Signpost your writing

You’re driving on a motorway. As you approach a sign at 70 miles an hour (because you would never, ever speed), the sign says:

“If you were perhaps to choose to drive for some time and at some point go towards the left in a while, say an hour or so, at the next bit where the road appears to veer off, then you would be taken past a roundabout and a leafy lane, for several miles and this would take you down an A-road and then you can choose whether to go into the centre, north or south of Nottingham”.

But you were in a hurry. What you really needed was this:

And then this

It’s the same when writing for your audience. Especially when writing for the web. We don’t read, we scan.

At the start of a flowery paragraph, I don’t know what the outcome is – don’t make me hunt for it. I like to say that writing for the short attention span is increasingly like telling a joke in reverse:


        How does it smell?

        My dog has got no nose

Get the big facts across first, and then fill in the detail.

Print is dead. Dead-ish.

Why do companies produce huge glossy brochures full of boring content and think that the customer has either the time or the inclination to read it? Remember the last time you read a 55 page brochure? No? Me neither.

If you were to look at any (good) book on web usability, you would find plenty of crossover with books on good writing. In fairness, the web guides are often better, and a lot less flowery.

One guide I love is Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think”, and that’s just the title.

Making text, products and websites popular and accessible is about removing the “cognitive barriers”. Yes, thinking. Don’t make people think. Not if you want them to do something for you. Think of yourself like a border-collie, herding your sheep towards the pen. Baaa.

You should signpost your document so that the audience knows where they are. Everyone wants to know how long the wait is.

Also – with proper signposting, your reader can scan long documents for the info they need. Although, in fairness, the trick is not to write long documents in the first place.

Learn to love headings

In a web article, that might be bold headings. Or if you’re off the corporate leash you could try USING CAPITAL LETTERS TO SHOUT AT THE AUDIENCE.


It makes it look like you missed your medication.

Measuring progress

In an online form, such as making a purchase, that might be a visible progress bar. No harm in applying that to paper forms either – particularly if it’s something dull, like a paper form which has to be completed.

You could have a variant of this:

Letting people see how they are progressing is vital. That’s why display boards which tell you how long the wait is until your train or your bus arrive are so effective – they reduce our worry. It’s all about perception.

Put digital first (unless you’re painting a house)

I have a very bright friend, B, who works in digital. With a client who hasn’t yet grasped the nettle of the new world.

Client: “Do we optimise our brand guideline colours for digital or print. I think print!”

B: “Oh really?”

B’s actual thoughts: “hmm let’s think. You email it out and it will be viewed on a pc so maybe digital, given that you aren’t going to hold up the colour palette like a Dulux paint chart AGAINST YOUR CURTAINS.

(B bangs head on desk).

More just thinking digital first, think MOBILE.

I have more time to browse the net on my mobile when I commute – my train is a sea of people staring into their phones. So think about that before you make every attachment a pdf.

Have you ever tried to read a tiny-font pdf on your phone? Almost impossible.

Why not let the client also go to a web page where they can toggle the font into big fat, readable letters. Or better still make the message shorter. On a web page.

Finally, if you’re making a signpost, sometimes make one to intrigue the reader:



Hannah LewisComment