Self-publishing Part 9: Justifying the Humble Paragraph

By | November 8, 2012

Looking into Paragraph StructureSpare a thought for the humble paragraph, the unappreciated middle-child of book structure. While authors lavish attention upon each sentence and fuss over chapter headings and cliff-hangers, the paragraph is often just an afterthought—a bite-sized chunk of text defined by line breaks. But far from being a simple convenience for the reader, paragraphs are essential in structuring the literary thought process itself, with each paragraph introducing and examining a single concept or thought before leading onto the next, and then the next, in continually flowing stream of ideas.

A good writer knows how to use paragraphs to control the rhythm and flow of the narrative, just like a poet uses line breaks to play with tempo, meaning and tone. But the physical structure of the paragraph also makes it a crucial building block of book design which, as we know, also has a big impact on the readability and success of a book. So let’s look more closely at how your paragraphs are structured and the tools and techniques designers use to make sure all those great ideas are presented clearly and effectively.

The Humble Paragraph

One of the first things you need to decide when laying out your body text is what kind of paragraph structure will you follow. Your choice of paragraph style will depend on the type of book you are writing and the format that you intend to publish it in.

There are two main paragraph styles: Block and Indented. It is important to choose one of these styles and stick to it throughout your book.

Block Paragraphs (like the paragraphs in the body of this post) do not include a first line indent and are separated by a double line break, creating a blank space between paragraphs. It is generally used in academic or professional non-fiction books where paragraphs tend to be longer and weightier or where the text may be regularly broken up by images or other design features.

The Indented Paragraph is defined by an indented first line of each paragraph (except the first paragraph of a chapter). There should be no extra line break between paragraphs. It is a more efficient paragraph structure as the removal of a gap between paragraphs minimises the page length of the book without hindering readability. It is also often preferred in fiction and commercial non-fiction, where paragraphs tend to be shorter, especially when there is a lot of dialogue.

Remember: whenever formatting paragraphs, always use the Paragraph Style function in your design software to ensure all of your paragraph parameters are applied consistently throughout the book. This will also save time and frustration when transferring the finished document into other file formats such as PDF and ePub.

As an example, when creating indented paragraphs, set the First Line Indent between 5mm and 15mm (depending on aesthetic preference) rather than using the Tab Key or Space Bar to set your indent, which can cause all sorts of headaches later on! Similarly, for Block Paragraphs you should set the line spacing between paragraphs to the same point size as your font so that you can avoid using double carriage returns to create line breaks.

  • Never use the Tab Key or the Space Bar to set paragraph Indents
  • Never use a double carriage return (pressing Enter twice) to create a line break

Paragraph Justification

Justify ParagraphFor eBooks and Web Books (books designed specifically to be read in online browsers) it is usually preferable to simply use left aligned paragraphs for your body text. This is often called ‘ragged right’ as there is no effort made to align the text with the right hand margin. While this may appear messier than justified paragraphs that align text to both margins, left aligned text is much simpler to adapt to different viewing formats. This is because eBook formats such as ePub and MOBI use ‘flowable text’ to allow eBooks to be read on devices of different screen sizes without having to zoom in and out.

TIP: Are you only intending to produce eBooks with flowing text? There is free software available that can produce well formatted quite easily. I’d recommend using Sigil for your ePub files then running them through Calibre to convert them into MOBI format.

As a general rule the text in printed books should always be Justified so that it aligns with both the left and right margins (like this paragraph and the two that follow). When the automatic justification is switched on in a word processor it adjusts the spacing between the words in a line to make sure all the characters on a line stretch all the way to the right margin. This creates a clean line of text down the page but can cause problems when large words overshoot the end of a line and have to be moved down, leaving exaggerated spaces between the characters that remain on the line above.

These spaces can create Rivers of white space through the block of text disrupting the Colour of the page and distracting the reader. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, ‘colour’ in this context doesn’t refer to the colour of the letters themselves, but to the overall colour effect of the block of text on the page. Compare this justified paragraph with some of the other left-aligned paragraphs in this post and you will notice more white space between the words, leading to a lighter and more inconsistent colour to the block of text.

Justified text therefore requires special attention be paid to the spacing between words and characters, and to the rules that determine when a line is broken. This is the real nitty gritty end of Typography – fine tuning the spacing between characters in a line of text to achieve the most efficient and aesthetically pleasing effect. Typographers use tricks developed by scribes hundreds of years ago: Kerning, Tracking, Glyph Scaling, Hyphenation and Leading. It can be a slow, painstaking process, demanding patience and attention to detail but modern design software packages, such as InDesign and Quark, make the task of finely tune the spacing between characters much, much less onerous than it used to be.

Kerning & Tracking

Kerning Vs Tracking

Kerning vs Tracking

One of the most useful formatting adjustments you can make are the spaces between characters. Kerning and Tracking both allow you to tweak the spacing between characters but there is a key difference: Kerning refers to the manual adjustment of space between two individual characters, while Tracking allows you to adjust the space uniformly between all characters in a range.

Karning Pairs

Table of common Kerning Pairs (click to enlarge)

Kerning and Tracking are necessary because the shape of each individual character will make them fit differently to each other character. To make the spacing appear even over a range of text many character combinations will need to be moved closer together while some may need to be moved apart. For example, while V and A can be adjusted to fit more snugly together, S and T cannot. These combinations are called Kerning Pairs. Fortunately, professional fonts will come with pre-configured settings for the most common kerning pairs, so the bulk of the work is already done for us (although this is why it’s essential to make sure you use a professional font in your book).

