Why Freelance Writers Need to Care About Design

By Brandon Yanofsky

Have you ever picked up a book and started reading just because the cover was interesting?

If you have, you’ve experienced firsthand the power of design. Beautiful books just beg to be picked up and read.

Likewise, your website’s visitors are more likely to read your articles if they are well-designed.

That’s why freelance writers need to learn design — especially writers who have their own blogs.

Below, I’ve laid out five design basics that will improve your blog and attract readers.

1. Whitespace

Readers hate blocks of text. Just look at the following passages:

Über den „toten Bühl“, einen Teil der Hochebene im südlichen Schwarzwald Badens, braust der Herbstwind in langen Stößen; es seufzt der Tann in den niederen Lagen, oben aber auf der kahlen Höhe ächzen die wenigen alten knorrigen Buchen und am einsam ragenden Kruzifix bebt die Holzfigur des Heilandes, nachdem Regen und Wind die Holznägel gelockert und die Befestigung mürbe gemacht haben. Öd und rauh, unwirtlich ist dieser Strich badischen Schwarzwaldlandes, den der Volksmund selbst bezeichnend den „toten Bühl“ nennt, weil die Hügelreihe wahrhaftig an den Tod der Natur gemahnt, heimgesucht von scharfem Westwind und häufigem starken Schneefall, der schon auf die alten Strohdächer der Walddörfer fällt, wenn drüben am glitzernden Rhein, im sonnigen Garten des badischen Unterlandes Wiesen und Matten noch im spätsommerlichen Glanze prangen.

versus

Über den „toten Bühl“, einen Teil der Hochebene im südlichen Schwarzwald Badens, braust der Herbstwind in langen Stößen; es seufzt der Tann in den niederen Lagen, oben aber auf der kahlen Höhe ächzen die wenigen alten knorrigen Buchen und am einsam ragenden Kruzifix bebt die Holzfigur des Heilandes,

Nachdem Regen und Wind die Holznägel gelockert

und die Befestigung mürbe gemacht haben. Öd und rauh, unwirtlich ist dieser Strich badischen Schwarzwaldlandes,

Dden der Volksmund selbst bezeichnend den „toten Bühl“ nennt, weil die Hügelreihe wahrhaftig an den Tod der Natur gemahnt, heimgesucht von scharfem Westwind und häufigem starken Schneefall, der schon auf die alten Strohdächer der Walddörfer fällt, wenn drüben am glitzernden Rhein, im sonnigen Garten des badischen Unterlandes Wiesen und Matten noch im spätsommerlichen Glanze prangen.

Both are the exact same paragraphs, in German. The only difference is one has whitespace, and the other doesn’t.

Whitespace is basically parts of a page that have nothing there (like the white of a blank piece of paper).

An article that’s one giant block of text isn’t attractive to the eye. Your visitors are less likely to read these articles.

2. Visuals

Just as you can use whitespace to break up blocks of text, you can also use visuals. A well placed visual will make your text more appealing and inviting to readers.

However, don’t limit yourself to images. Lists, italicized text, and checkmarks are other ways to add visual appeal. As well as blockquotes, such as the one below:

This is a blockquote.

3. Headers

In addition to whitespace and visuals, consider using headers so your articles have sections.

I’m using headers in this article. Each design point is divided into a section with a bolded, large header.

By sectioning your post with headers, you make your post easier to digest, and therefore more inviting.

4. Font

There are two basic “families” of fonts: serif and sans-serif (there are more, but the others are for decorative purposes).

There is one difference: serif has the little tails on the ends of strokes for each letter. Sans-serif does not. (Click here to see examples.)

When deciding which to use, you need to balance readability and design.

Serif is much easier to read, especially for long form writing. That’s why novels use serif fonts.

However, sans-serif has a more modern look. That’s why many websites (including this one) use sans-serif.

When deciding which to use, consider your reader. While the sans-serif fonts may be more appealing, if you write long posts, it may be beneficial to use serif fonts.

5. Color

Colors are a challenge. But here are some tips when choosing colors for your blog.

Generally, pick only two or three colors for your blog (a great tip from Pamela Wilson). If you have more, it can get chaotic and distracting.

Also check out Colour Lovers for some great color tips and palettes.

One important thing to keep in mind with colors is readability. The reason black text on a white background is used so often is because it contrasts and makes it much easier to read.

Black text on a dark red background, on the other hand, doesn’t offer much contrast and is very hard to read.

When choosing your text and background colors, find something that contrasts.

Two Words of Caution

Design is about balance.

Too much whitespace is just as bad as no whitespace. Too many visuals can distract from your writing.

Let your intuition guide you. If you think it might be overboard, it probably is.

Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

These rules are, like all rules, meant to be broken. There will come a time when a block of text may be appropriate, or your blog may need 10 colors. Again, use your intuition.

Remember: design matters. People do judge books by their covers.

