Use white space and break your document into chunks.

Readers instinctively turn away from any text that looks like it will be difficult to slog through.

Readers process and remember information better if it is “chunked” into manageable pieces. One way to accomplish this visually is to add white space. In addition to helping readers process and digest material, white space helps increase readers’ motivation to continue because long blocks of unbroken text tend to look foreboding. Readers instinctively turn away from text that looks like it will be difficult to slog through.

Use the following mechanisms to break up your document into manageable, inviting visual chunks:

1.     Headings and subheadings. Err on the side of using more headings rather than fewer.

2.     Block quotes, especially for contracts and statutes. Block quotes are generally to be avoided, especially when they are substituting for analysis. However, they can be useful in some circumstances — for example, when you need to quote an extended (longer than 50 words) excerpt from a statute or contract. Block quotes have the incidental benefit of creating visual variety because of their expanded margins.

3.     Shorter sentences and paragraphs. Sentences should average about 20–30 words, and paragraphs should average about 150 words — but remember to vary their lengths around these averages to avoid monotony.

4.     Bulleted or numbered lists.

5.     Visuals and diagrams. These can include images, flowcharts, diagrams, or tables. You can even include video clips in PDFs for readers viewing the PDF electronically.

6.     Wider margins without line numbers or vertical lines. Legal documents, especially court filings, conventionally use small margins. Filings also often use line numbers along the left side of the page, and these are often separated from the main text by a thick vertical line. Vertical lines are often also included to the right of the text, boxing in the text on two sides (and duplicating the role played by the text’s margins). Unless your court rules require otherwise, consider expanding your margins and ditching the line numbers and vertical lines.

7.     Minimalist headers and footers. Minimize visual clutter in documents’ headers and footers. For example, in a letter, you only need to put your firm’s logo at the top of the first page; you don’t need to repeat it on every page. In the footer of a filing, use a shorthand description of the filing whether than the filing’s full name to keep it on a single line.

8.     Sentence case rather than all-caps or initial caps. Ordinary capitalization (sentence case) is much easier to read than all-caps and initial-caps formats. All-caps sentences or paragraphs are especially hard on the eyes.

9.     Varied spacing. In general, use 1.2x or 1.5x spacing rather than double spacing unless you’re writing a filing and court rules require double spacing. Then, add additional space (usually 12 pt.) above and below headings. Learn to use Microsoft Word’s “space above” and “space below” options, which can be found in the paragraph dialog box.

Here’s an example of a legal document that uses white space effectively. Who says contracts have to be ugly and unreadable? Notice this one’s generous use of white space through wide margins (1 inch on the top, 2 inches on the bottom,[1] and 1.5 inches on the sides) as well as 1.2x spacing with additional space around the headings:


[1]     When top and bottom margins are equally sized, the text can appear to be sagging on the page. You can avoid this by making the bottom margin slightly wider than the top margin. See Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished & Persuasive Documents 144 (2013).

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Ryan McCarl is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl LLP and the author of the book-in-progress Elegant Legal Writing. He taught Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as his personal blog.