How to make academic writing more readable: scannable layout
Look at the shape of most academic writing. The actual shape on the page. Or rather: on the screen. Even now, when we read nearly everything on screens, when most online text looks like short sentences, frequent subheadings, and lists lists lists, most academic writing still looks like long, blobby paragraphs.
It doesn’t need to. Academic writing is missing an opportunity to be more accessible. Here are 3 layout techniques to make writing more readable: subheadings, short paragraphs, and lists.
1. Use Subheadings
Frequent subheadings are not a sign that the writer doesn’t have much to say on each topic. On the contrary, they help the reader (and the writer, I suppose) better understand how various paragraphs fit together. For long-form writing, sub-headings are a necessity.
How do I write good subheadings?
- Pose a question that the subsection will answer (“Why is Cheating More Prevalent in Large, Anonymous Classrooms?”)
- Simply state the topic of the subsection (“Moral Implications of Cheating for the Workforce”)
- Don’t use simply a one-word subheading
2. Make paragraphs shorter
In the academy we get into the habit of writing long paragraphs. But a bigger paragraph doesn’t mean the writer has more to say. It just means they’ve spent less time thinking about organizational strategies.
For one, breaking paragraphs into shorter chunks helps the reader see the writer’s thought process as more discrete steps. And it looks more welcoming.
Or use the trick of picturing written text as a spoken conversation. When we speech we naturally take pauses to let the listener process our ideas. Paragraph breaks can serve the same purpose.
Guidelines for paragraph length
- Don’t think that every paragraph needs a topic sentence, details, quotes, and commentary are good practice. That’s just an arbitrary rule some teachers give to simplify writing.
- Don’t wait to make a paragraph break until you’ve ‘finished’ an idea. A paragraph break within an idea can move that one idea along, indicating a clarification or a summation.
3. Use numbered/bulleted lists
Putting one item of a list on a line is obviously easier to read than if all the items are jammed together in a sentence. However, unless someone tells us we can do it in academic, we somehow forget common sense. Lists are completely acceptable in academic writing.