  1. STRONGside says:

    I really enjoyed the article. Proper design was one thing I really struggled with when I first created my blog. I felt confident in my writing style, but not my presentation. With a few tweaks, and a proper application of whitespace and color, I made some major improvements.

    Your words ring true. Balance in design is key.
    STRONGside recently posted..10 Books That Will Rock Your Writing World

  2. Karen says:

    Great advice. It took me a while to ‘get’ design. I’ve recently been digging into my archives to edit for both design and SEO, and it amazes me how much I’ve learned in a little over a year of blogging. My early posts definitely need some white space, headings etc. I think I was still writing for offline publications in the beginning. Web copy certainly needs a different approach and more scannability (if that’s a word!)
    Karen recently posted..Five Tools To Help You Plan Your Online Book Tour

  3. Karen Lange says:

    Great tips! Years ago I had a friend/colleague advise me to put more white space into a booklet I was writing. She was right; it made all the difference.
    Karen Lange recently posted..Weeding

  4. Laurie Boris says:

    Great tips! As a former graphic designer (it never really leaves you), I appreciate your sharing them. But I disagree about white text on a black background. I no longer have twenty-year-old eyes, so I find it difficult to read.
    Laurie Boris recently posted..The Fonts of Our Lives

  5. Joseph says:

    This is a great post with a lot of practical advice, and, like it or not, design really does matter.

    My wife recently brought home a book from a second hand store that had one of the lamest, cheesiest covers ever. It was so bad that unless it had been recommended by a friend there was no chance she would have ever bought it.

    Maybe you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but people do. The same is true with blog design. I’m excited to talk about this in our Webinar tomorrow. :)
    Joseph recently posted..4 Keys to Creating Positive First Time Blog Impressions

  6. Sonja Bonin says:

    Talking about design … you might mot want to use a German phrase as a nexample next time, since the Umlauts get all messed up on your website.

    Great blog, though!

  7. This is an excellent article and I can’t agree more with what you say about the importance of all the elements. Even when writing a resume, I stress the importance of whitespace for better readership and presentation. Many don’t understand its importance and only after showing them the difference to they begin to catch on. When writing my blogs or training curriculum, I implemented these elements to enhance content. The result was a clearer and better understanding of the content leading to improved employee performance within the company. It was a learning experience for management, who had never before used such concepts.

    And yes, many times I buy a book based on its cover, or at least pick it up to review content based on the cover. Cluttered covers or pages make me nervous and I cannot wait to set down that book, magazine or article. It’s amazing the psychological difference it makes.

    Once again you’ve provided great tips and invaluable information.

    • Carol Tice says:

      For me, it’s the color blue (though clutter is a turnoff too). In our culture it has associations of fear and unhappiness — think of what happens in the movie The Sixth Sense when bad things are happening, or any CSI episode, or many horror movies. It makes me nervous to be on very blue sites, which is why you rarely see that color on my blog. I know some people who’ve made it have the feel of blue skies and happiness, but it’s tricky.

      I saw a great color wheel infographic recently on this very topic — check that out for some interesting information on what colors mean to people in different places.

    • I’ve bought some really crappy books because of amazing covers.

      Will I recommend it, no.

      But it did it’s job of getting me to pick it up.

      So a great cover and great writing: that’s the key.
      Brandon Yanofsky recently posted..Best Social Sharing Plugin for WordPress: SexyBookmarks

  8. Mz M says:

    Great post! A clean design will get me hooked on a new blog just about every time. But I’m pretty sure it’s sans serif, from the French “sans,” meaning without– not san serif. ;)
    Mz M recently posted..Working from home is so much harder

  9. Ruth Zive says:

    Clear and succinct! I’m a relative newbie (blogger, not writer), but this helps with the learning curve. My next post will definitely include headers!
    Ruth Zive recently posted..TNA, WWE and what writers can learn from wrestling

  10. Lakshmi says:

    Interesting article. You’re very correct. Whitespace, visuals, header, font, and colors – together make a lot of difference for a blog.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Rules are meant to be broken. However, this rule (design matters) is very true especially in today’s age. It’s a difficult task if you’re unable to code, but it can be done, sometimes I feel like you need to hire someone.

    Question, did you hire someone to do reformat your design on the site?
    Jonathan recently posted..How Bad Do You Want It?

    • Hey Jonathan,

      Are you referring to my site or Carol’s?

      For mine, I did it myself, but I’ve spent years learning CSS and HTML and spent days reworking the code.

      If you don’t have the time or patience, it’s worth investing in someone else helping you.

      Feel free to email me if you’d like some more information on DIY vs Hiring: brandon [at] blistmarketing [dot] com
      Brandon Yanofsky recently posted..Building Customer Trust in the Online Marketplace

      • Carol Tice says:

        I personally have found it invaluable to pay pros — many including Brandon are very affordable. When you think about your hourly rate — and how many hours you would waste trying to figure out that tech issue — to me paying means I have more billable hours. Plus I hate doing tech and love writing, so which should I spend time on? ;-)

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