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The Great Indentation

Debate

ALLISON VANNEST

Writing

Grammar

Opinion

Updated on 12 December 2015

Writers have a lot on their plates. They have to fend off writers block, perform
meticulous research, and ensure the content they produce captivates their target
audiences. They must pay close attention to catch grammatical errors, misspellings,
punctuation mistakes, and typos. Formatting often takes a backseat on a writers

priority listespecially when it involves something so seemingly trivial as


indentation.
The first thing a reader may notice when she accesses one of your web, ebook, or
print pages is the look of the content. Formatting involves making decisions about
font type and size, and even about the space between lines. Dont believe that this
could possibly make a difference? According tosome research, if the Federal
government decided to change its preferred font from Times New Roman to
Garamond on all printed documents, it could save around $400 million!
Indentation, the much-maligned formatting technique, provides readers with a
sense of continuity. Indentations signal to the reader that she is about to dive
into another topic or start a new section of a novel. They help present content in a
logical fashion. But the debate continues over which indentation method works
best. Should you indent paragraphs as you type or simply skip spaces?

What the Style Guides Have to Say


When in doubt, refer to a style guide to answer a question about formatting and
sourcing content. But make sure you follow the same style guide throughout your
document; Chicago style, APA style, and Harvard style all differ in their
approaches to indentation.

The Chicago Manual of Style


The Chicago Manual of Style requires all text to be double-spaced, including the
notes and bibliography sections. Chicago recommends that writers indent the first
line of a new paragraph by hitting the tab key. You hit the tab key between three
and seven times to provide the proper space between the first line and the left
margin. But using the tab key for indentation can cause problems with some ebook software programs that do not recognize the tab key as a form of indentation.

ManuscriptPreparation
Q.Isitmorecommontoindentornotindentparagraphs?Inmywriting,Inolongerindentand
finditoldfashioned.Tome,itseemsmorecommonnowtonotindentaparagraph,regardlessof
whetheritisthesecondparagraph.Istherearuleorstylepreferencenowadays?
A.Indentionisimportantbecauseitshowswherenewparagraphsbegin,andsincethereare
logicalreasonsfordividingtextintoparagraphs,indentionservesasavisualguidetothe

structureandprogressofadocument.Ifalengthydocumenthasnoparagraphindents,andif
manyoftheparagraphsendwithlinesthatgofullmeasureornearlyso,thetextmaybe
perceivedasonelongramblingparagraph.Somepublishedworks(likethispage)omitindents
andputaspacebetweenparagraphsinstead.Thiscanworkforwelldesignedprojectsthatare
typesetordisplayedonline,butinaregulartypedmanuscripttherewillbeconfusionwhenever
thespacebetweenparagraphsishiddenbyapagebreak.Thestandardformisstilltoindent.

APA Style
APA style identifies two types of indentation: First line and hanging. First line
indentation begins to the right of where the next line begins. APA requires most
paragraphs to adhere to first line indentation. Hanging indentation places the first
line of a paragraph to the left of where the next line starts. APA recommends using
hanging indentation for reference lists. Writers should manually set the reference
position for indents to .5 inches from the left margin. Writers should double space
content that includes tables, headings, quotations, and references. The number of
indentation spaces varies depending on the style of writing. Formal presentations
should include only a few spaces of indentation, while casual content can use more
indentation spaces.

Harvard Style
The Harvard style manual recommends indenting content as you type, as opposed
to indenting after the manuscript is complete. Although this method takes more
time, the reasoning behind it makes sense. Writers who add indents as they write
organize their content through the creation of paragraphs. The writers who wait
until they complete the rough draft of their manuscripts typically have trouble
finding the right places to separate the text into paragraphs.

To Set a Paragraph Indentation in Microsoft


Word
Technology has almost completely taken the manual typing of indentation spaces
out of the hands of writers. Now, we use word processing software, such as
Microsoft Word, to set indentations. To set a paragraph indent in Word, place the
cursor in the paragraph you want to indent or highlight the entire paragraph. Access
the Format menu and click the Paragraph command. Within the Paragraph dialog

box, enter the desired width of the indent and then select the type of indent. Click
OK and then close the dialog box.

The Bottom Line


Freelance writers differ in their indentation preferences. However, when it comes
down to it, the type of indentation used to format a document typically depends on
who you are writing for. Before you finalize a project, check with your client to see
if he or she prefers Chicago style, APA style, or Harvard style. Then, set the clients
preferred indentation formatting by using the easy to access commands within
Microsoft Word.

