Writing for screen readers

Today, many judges, lawyers, supervisors, and clients will read your writing on a screen instead of on paper. According to a book on the subject of on-screen legal writing, readers behave differently when reading on the screen as compared to reading on paper. Robert Dubose, Legal Writing for the Rewired Brain: Persuading Readers in a Paperless World (2010). Good legal writers know the tendencies of screen readers and write accordingly. In this column, I introduce some screen-reader traits and offer some suggestions.

Here are some tendencies we’re coming to understand about screen readers:

  • Screen readers get impatient, Dubose at 42, and tend to spend less time on a screen document than they would on a print document.
  • Screen readers skim a lot, Dubose at 39, perhaps even more than when reading a printed document.
  • Screen readers show a top-left preference: they focus more on text at the screen’s top and left and less on text at the bottom and right. The preference is called the F-pattern, Dubose at 37, because the screen reader’s eyes move in a pattern that resembles an uppercase F.

Given these tendencies, what should you do when writing for screen readers? The advice is not surprising and, frankly, would benefit print readers, too.

1. Be brief.
Accommodate screen readers’ brief attention with a brief document. Let me clarify: what I advocate here is really concision. Brief simply means shorter, and anything can be made shorter but cutting content. Concise means as short as possible while preserving content. Sure, some content deserves cutting. But don’t cut crucial content. Instead, preserve necessary content while using as few words as possible. Be concise.

2. Provide summaries.
At the top of the document, as early as the rules and conventions allow, summarize your main points or give the answer with reasons or state your request and support it—whatever the document calls for. In short, provide a substantive summary. I recommend a “substantive” summary rather than a mere roadmap (“Part A presents X; part B discusses Y.”) because the impatient screen reader wants the goods, not just a description of where the goods can be found. A substantive summary that doubles as a roadmap is even better. Do it by presenting the substantive points in the order they’ll appear in the document’s body.

You can also include a mini-summary for every major section of the document and even a single-sentence summary for every paragraph, or what we might call a “topic sentence.”

3. Use headings and subheadings.
Accommodate heavy skimming by making your documents easy to skim. Headings facilitate skimming. Use short, often single-word headings for the main sections of a document: Facts, Argument, Discussion, Analysis, and so on. Use short, sentence-type, explanatory headings for other parts. The headings in this column are examples of short, sentence-type, explanatory headings.

By rule or convention, some legal documents already require explanatory headings, like the assertive point headings in a motion or brief, though you shouldn’t let them get too long. But other documents can benefit from the skim-ability of explanatory headings: email, letters, CLE articles, newsletters, and more.

4. Left-align headings and make them stand out.
Given the top-left preference and the tendency toward skimming, aligning headings and subheadings on the left margin helps screen readers. Headings on the left margin are easy to skim. Centered headings are harder to skim. Centering your main section headings is harmless, but even they can be placed on the left margin. Never center explanatory headings.

To differentiate heading levels, apply a consistent numbering system, use contrasting typefaces (larger size, bold, italics), or indent each lower heading level one additional tab length. If you want to indent your headings, follow these tips:

  1. Use the indentation function—different from a mere tab—so each line of text aligns with first line, like this example.
  2. Don’t over-indent; if you indent three or more tab lengths, you’ll destroy the left alignment that eases skimming.

Ultimately, think about how you read on the screen. Write and layout your text in a way you’d like to read.

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