Written by Mark L. Levinson
One day in the USA my mother drove her Mercury to the repair shop for a tune-up. The man there said, “It’s a pleasure to have you as a customer, of course, but some of the guys were wondering, if you don’t mind telling us: Why do you bring your car here?”
Mom was puzzled by the question, but she said, “Well, because it’s the closest Mercury place to where I live.”
The man pointed upward, and she raised her eyes to a big sign over his head. “Pontiac,” it said.
He explained, “The Mercury people moved out almost a year ago. This has been a General Motors place since then.”
You know what? I’ll bet they could change the sign on the building where you work, and maybe half the people coming in would notice, maybe fewer. It’s a big sign, it makes a general impression, mostly it dodges your attention.
And that’s why as a technical writer, after you interrupt your text with a headline, you must go on writing as if nobody read the headline. You may think that as it sits in the middle of your 10-point type, the 22-point headline “Practices to Avoid” makes a big impression. Maybe it does when you’re standing three feet away from the page. But when you’re intently reading pages of 10-point type, your eyes may not bother to readjust for those few words of big print. Your brain may not bother to adjust from absorbing low-level exposition to absorbing a high-level concept. It may just say to itself, “Yeah, yeah, big title, now what’s the real information here?” as it skips to the continuation of the small print.
If your title is “Practices to Avoid” and the following sentence is something like “There are several, and some cause more trouble than others,” the reader may be puzzled. The information from the title should be repeated: “There are several practices to avoid.” Similarly, if the title is “Straightening Your Bowtie,” the sentence shouldn’t be “This is a three-step procedure,” it should be “Straightening your bowtie is a three-step procedure.”
The eye jumps over headlines, and if it sees a list broken up into lines, it jumps over the introductory sentences and starts reading the list. Under “Practices to Avoid,” a reliable way to cause trouble is to write “Here is a list of things you should not do” and then list them one to a line: “Leave your password where everyone can see it. Close the program by shutting off the computer’s power. Let your wife choose your neckties.” Instead, each item on the list must be individually negative — “Do not leave your password where everyone can see it” — for the benefit of those who ignore the introduction.
More even than lists, illustrations are a magnet for the eye. But more even than headlines, illustrations are perceived as discontinuous from body text. The text should respect that discontinuity and not introduce an illustration with a colon as if the illustration were the end of the sentence, or — worse yet — try to force illustrations to act like words in the middle of a sentence. To tell the reader to click the Save icon, tell the reader to click the Save icon. Don’t replace “Save” with a little picture; the picture is a different form of communication. It may be a necessary reinforcement alongside the word, but it can’t do the job of the word.
Like colons before illustrations, colons before headlines are a bad idea. When is it okay to use a colon? I’ll present some colonology in my next column.
Comments and questions are welcome: WhyStyle@elephant.org.il