When do you leave a space in a paragraph and when do you


not?
up
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I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing has
something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies if
not.
I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should be
writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following
one another without a space.
I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I am
finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.
Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you should
put a space, or should they follow on, too? Should the space even be there or is it just
something people do?
typography spacing paragraphs

shareedit

edited Feb 18 '13 at 10:54

asked Feb 17 '13 at 22:12

RegDwigt

Magpie

73.8k26252339
119115

2 It's entirely a matter of usage, and there is no definite answer: it depends on which style-guide you

follow. Not all style guides will accept spaces between paragraphs at all, except where there is a ne
section. Colin Fine Feb 17 '13 at 22:21
1 This question is not about the English language. You might try Graphic Design which is also where

lot of typography questions are welcomed. MetaEd Feb 18 '13 at 4:16


add a comment

2 Answers
activeoldestvotes

up
vote4d
own
vote

You have your choice. The white space goes either between paragraphs, or else in
front of them, but probably not both.

accepted

Version 1, common on the Internet:


I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing has
something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies if
not.
I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should be
writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following
one another without a space.
I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I am
finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.
Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you should
put a space, or should they follow on too? Should the space even be there or is it just
something people do?
Version 2, common in print:
I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing
has something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies
if not.
I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should
be writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following

one another without a space.


I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I
am finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.
Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you
should put a space, or should they follow on too? Should the space even be there or is
it just something people do?
shareedit

answered Feb 17 '13 at 22:29

tchrist
82k20203333

1 In addition in the second version you do not use leading spaces for the first paragraph of a

section. The Frog Feb 18 '13 at 0:09


So is it either or? I should never mix it up? Magpie Feb 18 '13 at 0:43

1 @Magpie This is a bit complicated, but yes, it is either-or. However, as our French friend mentioned

when you use a blank line to separate sections, or at the top of a chapter, you do not use the indent
form, since there already is a sufficient separator. The problem with what you usually see on the net
that people who are used to Microsoft systems, and not big on typesetting, use nothing but a single
return at the end of a paragraph. If you do not have a surrounding typesetting system, then that is n
enough, because it will not be formatted as a paragraph in HTML. tchrist Feb 18 '13 at 0:47

1 @TheFrog Youre right, of course. It does get a bit complicated try to explain all these bits; normally

just recommend Bringhursts Elements of Typographic Style and let it go at that. The problem on the
net is people insensitive to either or both of typesetting or HTML, being used to automagic [
smarts from word processors, think that web pages will show paragraphs is a sensible way without
making them go out of their way to set it up for themselves. They are, of course, sadly mistaken and
wildly optimistic. tchrist Feb 18 '13 at 0:52

1 @tchrist I see you covered a lot of the same ground as I did (I was writing my answer in between ot

tasks). As to people being led astray by word processors, they generally aren't using their word
processors correctly either; just as they don't take the approach to the web of separating the HTML'
job from the CSS's, so they make a mismash of different numbers of line breaks, empty paragraphs
add vertical space, and so on, all combined with the default stylesheet. It makes the simplest edits a
chore, and the simplest of format changes require a complete editing. Jon Hanna
show 1 more comment

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There are two separate things here, and I'm not sure which (or both) you are talking
about.
As a rule, paragraphs will make some sort of use of whitespace to indicate where they
end or begin. The most common styles are block paragraphs with extra vertical space
(typically, the same amount as a blank line of text would take up):
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Quisque elementum aliquet
dolor, vitae ultricies risus sagittis vel.
Aenean lobortis sagittis erat sed imperdiet. In augue lacus, tincidunt eu mollis vel,
pellentesque ac libero. Duis feugiat laoreet urna, auctor iaculis diam fringilla sed.
Etiam massa metus, faucibus id lobortis non.
Proin sed nisi magna, vitae convallis velit. Cras ac mi vitae elit bibendum vehicula.
Maecenas rutrum, ligula et adipiscing aliquet, elit augue sodales tellus, nec lacinia
lorem nunc ut est.
And indenting the second and subsequent paragraphs of a section, with no extra
vertical space:
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Quisque elementum aliquet
dolor, vitae ultricies risus sagittis vel.
Aenean lobortis sagittis erat sed imperdiet. In augue lacus, tincidunt eu mollis
vel, pellentesque ac libero. Duis feugiat laoreet urna, auctor iaculis diam fringilla sed.
Etiam massa metus, faucibus id lobortis non.
Proin sed nisi magna, vitae convallis velit. Cras ac mi vitae elit bibendum
vehicula. Maecenas rutrum, ligula et adipiscing aliquet, elit augue sodales tellus, nec
lacinia lorem nunc ut est.
Other styles are certainly found; combining the two is sometimes done, but generally
considered excessive, while having nothing to indicate a new paragraph other than the
line-break of the previous line, is not unheard of, particularly in cheaper paperbacks.
More obscure options such as running the line on and placing a picrow () between
them, can be found, but are extremely rare.
The important thing to realise, is that these are matters of typographic choices, rather
than of writing. This has a few important consequences:
1.

