We all know about the power of the written word – after all, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” But the words we write don’t do much good if people don’t take the time to read them.

There has been a large amount of research done on how different fonts affect how people read a document, both in print and on the computer screen.

Although many of the articles linked here are primarily concerned with legibility on the web, the same rules apply to people reading documents on a computer screen – and it is important to note that different rules apply to the computer screen as opposed to the printed page.

Font, Typeface, What’s the Difference?

Generally speaking, there are two types of fonts – Serif and Sans Serif. Serif fonts are the “classic” fonts, like Times New Roman. They are the fonts you typically see in newspapers. “Serif” refers to the little flowing marks at the edges of the letters. Sans-serif, on the other hand, simply means “without serifs.”

Serif Font vs Sans-Serif Font

Serif fonts tend to work best in print; sans-serif fonts work better on-screen (and especially when the size of the text is small).

Although we highly recommend reading the articles linked above, here is a summary of the tips they offer for making sure your documents are actually read:

  • Use an appropriate font – serif for print, and sans-serif for on-screen reading.
  • Choose and appropriate font size – a small font may let you cram more information onto a page, but a larger font makes it easier to read.
  • Don’t use lots of different fonts – it is visually distracting. Use just two or three fonts, at most.
  • Use fonts consistently – use one font for body text and another for headings. Don’t swap the two half way through your document.
  • Don’t go overboard with bold, italic, and underline emphasis. If you need to emphasize an entire sentence, try using bold instead of underline, as it is easier to read and is less visually jarring.
  • If your document will be read on the computer or on-line (such as a web page), avoid using underlining – people will mistake it for a link that they can click on.
  • Left-aligned text is easiest to read. Justified text (where the computer automatically adjusts spacing to make each side of the paragraph line up) is only effective with really long sentences, and the uneven spacing can make it hard to read.
  • Don’t write entire sentences or paragraphs in ALL CAPITALS. It decreases the contrast between letters, making it harder to read. If you must draw attention to a section of a document, consider using a box to draw an outline around the text, or (if your document will only be viewed on the screen) use a background color.
  • If you have long sections of your document, consider breaking it up a bit – use headings and sub-headings to break up long sections of text. Newspapers and magazines – whose livelihood depends on people actually reading their text – know this better than anyone. They will go so far as to take a quote from the text and put it in the margin in big letters, just to break up a long expanse of text.

If you follow these simple tips, you can ensure your documents are both legible and easy to read – which helps ensure that they actually are read. After all, you’ve gone through the trouble to produce your document with the expectation that it will be read – you might as well take a few extra steps to help make it a little easier on your readers.