Hanging in the Back Matter: Indents Are the Rule

by | Oct 5, 2015

I write today in praise of the humble indent. Not just any indent, like the kind you find at the beginning of paragraphs in a book.

No, this is the opposite of a first line indent: it’s the hanging indent, which reverses the normal order. In a hanging indent the first line is not indented, but all subsequent lines in the paragraph are.

Hanging indents can be useful in many places, and especially for many kinds of lists, and it’s that quality that makes them such a good typographic device in the back matter of books, where most sections are lists of one kind or another.

(Back matter are all those sections of additional information that follow the text of the book itself.)

Glossaries Add Value

For instance, consider the glossary, found in the back matter..

Glossaries can add real value to your book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Although they are sometimes seen as a brief look into the terms of art used by another profession or area of study, glossaries have lots of other uses too.

Here’s an example of a glossary in a blog post, something that could easily become part of a book manuscript since it’s “evergreen” content.

“A glossary, also known as a vocabulary, or clavis, is an alphabetical list of terms in a particular domain of knowledge with the definitions for those terms.”—Wikipedia

Many readers enjoy these extra elements, and if you’re introducing any kind of new topic to people who may not understand the terms used, an alphabetical list of difficult, technical, or foreign words along with explanations of their meanings is really helpful to newcomers. Although most often associated with nonfiction books, they find their way into fiction, too.

For instance, if you’re writing a sci-fi adventure in the Star Trek universe, you could include a glossary with terms like oaxial drive, Dilithium, and the Vulcan nerve pinch and your own explanations.

Or use a glossary to explain the world that you’ve created. You can even create a Glossary of Characters.

Whatever you use a glossary for, you’ll want to format it smartly, making it easy for your readers to use.

Hang That Indent

Here’s an example of a glossary, and the way I usually format them.

book design

By using this hanging indent, along with bold for the terms being defined, the reader has no trouble picking out the term they want to look up. Each term is distinct and readily identifiable, yet they all stick together to form a cohesive book page.

The red line shows the amount of the indent, and as a rule I use the same value that was used for the first-line indent in the paragraph formatting.

The type size is the same as the body text of the book, and the same font. The leading (space between the lines) has been reduced by 1 point to make the items hang together, and space has been
added below each entry, to make them distinct.

Here are the Indent and Spacing settings from InDesign’s Paragraph Styles dialog:

book design

Hanging Indents Find More Uses

This ability of the hanging indent to create an easy-to-decipher list is useful in other sections of your book’s back matter. For instance, an index is formatted with a fairly complex scheme of indents to keep the various levels of entries distinct:

book design

Bibliographies also benefit from the hanging indent treatment:

book design

Even parts of your front matter might benefit from a hanging indent. Here’s an example of a Contents page that lists the subheads within each chapter along with the chapter titles themselves. This can be very handy for readers looking for specific information:

book design

When you do your own formatting, it’s good to know when to use a tool like the hanging indent. It will make your book look more professional, and it will help readers get the material that’s important to them.

Photo credit: Phantoms via photopin (license)

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. John Maberry

    Sounds good but if it’s not possible to do this on Kindle, which is the biggest publisher and seller of eBooks then it’s value is limited.

    • Joel Friedlander

      And by that, I take it you mean that the Kindle’s “value is limited.” I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Lorinda J. Taylor

    I’m self-published, and when I did my first book, I wanted to use hanging indent for a certain part of it, and I did that for the print book on CreateSpace. However, I discovered that neither Kindle nor Smashwords accept the use of hanging indent formatting their ebooks. Smashwords allows nothing but centered and paragraph indent. So I had to reformat.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, sad to say Lorinda, but ebooks are in a very primitive state of development, contrasted to the hundreds of years designers and printers have been working on making better print books. But never fear, they will eventually catch up.

  3. Claremary Sweeney

    I will be using this in the glossary for my next book and if I ever revise my first book. Thanks, Joel

  4. Marla Markman

    This is great information. For some reason, I never thought of using the hanging indent to format these items. I’ve always tabbed over, which I know isn’t designer-friendly when it comes to importing the text.

  5. Michael W. Perry

    Like numbered and bulleted lists, hanging indents are also a good way to handle lists inside the body text, particularly in non-fiction. They provide structure to a book and often make it easier to understand.

    I’d distinguish their uses this way.

    Numbered: use when the order of the items matters, as in the steps to change the tire of a car.

    Bulleted: use when order doesn’t matter, as with the ingredients to a recipe. Particularly good when the lines are short.

    Hanging Indents: use when you need to define a series of terms. Combined with bolding the term makes it stand out from the definition that follows. Hanging indents can be used with a full paragraph of text.

    If anything, digital versions need touches like these even more than print versions. Digital, particularly when the text reflows itself, has a tendency to look to look repetitive. There is no position on a page to help readers remember, so the formatting matters more.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  6. Lori

    Love this. Had never heard the term but of course are familiar with them.
    I would love to know if you can do them in Scrivener, and how? Also how to do them in a word doc? Thanks so much.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Lori,

      I don’t use Scrivener for formatting, although it’s invaluable in the research and writing stages. These classic formats are some of the small elements that make books look like books.

  7. Mia Hayson

    I don’t have anything useful to add like Michael but I love a good hanging indent, me, and I just wanted to let you know :)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Although logically you might think an outdent would go outside the margin.



  1. Hanging in the Back Matter: Indents Are the Rule… | Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog - […] hanging-in-the-back-matter-indents-are-the-rule/ […]
  2. Hanging in the Back Matter: Indents Are the Rul... - […] Hanging in the Back Matter: Indents Are the Rule looks at formatting specifications and uses of the hanging indent …

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *