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A quick side by side comparison of two layout styles:
Left: no indent and with white space; right: indented, but no white space

enter image description here

Recently, I'm seeing more and more academic-like documents which are all written in the same style. One of the characteristics I'm seeing (and really bugging me) is that the first line of each paragraph is indented and has no white space above it.

And I really want to know: Why?

If you ask me, I find it ugly and it doesn't improves readability. Perhaps the indent does, but no white space between each paragraph is anything but increasing readability (personal opinion).

So again: Why is the 'default' of academic-looking writing styles/papers having indents and no white space? (Not only doctor-grade papers, but related to all documents that apply indented paragraphs, instead of white space between them.)

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it seems not to be about writing but about texts you read. – user5645 Mar 31 '15 at 17:10
  • Also, if this question is related to your writing (please clarify!), what are "'academic' documents"? – user5645 Mar 31 '15 at 17:12
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    I don't see how paragraph styling it not related to writing? No, it's not related to 'writing novels', but writing specifically. It's not related to my personal writing, but related to two versions of paragraph styling (indented and white space breaks). I do will clarify 'academic'. – Sander Schaeffer Apr 1 '15 at 12:17
  • Do you write something, and does your question relate to your writing? Paragraph styles are determined not by the writer but by the publisher and his book designer. It is not part of writing, unless you ask about manuscript layout or self-publishing. So how is this question relevant to your writing. This is writers.SE, not readers.SE. – user5645 Apr 1 '15 at 13:09
  • I've noticed a few comments since this question got a few new comments in the past time. I posted this question after I studied document styling for my thesis design. So yeah, this is relevant for my writing/styling and not only for my eyes to read. But since it focusses on interaction design (ease of use), it's relevant for both the eyes and the styling. :) – Sander Schaeffer Sep 20 '17 at 23:49
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Print versus web. By far the majority of print books format paragraphs by indenting, and not by inserting space between paragraphs.

The other style, with inter-paragraph spacing and no indentation, seems like a far more recent style to me, achieving popularity with the rise of the Worldwide Web.

Most of the ebooks I buy (and I buy a lot) use indentation for paragraphing. A few use inter-paragraph spacing. A few of the non-indented ones somehow lose their inter-paragraph spacing in some e-readers, which makes it very difficult to read.

Readability. A friend recently published a book with inter-paragraph spacing, no indents, and sans-serif font. I find the thing unreadable. Perhaps much of "readability" is in what style we are used to.

For example, I had long accepted the idea that sans serif fonts are less legible than serif fonts for print. But (if I understand correctly), research does not support that conclusion. At least, not clearly.

It would be interesting to read controlled studies of these two paragraphing styles.

Printing costs. Your example demonstrates one reason not to format paragraphs by indenting instead of inter-paragraph spacing: You can fit more words on a page. The example on the right has 26 lines, compared to 24 on the left. I haven't counted the words, but indenting that text instead of spacing between paragraphs allows 8 percent more words per page.

And those are big, blocky paragraphs. A passage with shorter paragraphs would gain even more from indenting instead of adding space.

More words per page means fewer pages per book, which saves maybe 10-20 percent of printing costs.

  • I would be interested too in reading a study between the two styles. You do have me on the printing costs. Indenting does save space compared to paragraph spacing. I'm living in Europe and I've never experienced indented paragraphs, other than scholar documents, official academic papers, medicinal papers, etc. On every book i've read, seen, piece of regular document, newspaper, etc, I've seen paragraph seperation by white paper. Not indenting. Perhaps it's a cross country thing. I'm used to white space and find it much more readable.. Funny to see our different preferences. – Sander Schaeffer Apr 1 '15 at 12:11
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It's not related to academic vs non-academic styles, but a mere matter of proper typography and cost-effectiveness.

Butterick's Practical Typography offers the generally accepted rule:

A first-line in­dent is the most com­mon way to sig­nal the start of a new para­graph. The other com­mon way is with space be­tween para­graphs.

First-line in­dents and space between paragraphs have the same re­la­tion­ship as belts and sus­penders. You only need one to get the job done. Us­ing both is a mis­take. If you use a first-line in­dent on a para­graph, don’t use space be­tween. And vice versa.

As to cost-effectiveness, space between paragraphs is most common on the web because it's the easy to do using CSS. First-line indent is most common in print because you save paper. Books and journals get printed; that's probably all there is to it IMHO.

6

Up until recently the "correct" way to indicate the start of a new paragraph. It is what was taught at schools and preached by style guides. Esentially it is the default because it has been the default for a long time.

Now, either tend to be considered acceptable (although some insitutions or organisation may prefer a particular style) but indents are probably more popular.

Readability might have more to do with what you're used to and, to some extent the medium you're reading (electronic or print) and even the nature of the text.

I, for example, don't like whitespace in finction as I find it jarring and clinical and it brings me out of the story. But I grew up with indents as standard, so it might be that.

5

I've never heard this style called "academic". I don't know if you just made that phrase up or you heard it somewhere.

But since I was a wee lad in school 40 years ago, I've always been taught that there were two styles for writing a paragraph: "block style", where you put a blank line between paragraphs, and "indent style", where you indent the first line of each paragraph.

