5 Tips for Better Document Design

As a tech writer, I spend a lot of time staring at other people’s documents. When I’m working on a document that’s pretty common–say, a student handbook–I can always find a stack of documents with the same aims and goals as mine to use for inspiration. The good thing about being a trained tech writer is that I can look at a document and gauge how much thought was put into its design. The bad thing about being a trained tech writer is that I can look at a document and gauge how much thought was put into its design. It’s a major double-edged sword. Thoughtfully created documents are fascinating to pore over, but reviewing less-considered documents is a little painful. The truth of the matter is, people know instinctively if they’re looking at good or bad design, and they know instinctively if you made a little effort, a lot of effort, or no real effort at all. In fact, the instinct that tells you whether or not something looks good is the same instinct that can help you design documents. Yes, I have a degree in technical writing and a hefty amount of document design training under my belt, but there are things you can do with little to no training to make your documents look better and be received better by your audience. My top 5 tips:
1. Use non-default fonts. Even if you think you don’t know, you know what Cambria looks like (that’s the default serif font for Word since ’07), you know what Cambria looks like. The same goes for Calibri (Word’s current default for sans serif font), Times New Roman, and Arial (the previous defaults in Word). They are everywhere, and the general response to them is that anyone who uses them is being lazy. There are a lot of great fonts you can use for documents. Consider Palintino Linotype for body text and Corbel for headings. You want a professional font, and using the defaults comes off as lazy.
2. Use bold and italic. Underlining was necessary with typewriters because there were no bold or italic options on typewriters. Nowadays, we have bold and italic and underlining comes off as old-fashioned and unprofessional. Part of this is because the default underline style in Word cuts through the letters it’s underlining. If you absolutely need to underline something, consider a rule instead, which looks like an underline, but can be positioned so that it’s not cutting into characters.
3. Use proper capitalization. I see this in headings a lot, and it always looks crowded and terrible. All caps are hard for people to read. Our eyes read the shapes of letters, and when you put something in all caps, you create a block of text with no variation. All caps also takes up a lot more space on a page. If you need to emphasize a heading or a piece of text, use bold instead and keep your letters lowercase. Look at the difference:
I AM WRITING IN ALL CAPS
I am writing in all caps
The top sentence is just a brick of letters, the bottom sentence is easier to read and looks cleaner. There is also the implication nowadays that all caps means you’re yelling at someone (thanks, Internet!), and you generally don’t want that in documents.
4. Use appropriate margin space. We’ve all done this: You need something to be one page, and you come in just over that page. What’s the first thing you do? You start squeezing space out of the margins, knocking things down from an inch to .75 of an inch to .50 of an inch until everything fits. Don’t. Do. This. It makes documents look crowded (because they are), and it makes documents harder to read. Margins should be respected because they designate where one’s eyes can take a rest and, just as importantly, where one can hold the paper without blocking any text. When you cut your margins down to nothing, you cut your professionalism down with it.
5. Use the fiddly rules. Do you know what kearning is? What about leading? Do you know when to use small caps? Do you know the difference between an en dash, an em dash, and a hyphen? If you think none of these things matter, you’re being foolish. They matter a lot. The easiest way to tell a good document designer from someone faking being a document designer is in the fiddly rules. I can spot a well-meaning but untrained document designer a mile away just by comparing dashes, and you should be able to as well. When you know the fiddly rules, you improve your work dramatically through small, easy-to-make changes. And by taking the time to make those changes, you showcase that you understand the importance of good document design.

If you’re a Goodreads author: How to Rescue Your Books

Goodreads will no longer be using Amazon data to find info on books. This excellent blog post came across my Twitter feed earlier today, and I’m glad I saw it. The bad news is that if you have books listed with Amazon, you’ll need to “rescuse” them. The good news is, I just went onto Goodreads to do it, and it’s very simple.

Here’s how to rescue your books:

1.  Log into Goodreads.

2.  Go to your Author Dashboard.

3.  Under the My Books section, click edit under any title.

You should get a page that looks similar to this:

rescue book page

Rescue book page, top half

4.  Select I have a copy (physical, ebook, or audio) of this book or a personal record of the book data.

5.  Add a cover image.

6.  Select the appropriate Format from the drop-down menu.

7.  Click Submit.

And you’re done!

The sidebar on the rescue page will also walk you through how it’s done, but I rarely miss the chance to write up a quick tutorial. Keeps me in practice, don’t you know?

Quick and Dirty Tutorial: Make your QR Code Print-Ready

Have you used a QR code? You should. They are, basically, tiny little boxes of code that allow anyone with a barcode scanner on their phone to scan the code and go where you send them. They’re great for publicity. Put one on the back of your book, and people can go straight to your website. You can even make different codes for different publications. Maybe one code goes to a Book Club supplement. Maybe another goes to an author interview. You can have the codes link to short pieces of text. So, if you’re doing a tour, the code could show the next few dates.

