I find myself writing quite a lot of articles, user manual-like documents, as well as posting hundreds of questions on stackexchange sites.

Over time, I developed a certain style of writing, which uses bold letters to emphasize keywords, and key questions. I do so, because I found that users often fail to see the key points that I'm trying to make. I find myself figuring out, what is the main question that I want to ask, and mark it in bold. Does using bold font improve readability of text for first time reader?

When I write a document that is about 10 pages long (nicely formatted with section titles, table of contents and such), I still find myself wanting to bold the key points. I'm interested in learning if using bold fonts improve readability of documents that may be read more than once, such as user manuals.

Maybe there are some professional copywriter or technical writer blogs, etc, that deal with this style of writing? I don't want to overdo it.

  • 1
    This is an interesting question. There's also got to be some similarity (though there may be differences) between emphasis on websites - and emphasis in longer documents.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Nov 6, 2012 at 13:16

5 Answers 5


I don't have references to hand, and Google is failing me, but my (very fallible) recollection is that:

  • bold text inline decreases reading speed / legibility

  • bold text increases "scannability" when searching since folk can easily find the bolded text

There are, of course, other options to highlight key points that will help readers find the important text than bold.

For example bullet points;

  • highlight key points
  • help readers find important text

without the same typographic distractions. Sidebars and other marginal notations are also commonly used. I know at least one TA who says that the urge to use bold text to highlight is an indication that she needs to rewrite for clarity.

If you want to dig into technical writing more I recommend you take a look at the Society for Technical Communication. There's also an STC UX SIG with a mailing list that's open to non-STC members. You may find some folk on that list who have more knowledge about this specifically.

  • 2
    To add a reference and endorse @adrianh's answer, the ever-helpful Jakob Nielsen wrote 'How Users Read on the Web' useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html back in 1997. A quick read around that site gives other examples/hints/guidance.
    – DaveP
    Commented Nov 6, 2012 at 13:08
  • 2
    Another reference you might find useful: The Yahoo Style Guide has an article about User-Instruction Mechanics, which is often used in manuals.
    – Pep López
    Commented Nov 6, 2012 at 20:24
  • The answer says: "I know at least one TA who says that the urge to use bold text to highlight is an indication that she needs to rewrite for clarity." What is a TA? Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 12:18

The general design theory seems to be that people don't like to read, so we should let them get what they need and get out. Highlight key factors, so they can find what's important more easily.

But this just teaches users that much of what we have to say is just not valuable.

Also, focusing on only the key aspects allows readers to ignore the transitions in language which help people understand.

We see this in many video games, most notably MMOs. By telling people simply what they need to know (go here, do this) they are more than willing ignore the main text entirely. Most just glance at the objectives. This is passable in a game environment where the only point is to chase the carrot on a stick. However, this is not acceptable when you need people to understand what they're doing.


In my experience, your biggest problem is a lack of motivation to read. No amount of formatting can fix that.

Still, from my personal experience:

  • Give keywords and application-specific terms (like button titles) a distinct formatting.
  • Give key points distinct paragraph formatting.

Bold works well for directing attention, but not for phrases. So I'd italic or monospace the keywords and give the key points a distinct format:

From the menu, select Extras / Examples / Advanced / Rabid Tiger. After the model is loaded, use the customization controls to modify the appearance.

Warning: if you later choose the Print (3D) and Animate option for this model, make sure your immunizations are up to date.

Rationale: The slight modification of the font helps the user identify which words/labels to look for in the actual application, without breaking text flow.

Indentation and bold "labels" make the key point stand out, and help attract attention. They can also help structuring the page.


People/users don't like to read. Readability is the ease in which text can be read and understood. Using bold for key points is good not for readability but to emphasize the word or the sentence. The user most likely would read the text that stand out (bolder, different colour).


I don't know how well it transfers to your documentation (and it's been a few decades since I wrote any myself, often printed on paper), but I did have a somewhat useful convention:

  • Where "keyword" is being defined or described in more detail, I'd put it in bold.
  • Where "keyword" is assumed to be known already, but is being used to define or describe other things, I'd put it in italics.
  • Each keyword would appear in the index as:
    keyword: 7-12, 27, 36, 42, … 83, 96

This made it easy to find where the term was defined or expanded, and where it was used for other things.

And when writing documentation, it's good to use newspaper, not magazine, style. You don't need to build suspense or keep people reading right up to the end.

  • Don't bury the lede!
  • Start with a "nutgraph", a single paragraph that provides all the necessary information, but without details.
  • Add paragraphs that fill in the general details.
  • Add paragraphs that complete the more specific details.

The idea is, that the item can be cut off (literally, with scissors, in the case of newspapers) at any point and it will still be informative and generally complete. That way a reader can stop at any time once they have found what they wanted, without any fear of there being important information hidden in the following material.

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