Kerning not only evens out the white space between characters, it can also greatly reduce the length of a word and a line of text and there are a number of instances when you may want to manually adjust the kerning or tracking in your document:

  • For aesthetic effect in headings or all-caps text
  • For unusual character combinations that may not have been pre-configured
  • To subtly lengthen or shorten a line of text if you are trying to fit the text into a fixed space or stop it going over onto a new page

Because kerning adjustments are expressed in relative units, a kerning adjustment made at one point size will have the same effect when the type is enlarged or reduced.

Kerning & Tracking Tips:

The adjustments are very small, measured in 1/1000em, although generally any adjustments less than 1/100 em are not visible. Note the ‘em’ measurement is relative to point size so if your font is set to point size 10, 1 em would equal 10 points—this means that kerning and tracking is also relative to point size and so will have the effect will be maintained if you change the font size.

Software such as Quark and InDesignhave keyboard shortcuts that will allow you to quickly adjust kerning and tracking on the fly (click on the links to get the full instructions):

InDesign Press Alt+Left/Right Arrow (Windows) or Option+Left/Right Arrow (Mac OS) to decrease or increase the kerning between two characters

Quark: Press Control-Shift-[ or Control-Shift-] (Windows) or Command-Shift-[ or Command-Shift-] (Mac OS)


Leading vs Kerning (image source:


Pronounced ‘ledding’, this refers to the vertical spacing between lines of text. The term derives from the thin strips of lead used by typesetters to physically separate lines of text on a printing press. The default setting on design software tends to be 120% of the point size; that is, a 10 point font size would be set with 12 point leading. Leading is measured from the baseline of a line of text to the baseline of the line below it so a 120% setting ensures that the tails or “descenders” from characters in the top line don’t interfere with tall “ascenders” in the bottom line.

Decreasing your leading will squeeze more lines on each page but will increase the density of the text, making it more difficult to read so you should be careful about fiddling with the settings too much.

Here are some of the general reasons why you might consider adjusting the leading:

Long lines of text (over 75 characters) may require increased leading
For printed text the ideal line length is held to be 66 characters, or within the range of 55-75 character. For online reading and eBooks this is not as strict but anything over 95 characters should be avoided

San serif fonts and bold face text  may need greater leading
Serif fonts have ‘feet’ that help define the baseline of the text and therefore provide greater distinction between lines of text than sans serif fonts. Bold face increases the density and darkens the colour of the text so any paragraphs or pages set in bold may require some extra leading to even out the colour

Small type, set at 8 point or below, will benefit from extra leading
As leading is relative to point size, it will decrease as point size decreases and  beyond a certain point the spacing becomes too small to easily pick apart the lines

If the typeface you are using is dense then you may add some leading
Different typefaces create text of different density and colour so you may need to increase (or decrease) your leading to compensate

Headings that overflow onto two lines may require ‘negative’ leading
Headings are typically in a larger point size and so line spacing can seem overly large, requiring the leading to be set below 100% so that the ascenders and descenders overlap. When applying negative leading, take care not to allow any character to physically interfere with another character.

Glyph Scaling

Glyph Scaling

Glyph Scaling:

Another trick that typographers can turn to when trying to fit text into tight spaces or even out the spacing in a justified line of text is to very subtly adjust the width of the characters themselves. This should be done with extreme care as any adjustments greater than ±3% will visibly distort the characters. However, if used sparingly and in the right situations then glyph scaling may just be the final touch you need to fit that troublesome orphan word back onto the previous page.


When longer words fall at the end of a line of justified text, their movement down to the next line often causes large spaces to be left between the words of the line above. The conventional way to deal with this is hyphenation, or the breaking of a word across two lines using a hyphen (-). Good design software allows you to preset rules for hyphenation, which is great for identifying trouble spots.

Hyphenation settings Adobe InDesign

Hyphenation Setting in Adobe InDesign

However, automated hyphenation can create its own problems, such as creating too many hyphen-breaks on the page (you should aim for no more than one a page if possible) or breaking words in ways that confuse the reader. This means that you will need to go through and assess each instance of hyphenation and either remove it completely (wherever possible) or otherwise ensure that it doesn’t interfere with the readability of the text.

Here are some general guidelines for how to break a word:

  • First, always consider whether the line break confuses the meaning of the word—for example breaking coincidence into coin/cidence will confuse the reader by presenting a word with a completely unrelated meaning on the first line
  • Do not divide words with less than six letters or two syllables
  • Do not break on letters (especially vowels) in the middle of a syllable
  • If a word has three consecutive vowels, break according to the sound of the syllables
  • Try to divide between consonants, but not between double letters
  • Try to divide so that the second part of the word starts with a consonant if possible
  • Do not hyphenate the last line of a right-hand page
  • Do not hyphenate the end of two consecutive lines
  • Do not move less than three letters to the following line
  • If a word already has a hyphen then break the word at the hyphen
  • Divide compound word (such as breakfast) between the component words (break/fast)
  • Divide after a prefix (such as co/operate or pseudo/science)

To prevent line breaking at certain places you can allocate text to be Nonbreaking or use a number of special symbols such as Discretionary Hyphens, Nonbreaking Hyphens and Nonbreaking Spaces.

TIP: InDesign and Quark will allow you to set up an automated min/max ranges for letter spacing (kerning and tracking), word spacing and hyphenation as part of their paragraph justification settings (InDesign will also allow you to set glyph scaling, although Quark requires this to be done manually). This is a fantastic tool provides elasticity to the software’s automatic justification algorithms and the right settings will take care of 99% of the paragraph formatting issues for you. However, nothing is perfect and you will still have to manually check for anomalies such as widows & orphans, over-hyphenation and rivers of white space.

Tagged: Book Design, Book Formatting, Books, eBooks, Editing, Fiction, Glyph Scaling, Hyphenation, InDesign, Justified Paragraphs, Justify, Kerning, Leading, Non-Fiction, Paragraph, Quark, Self Publishing, Tracking, Typesetting, Typography, Writing