The problem with QR codes is that while there are fantastic free makers, when you download the code, it downloads to screen resolution, which is 72 dpi. For a good, clear print job, you need a dpi of about 300. I’ve heard some people say you can go as low as 250, but I prefer to err on the side of a clearer picture. So, how do you get a QR code from 72 to 300 without wrecking everything?

It is actually very, very easy, and it doesn’t even require any special software. I’ll be working on a Windows Machine in Word 2010, but the instructions should work for any version of Word if you don’t mind doing a little searching if you’re in a different version. Come on, let’s make one together, and I’ll show you. We’ll do it in two sections. First, we’ll create the code, and second, I’ll explain how to shrink the code down.

How to Create the QR Code

1. Go to qrcode.kaywa.com. (The link opens in a new tab/window.)

2. In the QR-Code Generator box, make sure URL is selected.

3. In the Content area, type the URL of your website or a website you like.

4. From the Size drop-down menu, choose XL. Your QR-Code Generator box should look pretty similar to this:

qr code generator box filled out

Note: Your URL will be different from mine, but as long as that’s the only thing that’s different, you’re fine.

5. Click Generate! The QR Code will show up in the previously empty box.

6. Right-click on the QR Code and save it to your desktop.

Ta-da! You’ve got a QR Code! Now, let’s get that little monster set up for print.

Before you start to work with the image, you need to rename it. The QR Code downloads in .php format, which is a code language and not an image, but it’s really easy to fix.

1. If you’re on a Windows machine, right-click and choose Rename from the list that opens. If you’re on a Mac machine, click and hold for a second until the text under the picture shows you can edit it.

2. When you can edit the text, change .php to .png. You’ll get a warning that tells you changing a file extension may cause issues and asks if you really want to make the change. Click Yes.

The QR code is now a full-blown picture that we can edit as we see fit. Let’s get it print-ready.

How to Make a QR Code Print-Ready

1. Open a new Word document.

2. On the Insert Menu, choose Picture. The Insert Picture dialog box will open.

3. In the Insert Picture dialog box, navigate to your desktop (where you saved the QR Code), click on the QR Code, and then click Insert. The QR Code should now be taking up a chunk of your document:

QR Code just after its been inserted in Word

QR Code before we shrink it

4. Right-click (or CTRL-click if you’re on a Mac) on the QR Code, and choose Size and Position from the drop-down menu. The Layout dialog box will open.

5. In the Layout dialog box, Choose the Size tab (it might have popped up automatically). On the Size tab, locate the section labeled Height. In the Height section, type 1.22 in the box labeled Absolute:

Layout Box with Absolute Size at 1.22

I promise we’re almost finished.

Note: The Width box should automatically fill in the same number. If it doesn’t, you need to check the box marked Lock Aspect Ratio.

6. Once both the Height and Width Absolute boxes are filled with 1.22, click OK. Do not save your work.

Your QR Code is now resized so that the dpi is 305 dots per inch, the perfect dpi for print. And, before you ask: I know it’s 305 dpi because I first did this trick in Adobe InDesign, and it shows you the dpi you started with and the dpi you end with. Yes, I did partially create this tutorial so I could plug how awesome InDesign is. Like you’re surprised.

But, Gayle, how the hell did the dpi improve?

Oh, I was hoping you’d ask. Every pictures–online and in print–are made of dots. On screen, we call them pixels. In photos, we still call them dots whether they’re online or not. It takes a lot of dots to make up a picture, which is what dpi means: dots per inch. Basically, whatever comes before the letters dpi is the number of dots crammed into every inch, and no matter how you poke or prod, an image only has so many dots per inch it can use. You’ve seen this action, I’m sure. At some point, you’ve had a picture and thought, “that would look great if I could blow it up, and then you blew it up, and it was grainy and blurry. That happens because you go beyond what the points can do to make a smooth image.

When you shrink a photo, however, you’re jamming those dots closer together. When I was in high school, I had a friend who had a Toyota Tercel hatchback. It was a tiny tin can, meant to seat four pretty small people. It was very common for us to cram six or seven people into the thing, with people sitting on laps or half in the back window. Dots per inch work the same way. When you shrink an image, you’re cramming all the dots together, making them sit on each others’ laps to make room, and that gives you a clearer picture.

So, if you take a 3×3 image and shrink it to 1×1 (which is essentially what we did), you cram all those dots together, and the resolution cranks way up.

But why didn’t I have you save your work? You’re wondering that, right? Because if you saved it at that size, you wouldn’t be able to resize it again if you need it smaller. You want to work with an original image as much as possible, and saving over an original image loses you that image (Yes, I just heard you all say “duh.”). While you can’t make image bigger than 1.22×1.22 if you want the print dpi, you can make it smaller if you have a space that’s smaller than 1.22 square. Just make sure to always constrain your proportions. That’s what keeps it square and keeps you from swearing as you try and figure out what you did wrong.

That’s all I’ve got. Please feel free to leave questions in the comments.