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I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing has something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies if not.

I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should be writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following one another without a space.

I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I am finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.

Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you should put a space, or should they follow on, too? Should the space even be there or is it just something people do?

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2  
It's entirely a matter of usage, and there is no definite answer: it depends on which style-guide you follow. Not all style guides will accept spaces between paragraphs at all, except where there is a new section. –  Colin Fine Feb 17 '13 at 22:21
    
This question is not about the English language. You might try Graphic Design which is also where a lot of typography questions are welcomed. –  MετάEd Feb 18 '13 at 4:16

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

You have your choice. The white space goes either between paragraphs, or else in front of them, but probably not both.

Version 1, common on the Internet:

I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing has something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies if not.

I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should be writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following one another without a space.

I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I am finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.

Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you should put a space, or should they follow on too? Should the space even be there or is it just something people do?

Version 2, common in print:

          I am not fully sure if this is the right place for this question but I am guessing has something to do with structure and usage so hopefully it is alright here. Apologies if not.
          I am getting confused when I write long reports and essays about when I should be writing paragraphs with a space separating and when I should have them following one another without a space.
          I have been putting a space when it looks like too much of a wall of text but I am finding that paragraphs without spaces between them, look a bit weird.
          Is it just when you start talking about something completely different that you should put a space, or should they follow on too? Should the space even be there or is it just something people do?

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1  
In addition in the second version you do not use leading spaces for the first paragraph of a section. –  The Frog Feb 18 '13 at 0:09
    
So is it either or? I should never mix it up? –  Magpie Feb 18 '13 at 0:43
1  
@Magpie This is a bit complicated, but yes, it is either-or. However, as our French friend mentioned, when you use a blank line to separate sections, or at the top of a chapter, you do not use the indented form, since there already is a sufficient separator. The problem with what you usually see on the net is that people who are used to Microsoft systems, and not big on typesetting, use nothing but a single return at the end of a paragraph. If you do not have a surrounding typesetting system, then that is not enough, because it will not be formatted as a paragraph in HTML. –  tchrist Feb 18 '13 at 0:47
1  
@TheFrog You’re right, of course. It does get a bit complicated try to explain all these bits; normally I just recommend Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style and let it go at that. The problem on the net is people insensitive to either or both of typesetting or HTML, being used to automagic [sic :] smarts from word processors, think that web pages will show paragraphs is a sensible way without making them go out of their way to set it up for themselves. They are, of course, sadly mistaken and wildly optimistic. –  tchrist Feb 18 '13 at 0:52
1  
@tchrist I see you covered a lot of the same ground as I did (I was writing my answer in between other tasks). As to people being led astray by word processors, they generally aren't using their word processors correctly either; just as they don't take the approach to the web of separating the HTML's job from the CSS's, so they make a mismash of different numbers of line breaks, empty paragraphs to add vertical space, and so on, all combined with the default stylesheet. It makes the simplest edits a chore, and the simplest of format changes require a complete editing. –  Jon Hanna Feb 18 '13 at 1:29

There are two separate things here, and I'm not sure which (or both) you are talking about.

As a rule, paragraphs will make some sort of use of whitespace to indicate where they end or begin. The most common styles are block paragraphs with extra vertical space (typically, the same amount as a blank line of text would take up):

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Quisque elementum aliquet dolor, vitae ultricies risus sagittis vel.

Aenean lobortis sagittis erat sed imperdiet. In augue lacus, tincidunt eu mollis vel, pellentesque ac libero. Duis feugiat laoreet urna, auctor iaculis diam fringilla sed. Etiam massa metus, faucibus id lobortis non.

Proin sed nisi magna, vitae convallis velit. Cras ac mi vitae elit bibendum vehicula. Maecenas rutrum, ligula et adipiscing aliquet, elit augue sodales tellus, nec lacinia lorem nunc ut est.

