In manuscripts of yore (centuries ago), the text would appear in one huge unbroken block. At some point breaks in thought or theme came to be indicated in the line of text with marks of various kinds, which in late medieval times included a pilcrow (¶), essentially the same symbol your word processor hides at the end of a paragraph in your documents today. With the invention of movable type, printers introduced the practice of starting each new paragraph on a new line and indenting that line from the left margin, no doubt with the idea of making the text easier to read. Eventually, the pilcrow disappeared altogether from the printed page.
These days, it’s unusual to see content online that has been formatted into traditional paragraphs. Web designers seem to agree that on a computer screen, text is friendlier when there’s some space between paragraphs and all the lines begin flush left, as in this post.
You know from your reading, however, that published books—not just printed books but e-books too—still overwhelmingly use traditional indentation with no extra space between paragraphs.
So what about typed book manuscripts? What do agents and editors want to see from writers who submit their work?
The book publishing industry still embraces the traditional paragraph in manuscripts submitted for publication, as described in CMOS 2.12.
I can think of at least two reasons for editors and graphic designers to prefer this format, regardless of how the paragraphs will end up in the printed book. First, a first-line indent shows without doubt where each new paragraph begins, no matter where the page breaks fall. Second, book designing works best when the main text has no extra space built in.
In the latest versions of Microsoft Word, however (I’m working in Word for Windows), the default Normal style does not feature traditional paragraphing. Instead, the first line of each new paragraph begins flush left, and the software inserts extra space between paragraphs. Evidently, Word assumes that you will prefer an on-screen web-ready look.
That means a writer preparing a book manuscript for submission to a publisher will have to do a little extra work. Here’s how to set up standard paragraphing by (1) adding paragraph indents and (2) eliminating space between paragraphs.
Adding Paragraph Indents
There are three popular ways to make paragraph indents. (There are actually four, but I’m going to ignore the “tapping the Space bar five or six times” option, because I’m confident you would never do that.)
1. Use a tab indent
Hitting the Tab key at the beginning of each paragraph is one way to get the job done. MS Word obligingly defaults to a half-inch tab, which is standard. This method requires more work than the next two, since you have to insert a tab every time you add a paragraph.
2. Indent via the ruler
If you use the ruler at the top of a document to set an indent, MS Word will remember the indent style temporarily, so that when you hit Enter at the end of that paragraph, the next graf will look the same. If for any reason it doesn’t, you’ll notice and can set the ruler again. (Note: Using the ruler to set a tab has the same effect as using the Paragraph settings dialog box—available from the Home tab or via the right-click shortcut menu—and setting Indentation > Special > First line, but using the ruler’s way easier.)
3. Use a Word style
When your cursor is in a paragraph, you can modify its indents and spacing via the Paragraph settings box, but to do that in every single paragraph one at a time would be exasperating. That’s why MS Word has a menu of styles (Normal, Heading 1, Subtitle, etc.) that you can apply to any paragraph or selection of paragraphs. When you modify a style, the changes take effect in every paragraph of that style throughout the document, and you can also create new styles.
Writers who type the same kind of document over and over again will benefit from modifying the Normal style to suit their needs. The standard setup for Normal in a manuscript bound for submission to a conventional publisher has
- a 0.5-inch first-line indent,
- double line spacing,
- left alignment, and
- no extra space between paragraphs.
Writers who prefer not to mess with Word’s default Normal can create a custom style specifically for manuscript preparation and submission. From the Home tab, open the Styles task pane and click on the New Style button to name and set up your custom style.
Creating a Word style (or modifying an existing one) allows you to take care of first-line indents and space between paragraphs at the same time via Format > Paragraph. Or, if you start with a paragraph that’s already formatted the way you want it, you can allow Word to define a new style based on the existing formatting.
There are times when it’s traditional not to indent a paragraph:
- Immediately after a chapter title or subtitle
- After a section break
- After an interruption to the text, such as a poem or block quotation
These paragraphs are formatted like other paragraphs except without a first-line indent.
Eliminating Space between Paragraphs
If you opt not to create a new style, you can eliminate spacing before and after a selected paragraph or paragraphs by opening the Paragraph settings box and changing both Spacing Before and Spacing After to zero.
If you used plan 3 above to create a new Word style, any new paragraphs that have been assigned that style are ready to go, assuming you’ve set the Spacing Before and Spacing After values for that style to zero.
To apply a style to additional paragraphs, put your cursor in a paragraph (or use your cursor to select multiple paragraphs) and click on the style in the Styles gallery in the Ribbon (under the Home tab) or in the Styles task pane (available from the diagonal arrow in the Styles gallery). All the selected paragraphs will snap into shape.
Whether you use traditional paragraphing or go for the online look, breaking up long chunks of text is a service to readers—especially online, where studies have long shown that shorter, more “scannable” text retains reader interest longer.* Of course, the inventors of paragraphing understood “TL;DR” long before that.
* Jakob Nielsen, “How Users Read on the Web,” Nielsen Norman Group, September 30, 1997.
Looking for tips on paragraphing dialogue? See “When Characters Speak: Formatting Dialogue,” also at Fiction+.
Top image: Pilcrows, by Matt Avery, Monograph Studio, Chicago.
[Post edited September 17, 2020.]
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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