If you are using a word-processor, you should be making


paragraphs happen in the same way regardless. Typically, you
press the enter/return key to start a new paragraph, and do so
with the shift key held down to enter a line-break within the
paragraph in question (not done within normal English prose;
only required for addresses and some special cases where you
are not writing normal sentences). The different types of spacing

are a matter of the style of the paragraph and are made not by
pressing the space or enter/return keys extra times, but by
changing the styles of the document. (Word, LibreOffice
Writer and OpenOffice.org Writer all offer these changes
under Format > Styles and Formatting. If you don't know
what the options here do, learn them).
2.
Because of this, you can change the style of every paragraph
in a document from one of the styles above to the other, and
back again, in one fell swoop. If you have to (and the points that
follow show why you might) you'll be glad you didn't actually
type extra spaces and empty paragraphs manually.
3.

Style guides may have set rules as to which format you should
use, which you should follow whether you like them or not.
Luckily, you can just write in the style you find comfortable, and
then change the style as the last thing you do before printing or
sending the file.*

4.

Publications will have their own style, and they will change
your writing to match it. This is not even considered an editorial
change, no more than what colour the text is, or what font it is
in, or even whether the paper is glossy; it's a design decision. If
republished in an anthology or journal, the same text will be
changed to match the style of the new publication it is part of.
They won't even tell you, or imagine you'd care.
5.
Style guides a publication insists on will not generally match
that they print to. They'll want to receive writings in a style
based on either one that is common elsewhere, or what an
editor prefers to read an A4 or US-Letter size typescript in, while
possibly adding hand-written notes. They'll want to print writings
in a style that suits the format they are printing in, and generally
with less line-space because most readers of most documents
are not expected to add notes as an editor does.
As such you don't need to worry about most of this if you aren't self-publishing,
barring that you match the style-guide you are writing to, and you use styles rather
than typing spaces and empty paragraphs so that you can quickly change to match a
different style-guide.
If you are self-publishing, then you need to worry about it more. Take a look at what
similar works have done. As a rough guide, use the indenting style above if it's going
to be about the size of a typical paper- or hard-back book, and use the block size if it's
going to be about A4 or US-Letter size. Use line spacing somewhere around 20% of
the size of the font (i.e. if a 10pt font, then somewhere around 12pt total height of each
line; different fonts will work better slightly above or below that, but generally not
much above or below), and have the space between paragraphs the same as that total
line-height (so 12pt in this example). You can do well to go outside of that guideline,
but you need to read up on scale and rhythm in typography if you are going to do so.

Now, the other thing you may have been talking about, is extra space between
paragraphs; used to indicate that one paragraph is much more different to the
preceding one, than most paragraphs are from each other.
In a narrative (fiction, journalistic accounts, historical accounts, biography, memoir,
etc.) this is done to signify a change of scene. You do it when you are moving to
another time or place or to focus on another person.
In other non-fiction writing, you do it because you need to completely change what
you are talking about, and the paragraph does not directly follow the previous.
Consider a new section with a new heading, either on the same level as the current
section, or as a subsection of it. On the one hand, if this makes sense then the new
section with new heading will help the reader. On the other, if it makes absolutely no
sense, it probably shouldn't be considered a break at all, and you should just start a
new paragraph normally. You should add extra space if there's a vague argument for a
new section, but not a very compelling one.
Again, style-guides will often have rules as to how such extra space should be
signalled (including perhaps saying that they never should, and banning such extra
space entirely). A common form is "# # #" centred, as a paragraph of it's own before
the new paragraph.
If you're self-publishing, you will have to decide how much extra space to give, and
whether to add something like a row of three asterisks or not. Whichever you choose,
have one single style for such breaks. Avoid printing any at the start of a page, if
necessary remove that break for your print-run, and let the page break be it's own
break for the reader. (But do leave it in at the start of the page if it's for someone else
to publish, they'll need to know where that break is as it will not be on the same
position on the page in the final version). Use full multiples of the line-height of the
rest of the text. So for example, with our 10pt text with 12pt line-height example
above, you might have a 24pt gap between scenes, or 12pt, then three asterisks, then
12pt.
It can be a good idea to set up a style in your word-processor for such indicators of a
break. This again allows you to change the style to match a new style-guide, or to
reliably find-and-replace all of them.
*Since typescripts are received electronically these days, some will not care beyond a
requirement that you use "hard breaks" (that is, paragraphs rather than line-breaks)
between paragraphs, because they will just change the style themselves. This is
another reason to follow the advice above. Conversely, if one really does want two
manual returns between paragraphs, then if every single such return in your text is a
new paragraph, it's a simple find-and-replace to change them all.
An exception would be some fiction and poetry writers who make typographic

choices part of their medium, and people whose actual topic is typography (and the
only fiction writers I can think of that count, have a background in typography).
shareedit

answered Feb 18 '13 at 1:24

Jon Hanna
39.6k170143

Oh good. Now I dont have to write all that. :) tchrist Feb 18 '13 at 1:40
Also: Welcome to 10k. tchrist Feb 18 '13 at 2:10

