Most of the time, you don’t even think about it, do you? If you’re old enough to remember manual typewriters, maybe you hit the space bar five times or set a tab at that point and just tabbed to it. If you’re too young to remember that ritual, perhaps you just accept the default half-inch indent in Microsoft Word. You may never have thought about why it is there or what it is good for. You just know that somehow every paragraph seems to have one. In book design, the paragraph indent is important enough that you should know a little bit about it.

Semantically, the indent marks the break in thought we call a paragraph. In medieval manuscripts, the capitulum (an ornate letter C that developed into our modern pilcrow—¶) was inserted into the middle of long, unbroken text to indicate the start of a new thought. This technique is still used on occasion. Today, though, we have two methods in common use to mark paragraphs—the indent and the paragraph space. What we try to avoid is double marking—using both methods together.

It is a convention in certain kinds of technical books, such as computer software manuals, to use paragraph spaces. The reasoning is that the reader is unlikely to be reading the book for pleasure or in long, continuous sessions. The reader is more likely to be looking for a specific fact, and the paragraph space, together with frequent subheadings, helps the reader do that. This block style is used in a lot of business communication (letters, marketing materials) too.

In most books intended for continuous reading, though, the paragraph indent is used, and there is no extra space between paragraphs. Where there is a space, such as at the beginning of a chapter, below a heading, or after a list, the indent is superfluous and should not be used. The standard indent is one em (the same number of points wide as the type size). A significantly wider indent (two or three ems) can add a little visual interest to an otherwise conventional page. Or it can be an annoying affectation that distracts the reader from the text. You get to decide that one for yourself.

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[Brian Jud invited me to contribute short articles on book interior design to his Book Book Marketing Matters newsletter, a biweekly e-zine. This page is adapted from one of those articles.]