How to make your Microsoft Word or Open Office documents look ten times better and more professional

Microsoft Word, Open Office, Corel WordPerfect: they’re  everywhere. Almost every business in the Americas, Europe, Australia (or 90 percent of the rest of the world, for that matter) uses one of the Big Three or an equivalent. We used to use typewriters, back when they were fairly cheap but “word processors” (specialized computers that only handled documents, now obsolete as a term) and computers were super-expensive. Now computers are dirt cheap, and we use word processing applications like Word. It didn’t even take long for the revolution to happen.

A modern word processing app is a fantastically sophisticated tool that really can “do amazing things” like check your spelling while you type, let you select from a mind-boggling choice of typefaces, handle bulleted and numbered lists automatically and even apply all kinds of automatic formating to your documents. So if an app can do all this, and just about everybody has one, why do so many business letters, proposals, resumes and promotional letters look, well… awful?

In my first Creative Tips newsletter to clients, years ago, I posed three questions. Given all that modern word processing apps can do, I asked: “Why, then, did these great-looking documents not happen? Why do we flinch, ever so slightly, whenever we see something obviously produced on the kitchen table? What is it that makes something look like it was produced on the kitchen table (besides the ketchup stains)?”

Most people were never taught, or have been given completely wrong information about how to type a document. I’m not talking about mouse clicks and keystrokes to make the app do its stuff, although those can also be a steep hill to climb for those who aren’t tech savvy. No, the problem is that most people have never been introduced to good page layout, nor the simple elements of professional letter writing.

There are rules about making good-looking documents. They aren’t hard to learn, and they aren’t that difficult to put into practice, but if nobody has ever pointed them out to you then getting great results, if you ever do, will only be a happy accident.

This is a real problem for many small to medium-size business owners, especially consultants and other professionals whose biggest asset is their own time and professional training. They don’t have the time to take a course in design, but they know they’re missing something fundamental. Their business communications never seem to have the impact they’d like. Something’s not right, but they can’t put their finger on it.

Well, there are  some important things you should know. Call them “Document Design 101.”

  1. Make your margins bigger. I don’t care if it seems to waste a bunch of space. Tiny margins make you look cheap. Wide margins give your message room to breathe and subtly tell the reader: “I’m run a prosperous business.” That includes top and bottom margins, not just the sides. Don’t be a cheapskate. Use a minimum of 1-1/2 inches for left and right margins for standard U.S. letter-size paper.
  2. If you have a logo and business name at the top of your letterhead, line up your left margin with something in that heading. Lining things up is a very simple, but amazingly effective way to make your business communications look better and your business more credible. You can kill a lot of potential business with bad-looking letters, proposals, or bid submissions.
  3. Avoid Times Roman. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: Don’t Use Times Roman. That’s an instant way to tell the world you’re an amateur, or you just don’t care enough to change the default settings. Not only was Times immediately recognizable as the “by default” font for every word processing app, its letter forms are designed for narrow newspaper columns, not documents. Even The Times doesn’t use Times Roman any more.
  4. Avoid Arial and Helvetica, too. They look much too black and dense on the page, making them hard on the eyes. Besides, those thick, heavy strokes will use up your ink or toner at a mad rate. (Just because you’re making money doesn’t mean you have to waste it.)
  5. Do use something like Palatino, Book Antiqua, or Bookman. They are much more comfortable to read than either Times or Arial, and they lend a professional, authoritative look to your documents that also says that you pay attention to details and don’t just take what your software dishes up.

Do all these things and I guarantee any document you type, whether it’s a letter to you bank or a proposal for a client, will look better and create a better impression that 99% of your competition. How you look does matter.

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