Book Design: Choosing Your Paragraphing Style

POSTED ON Apr 9, 2012

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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Anyone who wants to do their own book design can spend some very worthwhile time studying books that are old. I mean really old, like going all the way back to the beginning of printed books. Early on, I found these books and the book typography that’s used in them very stimulating when thinking about how I wanted the books I was working on to look.

Even though the technology back then was primitive according to today’s standards—no electricity, basic, natural materials, and everything done by hand—the books produced by early printers are prized, quite rightly, as outstanding examples of artful book design.

One of the reasons this historical background can be useful to today’s independent authors is that it shows how technology affects the books we design. Book design evolved slowly over a period of 500 years to get to the point it is today. We have terrific tools and enough experience to know how to present long-text documents to readers so that they really want to read them.

The Old Meets the New

Technology continued to influence book design as industrialization brought lots of new ways of getting ink on paper and binding up that paper into books. But the biggest technology change to affect book design has been the Internet, and we can see the influence of the online world in a lot of books being produced today.

One of the ways you can see that influence is in the confusion many do-it-yourselfers have about paragraphing styles.

What’s a paragraphing style, you ask? Writers organize their writing into parts, chapters, sections, and then into paragraphs. Paragraphs long ago became a standard device for organizing the ideas in a book or the flow of a story. When the writer creates a paragraph, it breaks the flow of text and sends an important signal to the reader.

The question is, how do we send that signal to the reader? The author wants to let the reader know that a new thought or a change in the narrative is requiring a new paragraph, but we don’t want the signal to overwhelm the message. A paragraph will do this because readers are familiar with the conventions of written language and barely notice the interruption.

As it happens, there are two basic ways to differentiate paragraphs:

  1. By indenting the first line of the paragraph. This indent, combined with the short last line of the paragraph that just ended, gives a clear visual signal that a new paragraph has started. The indent is typically between 1 and 2 ems, or about .25″.
  2. By adding a space between paragraphs. This is typically a line space, that is, the same amount of space between one line in a paragraph and the next. The appearance of what amounts to a blank line, along with that same short last line of the paragraph above, gives us the “new paragraph here” signal.

I think you could say that we owe this second method of paragraphing to the Internet and the vast amount of text we now read online.

Reading on-screen is vastly different from reading a printed book, and a new default style has arisen out of the needs of readers of all this electronic text.

The line space between paragraphs is very reader-friendly in an online reading environment. I use it on my blog, and if you publish online, you’ve probably found it’s much easier to read paragraphs that have a space between them.

However, that doesn’t translate well to printed books. In a book, we’re driven to continue reading by the flow of the story or the clever arrangement of ideas. An extra line space doesn’t aid that continuous reading.

Ed: Note that we also use a line space or paragraph break to indicate a change in scene or a shift to a different theme within a chapter. This article isn’t about those text breaks, just the ordinary paragraphs that make up the majority of your book.

Avoid This Newbie Mistake

Now that you know about these two paragraphing styles, you’ll understand the common error authors make: they don’t choose one or the other style, they use both.

I’ve seen countless books in the past year that have both a paragraph indent and an extra line space between paragraphs. As a professional book designer, that looks like an error.

If you’ve already signaled your reader that a new paragraph is about to start because you’ve indented the first line, what’s the point of adding an extra line space? Avoid this problem by simply choosing one or the other. For most books, use the indented first line of each paragraph as your signal to the reader.

To understand why this first-line indent is a convention in book design, use the resources you have. Take books off your shelf and have a look. You’ll find that virtually all of them use the indented paragraph style, no matter who published them or when they were published.

Books that might benefit from the line space paragraph style are in landscape mode (wider than they are tall), or books with large blocks of technical material. Sometimes books with very little text, like the copy accompanying artwork in a monograph, for example, might use the line space paragraph style to good effect.

But whichever style you choose, stick with that one, don’t use both. Your readers will thank you.

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Photo by Kyle Phelan. Originally posted in a slightly different form at as Choosing Your Paragraphing Style

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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