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Book Design: Choosing Your Paragraphing Style

11 April 2012

From book designer Joel Friedlander:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

Books in General, Ebooks, Self-Publishing

6 Comments to “Book Design: Choosing Your Paragraphing Style”

  1. I don’t think adding the extra line between paragraphs for the Internet came about because it was hard to read indented paragraphs on a computer screen, I think it was more about browsers not reading the indents correctly. If you wanted to copy and paste a story to a website, those indents would disappear and you’d be left with a big wall of text. The extra line solved that problem. At least, that is how I experienced it in the early 90s.

    • Yep. That’s exactly it.

      It’s also a function of how coders and plain text work, going back many decades to the first text on computer.

  2. …and it makes a difference on e-readers. When I was directing the formatting of my ebooks, I looked at the ones already in my electronic library. They were all indented with no appreciable space on various platforms and in various formats.

    For print, it is a space saver. Leaving a blank line between paragraphs costs extra pages and both the author and buyer pay some price for that.

    There are tricks to it all and a good formatter knows them. Some authors will demand one thing while others will demand another thing.

    Back in the stone age, we signed letters on the right, too :).


  3. You mean you don’t sign letters on the right any more?

    Seriously, when authors (clients) ask for formatting that doesn’t match conventions, I try to talk them out of it, and I’ve never produced a book with both para indents and para breaks in normal text.

    These days, there wouldn’t be much space saving either, since the controls we have now over typography can make up for any “lost” space quite easily without increasing the page count.

  4. Here’s the thing: on an ereader, saving space is much more important than it was on paper — for the READER.

    If you’re reading on a small device, or with large type on a larger one, those extra lines of space are a total PITA.

    Again, it’s fine for nonfiction, especially the kind with long paragraphs. But for fiction with dialog, it’s really a problem.

    I speak as someone who has been wrestling with this for many decades. I was a very early adopter of ebooks, and yes, I was raised in the ascii world. I understand the issues about spacing paragraphs.

    There are many print-legacy formatting practices which I wish people would stop using (like specifying fonts, or drop caps) — but indents is not one of them. That extra line of space is a curse, unless you want to interrupt the flow of the text.

    • My favorite formatting trick, in Stanza, is to indent paragraphs to a comfortable place, and then add just a teeny bit of spacing between paragraphs. That feels just perfect for my reading needs on my iPad.

      Gods, but I wish that someone would buy Stanza and maintain it. I’m nearly to the point where I’m tempted to see if I can ask Amazon how much they want for it. 🙁

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