How to arrange text on Web pages

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Read this quickly. It will soon be out of date.

OW DO YOU get people to read your pages? Start by studying mail order brochures. That’s where you find the tricks of the trade. And look at advertisements with plenty of text. You’ll notice that they have several features in common. They can help you make better Web pages.

Don’t throw away junk mail
Many adverts have headlines with overused words, (“New! Amazing! Free! Introducing! Here’s how ...”) in the title. Silly they may be, but market research shows they work. It also shows that in press advertisements, headlines are remembered 28% better on average if they are in quotes. And don’t use huge type for your headlines. It makes them more difficult to read.

Many more people read the captions under illustrations than read a column of text.

If you can’t find an illustration to go with your text, you can use anything that catches the eye, such as this picture.

HE HEADLINE is usually followed by a short first paragraph, one or two lines, to keep you reading. The text that comes after it is cut into easy bits by subheadings. Small illustrations and the captions that go with them make it lively. Initials, dropped into the column, lure a wandering eye back to the next piece of information. Market research shows that 13% more people read advertisements that use drop-initials. You can see some these tricks in use on this very page.

Learn from junk mail. Much of it was written and tested by the best professionals money can buy.

Try this yourself
Here’s a test. Make this comparison for yourself. The words are the same on both sides. Which is easier for your to read?

Don’t write your message in white letters on a dark background. It may look striking. But people hate reading it.

Don’t write your message in white letters on a dark background. It may look striking. But people hate reading it.

A column of light letters on dark background is a nuisance.

People like to read black letters on white.

You can call attention to a few words by putting light letters on a dark background. That's fine. But a whole column of text like that will drive away your readers.

The people you want to reach may not have the latest browser software. Some haven't got colour monitors. Does your information really need every bell, whistle, and blinking light of an arcade game?

Dull and sensible
What do your pages look like to readers who can't see clever gimmicks on their computers? Background patterns can make the text difficult to read on some monitors, and nearly impossible when it's printed out. The Web does offer opportunities for some pictures and splashes of colour. But it is still a text medium.

Tell them what you’re going to tell them. And then tell them.

On these pages, I have four points to make about text on the Web.

1   Direct-response advertising uses tools that work.
2   Bad arrangement drives away your readers.
3   Limitations can help you.
4   Web typography hardly exists yet.

ANATIC PROGRAMMERS do not always make sensible decisions about design. Their work may impress other programmers but can distract everybody else from your message.

Many of the best people who are shaping the Web are intelligent, ambitious, barking mad, and apparently blind. Don’t get me wrong: we need plenty of their kind. But if you want your pages widely read, stay away from the cutting-edge forefront.