I have briefly touched on first-line indents for body copy paragraphs in talks about styles. This is the preferred method of telling the reader that a new topic sentence is being developed—a new thought expressed. I also mentioned my practice of adding a point or two after paragraphs to help the reader see that first-line indent on a busy page. I realize that this is anathema to many, but they should get a life. If it helps readability, there’s no problem.
The reason first-line indents are preferred is because adding spaces between paragraphs adds horizontal white stripes throughout your body copy. These white stripes break up your type color. This in turn forces you to work harder to direct the reader’s eye through the copy.
The main issue is always type color
Let’s review. One of the most important attributes of copy set with excellent font choices is the smoothness of the color of the type. What is called the type color is created by the design of the font character shapes and the spacing of those characters as well as the spacing of the words, the leading between the lines of type, and the paragraph spacing.
This is one of those places where you want an excellent font. In quality fonts, the characters fit very evenly and smoothly. This character fit is called letterspacing. Beyond that is a very careful use of spacing throughout your documents, in general. This is your responsibility. This is the core of typography. This is one of the major places where word processors are left in the dust. Even excellent fonts will not help a word processor much.
Professional type must have an even color. When your book is seen from far enough away so that the body copy can no longer be read, it must blend into smooth gray shapes. You will come to see that this even type color is imperative. It is what allows the control of the reader’s eye which you need for clear and comfortable communication. You will learn to keep your type as smooth as possible, stepping outside of that only to make important points that the reader really needs and wants to know.
Smooth type color needs to become one of your major concerns.
This smoothness is what makes headlines, subheads, and our specialized paragraph styles work. The white space surrounding specialized paragraphs stands out from smooth type color. This white space attracts the eye and leads it to that carefully styled paragraph. Without smooth type color, you are forced to make your headers much stronger and the reader often feels like you are shouting at him or her. That is definitely not a comfortable reading experience. Smooth type color must be one of your major concerns.
Choosing the size of your first line indent
The amount of that first-line indent is up to you. You’re the designer. The norm is somewhere between a quarter inch and a half inch. Robert Bringhurst says that the minimum is an en, but that is far below what I would call a minimum. An en just tends to look like a mistake. Some say the indent should equal the lead so when using 10/12 you should indent 12 points. Many specify an em, which in the 10/12 example would be 10 points. That is barely over an eighth of an inch—too small for me. An em is a tiny indent and tends to be a visual irritant. The default for page layout apps has commonly been a third of an inch. The word processor default of a half inch is one of the visual identifiers that you are not using professional page layout tools for your book. So, even if you personally like a half inch you might reconsider due to the stigma of bureaucratic type practices.
The first-line indent should equal the left indent of your lists.
Actually, I think the first line indent is more intertwined than any of those intellectually fine sounding indents of fixed spaces. One of the things to consider as you set up your paragraph styles and page layout is that second consistent interior line which is made by your first-line indents, the left indent of your lists, the left indent of your body heads, and the left indent of your quotes.
Most of your pages will not be this chewed up, but you can see what I am talking about. Notice how the bullets in the lists stand out in the white column between the left indent and vertical line implied by the first line indent. As you can see I made my Tips style align with that also. This secondary alignment helps hold your pages together—especially when they get very complex.
As a result of all these considerations, I have personally arrived at a first-line indent of .4 inch. You may want to use less or more, but IMHO anything less than a quarter inch (18 points) just looks like a mistake. It is not really visible; so it merely irritates. Anything more than a half inch makes the eye feel like it has to lunge in to find the beginning.
Beyond that, this is a style choice with no real right or wrong. But you need to make the choice on purpose. Don’t just take the defaults.
- No, No! to double-space and double-returns (bergsland.org)
- Looking professional: Letterspacing, kerning, and tracking (bergsland.org)