I tend to find a full line height (12pt in your example) a bit excessive for block paragraph spacing. I
would normally go with the text size instead (10pt here) to avoid breaking the flow of the text too mu
Apart from that, +1. And I'd give it +100 if I could, and if I could get the writers of the world in genera
read it and understand that hitting enter twice is not how you make a new paragraph.
Jacquet Oct 6 '14 at 9:16
@JanusBahsJacquet I'd never go that small, if only becuase it can be nasty when ascenders are
written over descenders of the line above. Jon Hanna Oct 6 '14 at 10:51

@JonHanna I think you misunderstoodI'm not talking about basic leading (10/12 or 10/13 is my
usual go-to there, too), but the separating line between blocks of paragraphs; in a 10/12 text of the
spaced-not-indented type, I'd have a space of 10pt, rather than 12pt, before each paragraph, giving
first line an effective line height of 22pt, rather than 24pt. Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 6 '14 at 11:33

@JanusBahsJacquet Ah, I get you. I default to multiples of whole line-height because then the vertic
rhythm of the text stays constant. There're are reasons for going with other amounts of space but
keeping to the same vertical rhythm is a reasonable starting point, especially for someone like myse
who lacks the skill to go outside of the guidelines about rhythm and do it well. Jon Hanna
14:53
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Is an indentation needed for a new paragraph?

up
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3
favorite

Is an indentation (Tab button in Word) needed for a new paragraph when you start
one? I was told to do that a long time ago but 3 years after I stopped doing it and
have done it since.
Are you meant to indent when you start a new paragraph?
writing writing-style

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asked Jan 16 '11 at 8:50

JFW
1,851153858

8 Just have to add that "indentation by tabbing" is so wrong. You use a paragraph style (of paragraph

styles) for that. ;-) Jrgen A. Erhard Jan 16 '11 at 10:18


1 @jae: And what about using Word? That's not wrong? SamB May 3 '11 at 1:18

Nope, Word is at least okay. ;-) Jrgen A. Erhard May 3 '11 at 10:25
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4 Answers
activeoldestvotes

up
vote8do
wn vote

I'm not an expert here but I thought I would illustrate two different styles of
paragraphs:

The first pair of paragraphs are not indented, there is line-space between them.
The second pair of paragraphs are delineated by indenting the first line. Typically one
would use double line-spacing with indentation, I show them compacted to better
illustrate the difference.
What's important isn't which is more appropriate than the other (though there certainly
are situations where one would be required over the other). The important thing is that
the reader is able to distinguish where one paragraph ends and the next begins.
If you were to use both line-spacing and indentation of paragraphs, that would simply

be redundant.
shareedit

answered Jan 16 '11 at 15:59

Tergiver
1813

3 The second example looks ugly, because both are only two lines. Paragraphs-marked-by-indent nee

to be longer to look nice. Jrgen A. Erhard Jan 16 '11 at 16:56


1 @jae: Not necessarily: that indent is huge, and a more appropriately sized indent would look just

fine. Jon Purdy Feb 6 '11 at 19:40


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up
vote5do
wn vote

What's important is that it's clear to your reader where paragraphs begin and end, and
that the text is laid out in a way that's easy to read. Often if you're writing for a
publisher, newspaper or magazine, there will be a house style that will dictate the
layout. If you're writing for yourself you're free to choose what you prefer.
Indents were (and to some extent still are) much more common in printed material;
this may be due to space restrictions and the cost of paper. Most articles I read on the
internet - even very formal ones - use gaps to delimit paragraphs, and this does not
strike me as "wrong" or "informal" in any way.
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answered Jan 16 '11 at 9:03

psmears
11.5k13454

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up
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It used to be mandatory to indent the beginning of every paragraph, along with double
spacing after periods. Now, whether you start with an indentation is just a matter of
personal/corporate preference.
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answered Jan 16 '11 at 9:03

Dori
2,01631421

So now double spacing after sentence-ending periods is not mandatory? I suspected as much, but I
had no official confirmation from someone knowledgeable (such as a moderator on this
site) :) JakeParis Nov 1 '11 at 13:37

@JMC - that question is answered at How many spaces should come after a period/full stop?
version: If you're using a typewriter and a monospaced font, then two spaces make sense. Otherwis
no. Dori Nov 1 '11 at 19:07
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up

This is entirely a matter of style. A clear typesetting would make sure that the

vote2do
wn vote

separation of paragraphs is clear to the readers. This can be achieved by vertical


spacing, or by indentation at the beginning of paragraphs.
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answered Feb 6 '11 at 15:39

F'x
30.3k10104205

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