This article covers best practices for how to structure online pages or documents for enhanced readability and how to draw emphasis to important parts.
By keeping text succinct and broken up, you can “chunk” up your information in a more digestible way. This is something that depends on what is being written as well as opinion on what acceptable length of the topic should be. In general, the WC3 Web Accessibility Initiative suggests:
- Keep paragraphs short. Have only one topic in each paragraph. Try for 50 words maximum per paragraph.
- Try to have the aim of the paragraph or chunk at the beginning
- Try to use short sentences. Only one point should be made per sentence.
- Use bulleted or numbered lists
- Use short descriptive headings to chunk up sections
By following these guidelines, you are helping to make it easier for readers to scan the page or document to find the information they need. This way each piece is emphasized by its context.
Best Practices for Creating Emphasis
The best way to emphasize points in text is to use bolding. Bolded text stands out on the page and attracts visual attention to those parts.
The key rule for bolding text is: Be sparing with bolding. Too much bolding can have a contrasting effect. If everything is bolded and marked as important, then nothing is seen as important. Select a few words from the sentence or even a sentence from a paragraph that holds the key take away you want to relay. The bolding is going to make the reader look at the surrounding text to figure out the context of the bolded text.
If you have a section of text that you want to emphasize to students like a “warning” or “important” statement, you can always bold the statement like so:
Important: It is advised to not over use bolding. Bold only the important take-aways.
Look through this page to see how bolding is used to emphasize points.
Italics are another good option for formatting text. It’s not a replacement for bolding, but it has its place to communicate a section of text that is different from others. The one caveat is that italicized text can sometimes be hard to read for users with neurodivergent issues like dyslexia. For that reason as well as the reasons for limited use of bolding, sparing use of italics is advised.
Good places to use italics include:
- When presenting the name of a textbook, book or a non-link resource. Certain citation standards call for specific uses of italics. In those cases it is acceptable to use.
- For quotes.
- A place to distinguish a different voice.
If you want to further emphasize italic text, feel free to pair italics and bolding. Just be mindful of overuse.
Using Color for Emphasis
For reasons outlined in the article Color Contrast and Accessibility: highlighting a section of text or making a text a particular color to draw can be used, but there are some guidelines that should be followed. The main takeaway is that if you do use color for emphasis, the selection of text should be bolded so that the emphasis is still made even if users can’t see the highlighting or text with color.
Practices Not to Follow
Using Bolded Text as Headings
While bolding works well when emphasizing parts of sentences, when chunking up information by using headings, it is best practice to not use bolded text for headings. Use headings instead. The reason being: screen-readers can use headings as a way to inform the layout of a page when being read out to a user. Bolded text does not have that ability. While your text looks scannable to users, it will not be scannable to students that need to use screen readers. Please read more about headings in our article Headings and Accessibility to learn more.
Using All Capitalization
Obviously there are places when using all capitalization is perfectly acceptable such as for acronyms and abbreviations. (ex. NASA or UMN) When trying to draw emphasis, it is advised to not use all capitalization or “all caps”.
For users with dyslexia, the changes in the letters being big and small letters is actually easier to read because it indicates the beginning of sentences or highlights proper nouns in sentences. Also if you are writing to someone in all caps, the impression of the reader is that you are upset. If you are writing instructions for an assignment using all caps, the tone may be misinterpreted.
If you are writing in a stylized way where you are trying to relay that voice of yelling or excitement, there is an argument to use of all caps. Keep in mind that overuse of that formatting may be difficult to read.
Underlining is a very common way of emphasizing sections of written text. But online, it is also how links are identified on web pages or in emails. Because underlines of text is a common convention on web pages, underlined text on webpage might be seen as broken links and cause some confusion. Therefore it is advised to use bolding or italics to emphasize non-link text.
Something you can take from this: links because of their default formatting can be used to highlight resources. Please read our article Web Links and Accessibility, to learn more.