Which is better is pretty much a matter of taste. Indent style takes a little less room as it doesn't have all the blank lines, which is good if you want to make what you've written look shorter and bad if you want to make it look longer. I suppose one could argue that indent style eliminates an ambiguity when a paragraph happens to begin on a new a page. Is that a continuation of the paragraph from the preceding page or a new paragraph?

  • Perhaps you rather don't understand what I mean with 'academic', but's nothing of a phrase I made up. But I mean those high-professional, academic, scholar-like papers written for extended research, those doctor papers (not medical). Not regular person stuff.. I'm just 22 and therefor not experienced writing styles 40 years ago, but ever since I grew up I've always learned white space between each paragraph. I've never seen indenting in anything my whole life, until recently for some documents. But all books and anything use white space, here in Europe at least. – Sander Schaeffer Apr 1 '15 at 12:15
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    Late addendum: Yes, I know what is generally meant by "academic writing". What I was trying to say is that I have never heard of the idea of indenting paragraphs referred to as "academic style". – Jay Aug 21 '15 at 18:14
  • And it's very common for people to indent to show the start of a new paragraph. Maybe it's not common in Europe? Maybe it's more popular in scholarly journals than in novels? I haven't made a study of it. But both styles are common. – Jay Mar 4 at 19:39
4

I just pulled a random selection of books off my shelf, US and European publishers, and almost all use indented paragraphs, although I am told that this is less common in Germany. Apart from the savings mentioned above, in print it is the only clear way to distinguish a paragraph, short of using something like drop letters. Think of a sentence that ends at the end of a line and is also the last on a page. The next sentence, which is in the same paragraph, will start at the top of the next page. If you mark paragraphs simply by using extra vertical spacing, you have no way of knowing whether this sentence is the same paragraph or not. A common convention is also to not indent paragraphs that immediately follow a heading, as the heading itself is sufficient to indicate that what follows is a new paragraph. It goes without saying, I would hope, that the heading should be on the same page as the following paragraph.

Unfortunately, word processors such as Word do not automatically recognise the first paragraph after a heading as in any way special, and most people are ignorant of basic conventions and word processor styles. You need to use specialist type-setting tools, such as TeX, to get the effect needed, or be prepared to fine tune after all writing is finished (which you should do anyway, but few bother).

  • Hm, you've made a good point regarding a paragraph continuing on the next page.. I personally wouldn't care to know whether the paragraph on the next page would be a follow-up of the previous or rather new paragraph. Nevertheless, you do note some basic aesthetics or how people could interpret page paragraph separation. I still find indented paragraphs ugly, as I prefer a straight line, for the same reason I often enjoy justified text. But you do make a good point, indented paragraphs are less prone to incorrect interpretation regarding start and endings. Nice! – Sander Schaeffer Sep 20 '17 at 23:44
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A factor that has not been mentioned yet is the difference between material that is meant to be read vs. material that is written to be scanned. Narrative works such as novels and histories are written to be read. Thus they are formatted to facilitate the easy movement of the eye through the text. Putting a blank line between paragraphs would force the eye to jump from one paragraph to the next, slowing down the reader.

On the other hand, reference content, marketing content, and a lot of the content on the Web is not written read straight through, it is meant to be scanned. Even if marketing writers wish their readers would read straight through, they know very well that most don't. When a reader scans a text, the skip from point to point looking for something that they may be interested in. They will look at heading, call outs, bolded text, and the first lines of paragraphs, if the first lines are easy to pick out. Adding a full space between paragraph make it easier for the scanning reader to pick out the first lines of paragraphs.

Once people realized that this was how people were reading, they went a little nuts with the headings and bolding and callouts. (Some people still do way too much of this in their answers here.) Research shows that too much of this turns readers off. You can't scan a text that is a jumble of different shouty elements. That leaves spaces between paragraphs as an easy and inoffensive way to make content easier to scan.

  • "a jumble of different shout elements" - LOL. Are you talking about using headings and such in an answer? I quite like it when people do that, particularly with longer answers. And markup is specifically designed for that. – Neil Fein Sep 22 '17 at 18:40
  • I'm talking about when they do it too much. Some makes sense in a very long answer, but sometimes people do far more than is needed to make their answer clear or scanable. – user16226 Sep 22 '17 at 18:43
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Indented paragraphs with no space between them are the easiest to read. Unindented paragraphs with space between them are the easiest to create, especially in legacy Web publishing. Neither style is “correct.” There are no rules in English, only conventions. Both of these styles of paragraph are conventional. Personally, I think readability should be prioritized, and prefer to publish indented paragraphs with little or no space between them.

2

I guess Sander is 26 now; however I am 76. As someone suggested, I prefer indentations because that is what I have seen in all the books I have read for 65 years from children's books to murder mysteries.

When reading articles on the internet, I still read most of the articles that I see on the internet. Although occasionally I scan articles and I guess the spacing between paragraphs helps me then.

I do scan EULAs, TOSs and Privacy Policies, etc.

But if I copy an article for later reference or for my wife, I change the formatting to indentation. I did find the info here informative because it was really bugging me why the style seemed to be changing to spacing between paragraphs.

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