Flawless Formatting: A Step-By-Step Guide To Make Anything You Write Easy To Read (And Skimmable)

Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Formatting is the easiest 10x you can make in your writing.

In the writing world, almost all of the focus gets placed on the words themselves. "What are you saying? What's the idea? How beautiful is the language? Are the commas in the right places? Does the sentence flow? Should you use this adjective or that adjective?"

And yes, while all of these things matter (quite a bit), writers often forget that the way their words LOOK on the page drastically changes the way readers read and consume their work. In fact, the way your words LOOK on the page is usually what determines whether or not readers will take the time to read what you've written at all.

Formatting matters.

The reason we say formatting is the easiest 10x you can make in your writing is because learning how to define your niche, for example, is something that takes weeks or even months. And mastering the art of languaging and sentence flow can take years. But formatting, and learning how to make your writing more skimmable is something that can take all of 10 minutes.

Which is the goal in this Deep Dive.

So, to give you a sense of exactly how to do this on your own, we're going to walk through an essay together (without changing any of the words themselves—only the formatting) utilizing all the different formatting techniques we teach within Ship 30 for 30. If you want to see the essay in its final form (so you can compare at the end), you can read it here.

Let's dig in.

The Key To Making Anything You Write Easy To Read

For the purposes of this Deep Dive, let's assume you have already done the writing. You've gotten your ideas out onto the page. You've got a few big paragraphs, a few small paragraphs, etc. But in general, you're mostly just looking at a wall of text. That's OK.

A lot of writers find it helpful to start with "just the writing" and worry about formatting at the end. Other writers (like myself) make formatting decisions along the way. However you get there is fine. What's worth remembering, however, is that as you become aware of formatting techniques that "work," you will naturally start incorporating those formatting decisions into your writing over time.

This is the goal.

Eventually, you want the formatting to be part of the writing experience—and for the decisions you make in formatting to impact the writing itself (and vice versa).

Step 1: Start every section with a single-sentence opener.

If you want to instantly 10x the likelihood of readers being interested and curious to "keep reading," open your piece (and every subsequent section) with a single sentence.

There's something about seeing a sentence by itself that makes the reader think, "Well that was easy to read." And before they can even decide whether or not they want to keep reading, their eyes have already started skimming the next paragraph.

In Ship 30 for 30, we talk about 6 specific types of single-sentence openers—all of which particularly well for "hooking" the reader's interest.

  • Open with 1 strong, declarative sentence.
  • Open with a thought-provoking question.
  • Open with a controversial opinion.
  • Open with a moment in time.
  • Open with a vulnerable statement.
  • Open with a weird, unique insight.

Here's how you put this into action.

Let's say you have already written a big paragraph at the start of your piece. We can immediately 10x the quality of that intro section (and increase the likelihood the reader will get past that first sentence) just by making sure the "opener" is 1 single sentence.

Here's the example text:

The reason people read is because they want an answer to their question: "How do I grow tomatoes in my backyard? Are there techniques I can use to negotiate a better salary? What is life like for teenagers who want to learn wizardry at Hogwarts?" Which means your job as a writer is a) to be conscious of what (specific) question you are answering for the reader, and b) give them the answer.

That's a long paragraph!

In fact, as a reader, chances are you didn't even read the above paragraph all the way through. You probably saw "a big block of text" and decided to just skim right past it to the next bolded sentence. That's because, as readers, we almost can't help ourselves. We're always looking for the "next" milestone.

So, here's how we immediately 10x the quality of that opening paragraph.

Notice the difference:


The reason people read is because they want an answer to their question:

"How do I grow tomatoes in my backyard? Are there techniques I can use to negotiate a better salary? What is life like for teenagers who want to learn wizardry at Hogwarts?" Which means your job as a writer is a) to be conscious of what (specific) question you are answering for the reader, and b) give them the answer.

Wowza!

First of all, there's something nice and clean about the fact that the piece starts with just 1 simple sentence, yes? Can you feel it in your body? Do you feel how it isn't as much of a "mental lift?" This isn't an accident. Single-sentence openers feel easy. And readers love what feels easy.

Second, what type of single-sentence opener is this?

It's 1 strong, declarative statement: "The reason people read is because they want an answer to their question."

