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September 13, 2021  |  Why random formatting isn't a good idea  |  495 hit(s)

Not long ago, one of the editors at work raised a question in our editing group: do we have any guidance about bolding parts of a sentence in a paragraph? Like this:

The editor asked the author why they wanted to bold things this way. "So they'll stand out visually!" was the reply, or something close to that.

We don't have explicit guidance in our style guide that says "don't bold parts of a sentence just for visual accent," so there wasn't anything we could point the author to. Nonetheless, I've been thinking about this question, and I want to articulate why adding random bolding is not a good idea.

First, formatting "has semantics," as we say at work—when something is italicized or bolded or capitalized or monospace, it conveys information to the reader. Our style guide has guidelines for when we use different types of formatting. For example:

Use bold formatting for UI elements and at the beginning of notices.

Use italics formatting when drawing attention to a specific word or phrase, such as when defining terms or using words as words.

(UI elements means that the text references a button caption or textbox label. Beginning of notices means words like Note: at the start of a note.)

By being very consistent with these guidelines, we help the reader understand not just the words in a sentence, but what their significance is. When a reader sees "Click OK," they know that the bolded OK refers to a button.

We have the additional wrinkle in our texts that they're translated into several languages. Our formatting choices therefore have to be clear to the translators as well. If they see text in bold, they know our guidelines, so they assume that bold text is bold for one of the reasons that we've laid out, and they translate accordingly.

That aside, a fair question (imo) to ask the author is why they need to call out snippets of text in the paragraph in the first place. If the bolded bits are the important ones, then what's all the other text in the paragraph about? Sure, we know that people scan documents and that they don't read them word for word. (For example, see F-shaped Pattern of Reading on the Web: Misundertood, But Still Relevant.) But is using random bolded text the best way to accommodate this approach to scanning? We already have other ways to help readers scan the text: headings, lists, and tables. We can write sections, paragraphs, and even sentences to put the important parts at the beginning or the end.

Moreover, if we're going to use bold to make some parts of a paragraph stand out, what's the algorithm? How do we decide which are the important bits? Do we do this for some paragraphs but not others? In other words, is there some sort of consistent approach to how we're doing this, or is it based on the author's intuition about which text should be bolded?

And importantly, what kind of reading experience are we creating if the text has snippets in bold here and there?

Finally, there's a piece of writerly advice that I learned from the editor June Casagrande. In her piece "A look at the visual component of writing" in the LA Times, she points out the following:

In writing, looks count. In fact, many of the style rules followed so religiously by publishers exist exclusively to make the text easy on the eyes.

[…] some of these more superficial style conventions can give your writing a professional polish, affording your words a subtle air of authority. As a plus, writing that's easy on the eyes does a better job of getting your message across.

After reviewing a number of formatting conventions, she concludes with a strong point: "That's what the pros do." I want this observation framed and hanging above my desk. There are these conventions. Are they right? Are they wrong? It doesn't really matter. That's what the pros do.

If you want your writing to look professional, study professional writing and follow the conventions you see there. If you look at a lot of software documentation, do you see bits and pieces of paragraphs bolded? No. Should you develop your own conventions for your document? Also no. Should your document, among the thousands on our site, exhibit unique formatting conventions? Also also no.

My sense is that many editors agree, as least if "likes" on a tweet are any guide:

The next time we have a discussion about random bolding in a document, at least I'll have my thoughts in order. Whether they prove convincing to an author … well, we'll have to see.