the uses above, here’s what I observe: an em-dash sets off a thought, while a semicolon unites two closely connected thoughts. I perhaps get into the most trouble by confusing the em-dash’s ability to tack on a thought with the semicolon’s use as a weighty pause.

Even reading Garner has not made this entirely clear to me. Sometimes punctuation is simply an art.

What about you? Is this your quandary, also? Have I used my semicolons and em-dashes correctly in this post?