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.

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