How to Write and Edit for Visual Communications

This is a big subject that touches on a lot of areas. I’m not going to get into tone or catchy copy here. What follows are just some basic tips that’ll improve your design projects and make them run more smoothly.

1. Before starting to write a design piece, consider word count and establish a baseline number. 

Chat with the designer about the size and format of the piece. For example, if it’s a graphics-heavy letter-sized sheet, you should aim for 200 words maximum. For more content- or data-heavy pieces, aim for about 350 words.

The first image (below left) is the cover of our Dragonfly Welcome Packet. It’s important for a cover to be very graphic—it helps spark interest and draws the reader in. That means it needs a low enough word count to make room for lots of imagery and/or white space. This cover has about 30 words.

The second image (below right) is one of the content pages from the same document. It has a lot of important information and data-driven content. A higher word count is fine, and this page has about 300 words.

2. Give the designer a bit of license. 

If your headline has a period at the end and the designer wants to remove it, consider the visual reasons why. If they want to insert a hyphen at the end of a line to avoid awkward ragging, be flexible. Similarly, if the designer asks for a reasonable amount of text to be cut, try your best to accommodate the request. 

3. Remember that white space is your friend. 

Your copy has a much better chance of being read if it has room to breathe on the page. And a layout with plenty of white space invariably looks nicer. But there are two other good reasons to cut copy when you can—and they have nothing to do with design.

The first is readability. Studies show that shortening sentences, “chunking up” text into smaller paragraphs, and converting paragraphs to bulleted or numbered lists helps readers navigate content and easily absorb information. 

The second is the advantage of writing in plain language. This helps the reader quickly scan the document and even helps them better retain what they’ve read. 

It’s a happy accident that, when applied to a layout, these principles naturally result in more white space on the page and make it, well, prettier.

4. Stand up for editing. 

Designers are infamously impatient with multiple rounds of revisions. The more we have to tweak text and adjust a layout, the more chances there are of introducing errors—or no longer catching them. But errors must be spotted, and you must insist on them being corrected. Otherwise, all the hard work of writing, design, and editing will be undercut when a client notices a mistake. 

Insist on curly quotes and proper italicization. Help adjust content to eliminate widows and orphans. Ask the designer to run spellcheck. Double-check that all hyperlinks are working and that they go to the correct site. Make sure all footnotes or endnotes have a corresponding reference within the text. 

5. Details matter. 

Attention to detail makes the difference between an okay document and a great one. Designers have to respect the content—and writers and editors must recognize the importance of visuals. When they all work together, that’s when our communications really soar.

Written by Design Manager, Lexy Nesbitt, and edited by Molly Gamborg

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