Tip 3. Make It Easy to Skim

While some people will read a report from beginning to end, many do not move systematically through the information. By interviewing readers and watching what they do, researchers have found that some people flip through reports in search of useful information, stopping to read only if something seems interesting. If the task of skimming proves too daunting for such readers, the document is unlikely to achieve its purpose.

Consider the following strategies to make it easier for readers to skim your report.

Use Headlines, Not Labels

To facilitate scanning, use meaningful headlines that tell a story rather than descriptive labels that provide little useful information. That is, each section and subsection of your report should have a header that summarizes its contents, like a newspaper headline. These headlines allow readers to acquire information without reading every word.

Here’s an example of a headline that’s more helpful than the label:

  • Label: Health Plans and Referrals
  • Headline: Health Plans Influence Your Doctor's Referrals to Specialists

Use Bulleted and/or Numbered Lists

Lists are a useful tool for:

  • Making details easier to read (such as the measures included in a given category of quality information).
  • Drawing attention to certain information (such as the steps a reader could follow to use information on quality to make a decision).
  • Breaking up the flow of text on the page, creating "white space" that makes the page easier on the eye.

Numbered lists work well when there is a natural order to the information you are presenting.

Here are tips for creating good lists:

  • Construct each item on a list using parallel language. All items in a list should be either sentences or phrases, not a combination of the two.
  • Start all items with the same kind of language. For example, begin each phrase with an active verb (e.g., get a referral, pick a category, call customer service) or a gerund (e.g., getting a referral, picking a category, calling customer service), but not a combination of the two.
  • If items are lengthy:
    • Highlight key words (using bold type, italics, or color) so that the reader can skim the list and still get the gist of what is being conveyed. However, be careful not to overuse highlighting of any kind because it can lessen the impact of the emphasis and make the page hard to read.
    • Create subgroups of items with their own subheadings.

Use Navigation Aids

Since your audience is not likely to begin with the introduction and proceed page by page through the document, provide information throughout the document—not just in the beginning—that will help readers find their way.

On paper, navigational aids may include a table of contents and index as well as colors, written instructions, and icons. For example:

  • Use a specific icon for survey-based data or a colored box for definitions.
  • Use written instructions to tell the reader exactly what to do ("open the folded page") and where to go ("turn to page 8 to see scores for each measure").

In large documents, colors are especially helpful for letting people know what section of a printed or Web-based report they are looking at. Other Web-based navigational aids include section links, site maps, and breadcrumb trails that show the reader where the page fits into the structure of the site.

Learn more about Web-based navigation aids:

Also in "Tips on Writing a Quality Report"

Page last reviewed May 2015
Page originally created February 2015
Internet Citation: Tip 3. Make It Easy to Skim. Content last reviewed May 2015. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/quality-patient-safety/talkingquality/resources/writing/tip3.html