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I was reading a thesis report of a friend and I noticed that he didn't indent the first line of the first paragraph in each chapter. I don't remember noticing it anywhere before until I saw it there and I have some OCD issues with reformatting the documents/reports and make them look awesome.

So I would like to know, if I'm going to write a new document/report that is divided in chapters and paragraphs, what kind of indentation should I prefer? Should I indent all the first lines of the paragraphs regarding if it's the first in a chapter or not and why one method is better than the other?

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    What's the context of this question? Are you typing something up for school? Writing a fiction MS for submission? Typesetting a self-pubbed book? We need more details, or it's pretty hard to answer. – Kate S. Aug 24 '11 at 20:44
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    As a teacher of middle school students we always teach that students should indent the first paragraph. This is always taught in the text that is provided to us for instruction. My sharp students that are avid readers always bring to my attention that their books seldom indent the first paragraph. Very confusing for young readers and writers. It may be time to clarify this rule for the purpose of consistent instruction in the schools involving publishing companies and text book companies. – user4749 Feb 15 '13 at 15:10
  • I indent. Not indenting looks and feels weird. – K124ST Jun 7 '13 at 5:34

11 Answers 11

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I have been taught to always leave the first line of a chapter/section unindented, then make all subsequent paragraphs indented. I have also seen all paragraphs indented.

I came across a good discussion on first line indents which notes that, in Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style, he states that "opening paragraphs" should be "flush left" because "[t]he function of a paragraph indent is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted".

(They also mention that Chicago rules state that "the first line of text following a subhead may begin flush left or be indented by the usual paragraph indention.")

9

Generally speaking, ask the person or people to whom you are submitting how s/he/they want the document formatted.

Barring that, I have seen the first line indented and subsequent paragraphs not indented, but not the reverse. It would look like a mistake to me.

I would either indent everything or not indent anything. If you're not indenting, use a double space between paragraphs.

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    Of course it's up to the people if I'm submitting.. I just saw it there and to tell you the truth it looked like a mistake to me as well.. But after a second view/thought I liked it.. and I wondered if people are using it and if there is somekind of reason for it.. @Craig gave a good reason :) – Lipis Jun 22 '11 at 0:56
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This isn't a matter for you to worry about as a writer, but rather a matter for the publisher's typesetter, and it may vary by publisher. In your manuscript, either is fine, but be consistent.

4

Don't use Microsoft Word. When you pay more attention to what the font looks like than your character's motives you get beautifully typeset crap. Unless you have need of six different types of quotes, don't even look at your font until you are negotiating with a publisher, and with the increased ebook market maybe that is a decision that is out of your hands.

4

For a thesis report, different academic citation systems have different styles. I am more familiar with MLA style rather than Chicago, which someone has already discussed.

MLA asks that every paragraph is indented and that there are no extra lines separating paragraphs.

The only exception I know of to this rule is if you have a multi-line paragraph quote from a source and resume your current paragraph after the quote. A good example is on page 7 of this sample essay.

However, like people have said, this is usually the typesetter's job if you are submitting something to be published. Usually consistency is the best way to go and can make the typesetter's job easier.

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Here is the answer on Wikipedia:

Professionally printed material typically does not indent the first paragraph, but indents those that follow. For example, Robert Bringhurst states that we should "Set opening paragraphs flush left."[4] Bringhurst explains as follows ... Keyboarders normally indent paragraphs three to five word spaces—based on what they were taught in school—while professionally printed material such as books and magazines generally use smaller indents. For example, The Elements of Typographic Style states that "at least one en [space]" should be used to indent paragraphs after the first,[6] noting that that is the "practical minimum".[7] An em space is the most commonly used paragraph indent.[8] Miles Tinker, in his book Legibility of Print, concluded that indenting the first line of paragraphs increases readability by 7%, on the average.[9] Other techniques are possible. Lines can be outdented to signify the start of new paragraphs.[10] Another technique is to insert vertical space between paragraphs. This creates what is sometimes known as "block paragraphs". Some keyboarders use a double carriage return to create this break, whereas typists using word processing applications may use increased leading to create a more pleasing space between paragraphs.

The answer? I think you can either indent it or you don't. It's up to you.

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1) You should indent the first line of the paragraph. I find it helps reading tremendously as it shows where the paragraph BEGINS. Otherwise, you only see where the paragraph ENDS when its last line doesn't reach the right margin – but often it does reach, making the end of the paragraph ambiguous. NB: I do have a lot of books, mostly textbook like, that don't indent. In textbook like text, it's OK for my taste, but I prefer indented. In fiction, it's absolutely essential. The paragraph carries meaning. It should be communicated to the reader. Indentation makes it clear. As said, otherwise it can be ambiguous.

2) Professionally printed material (take up any novel) doesn't indent after a headline or page break or some such, such as in the first paragraph of a chapter. Should you do it? If you're using Word or another WYSIWYG word processor, don't bother. The workflows to do that are too complicated, too error prone, lead to more work and unintentend changes in your document. Stick with the indented first line.

3) If you want to produce a document with it (all paragraphs indented except the first one), use a program that has it built in. LaTeX does it, beautifully and easily (as easy as it can. I know most people find it cumbersome. I don't, but YMMV). Scrivener also can do it when you compile you project. I'm certain there are others that would do it that I do not know about, but I'm sure about those two.

4) Even if I prefer first line indents, if you publish, your editor, copy-editor, publisher etc. might object and prefer it the other way, and make you change it. If you happen to use Word, you're in a world of trouble (of lots of work) to change if you happen to have not used the same indentation throughout your document. Hence my recommendation to not bother with indents after headlines or chapter beginnings. Keep it constant throughout. Saves you lots of trouble.

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I read somewhere that if you are double spacing between paragraphs, no indent was needed. But if you were single spacing, an indent was needed to show a new paragraph was starting. That is the "rule" I follow.

  • Hi and welcome to Writers.SE. Do you remember where you read this? If so, if you edit that in your answer will be more valuable to the community. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Jun 3 '13 at 19:50
  • This is the rule of thumb I was taught in graphic design classes. As @Craig-Sefton notes, the indent is intended to provide a visual pause. So an indent plus a double line space is redundant and unnecessary. – Ken Mohnkern Sep 14 '16 at 10:55
  • I believe the military writing format has this as well. – Jason K Nov 7 '16 at 22:18
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Honestly, like many said, you should indent the first line, especially if you live in USA. In Portugal, for example, we didn't indent the first line of the first paragraph.

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The majority of respondents opted for not indenting first paragraphs of chapters. Their attitude appears to be, “Do what you want.” That’s fine, but if you are writing with an eye toward having someone publishing your novel it would behoove you to keep in mind, 85% of publishers, literary agents, and copyeditors want to see your work presented in the Chicago style of writing: therefore, make first paragraphs flush left.

  • The majority of respondents. Did you perform a survey? Or are you quoting someone else's survey results without attribution? – TRiG Sep 14 '16 at 11:31
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Merely look at all the above answers. They don't indent and follow the flush left rule - increasing then space between paragraphs. This is becoming more and more common both in books as in scientific articles. In the end, it depends on personal taste and editor/publisher preferences. In Portugal, someone added that the first line of the first paragraph is not indented - that, also, varies with publishers. Rules are made to broken by time and taste.

  • To be fair, many of the paragraphs here are only 1-2 sentences. I was taught that a paragraph needs at least 3 :) But yeah internet conversational writing is really infecting "literature". I'm waiting for emoticons to show up in a novel. – Jason K Nov 7 '16 at 22:17

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