Boom.

The reader knows what this piece is about. The reader knows where we're going. And the reader can hear the conviction: "Sounds like you know what you're talking about!"

Which is what gives them the confidence to want to read the next sentence.

Step 2: Always look for opportunities to turn long paragraphs into bulleted lists.

  • If you are listing anything, ever, it should become a bulleted list.
  • If you are rambling off a dozen quick examples, it should become a bulleted list.
  • If you are making a series of distinct points to drive home a point, it should become a list.

Here's why:

Your #1 job as a writer is to always be asking, "How do I make this easier for the reader to fly through?" Which means (contrary to popular belief) abandoning the belief that your reader is supposed to sit there and drool over, appreciate, and gasp at each and every word—as if your adjective choice is a beautiful as Mona Lisa herself. Give it up. Let go of that dream. It doesn't matter. Whether the reader thinks you are "brilliant" or not is the wrong goal.

Your goal is for them to consume your work, and to not waste any of their time.

Period.

If you are successful, they'll come back for more.

If you are not successful, they'll say to themselves, "Wow that writer sure did waste a lot of my time" and never come back.

So, use bulleted lists when you see an opportunity to save them time!

Here's our opening paragraph again (including the single-sentence opener):


The reason people read is because they want an answer to their question:

"How do I grow tomatoes in my backyard? Are there techniques I can use to negotiate a better salary? What is life like for teenagers who want to learn wizardry at Hogwarts?" Which means your job as a writer is a) to be conscious of what (specific) question you are answering for the reader, and b) give them the answer.


But notice: that second paragraph is a listing out of a lot of questions. The content is fine, it's the formatting that could use some work.

So, here's an easy fix (and take note of how much easier it is to skim through):

The reason people read is because they want an answer to their question:

  • "How do I grow tomatoes in my backyard?"
  • "Are there techniques I can use to negotiate a better salary?"
  • "What is life like for teenagers who want to learn wizardry at Hogwarts?"

Which means your job as a writer is a) to be conscious of what (specific) question you are answering for the reader, and b) give them the answer.

Wowza!

Do you see how the above section looks like a nice neat sandwich now?

Single-sentence opener.

Quick bulleted list.

Closing sentence.

In all of 3 seconds, you can "consume" that entire introduction without almost any mental effort.

Now, how much "heavier" does this section feel if we go back to the original block of text?

The reason people read is because they want an answer to their question: "How do I grow tomatoes in my backyard? Are there techniques I can use to negotiate a better salary? What is life like for teenagers who want to learn wizardry at Hogwarts?" Which means your job as a writer is a) to be conscious of what (specific) question you are answering for the reader, and b) give them the answer.


Brutal.

In fact, you probably didn't read more than 2 words before your brain yelled: "NOPE!"

Step 3: Where are your subheads?

Subheads are bolded sentences throughout a piece that help the reader know "where" they are in your line of thinking.

Just like this Deep Dive.

Because this Deep Dive is organized into "Steps," and each Step is bolded, you can now skim and jump around the piece to find the section you're looking for (both during and after). As a reader, this is a terrific signal that what you're reading as been carefully constructed for your benefit—opposed to reading a long-winded, poorly formatted opinion article in The New Yorker that was clearly not written for your benefit, but for the benefit of the author: "Look what a professional writer I am!"

Some writers like to start their writing process by first listing out their Main Points in bolded subheads and then "coloring inside the lines" afterwards. In Ship 30 for 30, we call this Prepping The Page. For reference, you can watch this video tutorial of how it works.

However, if you've already gotten into the writing and want to add subheads after the fact, the easiest way to use this formatting trick is to split your essay or piece equally into chunks. For example, if you are writing an Atomic Essay and it's ~300 words, then every 100 words should be a bolded subhead (splitting the piece equally into thirds).

For a few reasons:

  • Splitting the page evenly (visually) creates a sense of symmetry for the reader. It LOOKS easy and fun to read.
  • Splitting the page also gives the reader big, bolded "milestones" they can look forward to each time they scroll. If you split the page evenly down, then the reader won't be able to scroll more than twice without their eye "seeing" the next bolded subhead—encouraging them to keep reading (because they know the next section is "right around the corner").
  • Splitting the page also gives you clarity as to where you are taking the reader. Think of these subheads as the major mile markers helping remind you that you only have 100 words to talk about X, before you take a turn down a different street and have another 100 words to talk about Y, and so on.

Subheads bring clarity.

In the example text, the next sentence is a great opportunity for a subhead.

We already have a solid, formatted introduction.

And this next sentence is almost exactly 1/3rd down the page.

Time for a subhead!

For example:

The reason people read is because they want an answer to their question:

  • "How do I grow tomatoes in my backyard?"
  • "Are there techniques I can use to negotiate a better salary?"
  • "What is life like for teenagers who want to learn wizardry at Hogwarts?"

Which means your job as a writer is a) to be conscious of what (specific) question you are answering for the reader, and b) give them the answer.

But how you make the answer stick is by telling the reader a story.

For example, let's say the reader's question is, "What's it like to be an entrepreneur?" One way of answering this question would be to provide the reader with the formal definition of entrepreneurship. Be professional, right? "Entrepreneurship is the activity of setting up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit." But how likely is the reader to remember what you've just told them? More importantly, how likely are they to be impacted and transformed by your words? They're not.

Wowza!

Can you see how your eye immediately gravitates to that subhead sandwiched in the middle of all the other text?

In fact, the way you probably "read" the above section goes like this:

  • Skim the subhead first (because it's bolded and easiest to see)
  • Then make a subconscious decision to either keep reading linearly or skim what came before it.
  • You look at the following paragraph and see a massive block of text. NOPE!
  • Instead, you decide to skim the first section because it's formatted well and easy to fly through.

This is what we mean when we say readers do not read linearly on the Internet.

They jump around.

They look for the next-easiest section to fly through.

Next time you click on an essay or article online, notice your own behavior. Chances are, you scroll and click around until you find the section that LOOKS most appealing to you.

So, how do we clean up the paragraph following the subhead?

Step 4: Use the 1/3/1 writing rhythm.

The last step to formatting is to go through each section and look for opportunities to use the classic 1/3/1 writing rhythm (or some variation of it):

  • 1/4/1
  • 1/5/1
  • 1/2/5/2/1
  • Etc.

The key to immediately injecting rhythm and skimmability into your writing is to alternate length of sentences and sections—ideally opening and closing each section with a single sentence. These are your "doors," the things that get the reader INTO a given section (so make sure your doors slide open).

Like this:

The reason people read is because they want an answer to their question:

  • "How do I grow tomatoes in my backyard?"
  • "Are there techniques I can use to negotiate a better salary?"
  • "What is life like for teenagers who want to learn wizardry at Hogwarts?"

Which means your job as a writer is a) to be conscious of what (specific) question you are answering for the reader, and b) give them the answer.

But how you make the answer stick is by telling the reader a story.

[1] For example, let's say the reader's question is, "What's it like to be an entrepreneur?"

[5] One way of answering this question would be to provide the reader with the formal definition of entrepreneurship. Be professional, right? "Entrepreneurship is the activity of setting up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit." But how likely is the reader to remember what you've just told them? More importantly, how likely are they to be impacted and transformed by your words?

[1] They're not.

Wowza!

See how much easier that next section is to read just by breaking it up using this proven writing rhythm?

Open with 1 clear sentence.

Build the point over the next 4 sentences.

Close the point with 1 conclusion sentence.

You can use the 1/3/1, 1/4/1, 1/5/1, etc., writing rhythm all the way down the page and the reader won't have any idea what you're doing.

They'll just think, "Wow! This piece is formatted so beautifully! And the writing just flows!"

Only a trained eye (which you now have) will notice what's happening.

Conclusion: The key to formatting is to always think about reducing friction for the reader.

There are no right or wrong answers.

These are a few approaches that work well, but a better framework to internalize is to always be asking yourself, "How can I make this easier for the reader?"

  • If it would be easier to read in a bulleted list, do that.
  • If it would be easier to read in a step-by-step formatted guide, do that.
  • If it would be easier to read in a series of small, rapid-fire sections, do that.

Your North Star is what will be easiest and most enjoyable for the READER.

Not what "you" think would be cool, for you.

Remember, the reader is the main character here. And in order to be an effective writer, you must be in service to them.

You might also like...