And indenting the second and subsequent paragraphs of a section, with no extra vertical space:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Quisque elementum aliquet dolor, vitae ultricies risus sagittis vel.
        Aenean lobortis sagittis erat sed imperdiet. In augue lacus, tincidunt eu mollis vel, pellentesque ac libero. Duis feugiat laoreet urna, auctor iaculis diam fringilla sed. Etiam massa metus, faucibus id lobortis non.
        Proin sed nisi magna, vitae convallis velit. Cras ac mi vitae elit bibendum vehicula. Maecenas rutrum, ligula et adipiscing aliquet, elit augue sodales tellus, nec lacinia lorem nunc ut est.

Other styles are certainly found; combining the two is sometimes done, but generally considered excessive, while having nothing to indicate a new paragraph other than the line-break of the previous line, is not unheard of, particularly in cheaper paperbacks. More obscure options such as running the line on and placing a picrow (¶) between them, can be found, but are extremely rare.

The important thing to realise, is that these are matters of typographic choices, rather than of writing. This has a few important consequences:

  1. If you are using a word-processor, you should be making paragraphs happen in the same way regardless. Typically, you press the enter/return key to start a new paragraph, and do so with the shift key held down to enter a line-break within the paragraph in question (not done within normal English prose; only required for addresses and some special cases where you are not writing normal sentences). The different types of spacing are a matter of the style of the paragraph and are made not by pressing the space or enter/return keys extra times, but by changing the styles of the document. (Word, LibreOffice Writer and OpenOffice.org Writer all offer these changes under Format > Styles and Formatting. If you don't know what the options here do, learn them).
  2. Because of this, you can change the style of every paragraph in a document from one of the styles above to the other, and back again, in one fell swoop. If you have to (and the points that follow show why you might) you'll be glad you didn't actually type extra spaces and empty paragraphs manually.
  3. Style guides may have set rules as to which format you should use, which you should follow whether you like them or not. Luckily, you can just write in the style you find comfortable, and then change the style as the last thing you do before printing or sending the file.*
  4. Publications will have their own style, and they will change your writing to match it. This is not even considered an editorial change, no more than what colour the text is, or what font it is in, or even whether the paper is glossy; it's a design decision. If republished in an anthology or journal, the same text will be changed to match the style of the new publication it is part of. They won't even tell you, or imagine you'd care.†
  5. Style guides a publication insists on will not generally match that they print to. They'll want to receive writings in a style based on either one that is common elsewhere, or what an editor prefers to read an A4 or US-Letter size typescript in, while possibly adding hand-written notes. They'll want to print writings in a style that suits the format they are printing in, and generally with less line-space because most readers of most documents are not expected to add notes as an editor does.

As such you don't need to worry about most of this if you aren't self-publishing, barring that you match the style-guide you are writing to, and you use styles rather than typing spaces and empty paragraphs so that you can quickly change to match a different style-guide.

If you are self-publishing, then you need to worry about it more. Take a look at what similar works have done. As a rough guide, use the indenting style above if it's going to be about the size of a typical paper- or hard-back book, and use the block size if it's going to be about A4 or US-Letter size. Use line spacing somewhere around 20% of the size of the font (i.e. if a 10pt font, then somewhere around 12pt total height of each line; different fonts will work better slightly above or below that, but generally not much above or below), and have the space between paragraphs the same as that total line-height (so 12pt in this example). You can do well to go outside of that guideline, but you need to read up on scale and rhythm in typography if you are going to do so.


Now, the other thing you may have been talking about, is extra space between paragraphs; used to indicate that one paragraph is much more different to the preceding one, than most paragraphs are from each other.

In a narrative (fiction, journalistic accounts, historical accounts, biography, memoir, etc.) this is done to signify a change of scene. You do it when you are moving to another time or place or to focus on another person.

In other non-fiction writing, you do it because you need to completely change what you are talking about, and the paragraph does not directly follow the previous. Consider a new section with a new heading, either on the same level as the current section, or as a subsection of it. On the one hand, if this makes sense then the new section with new heading will help the reader. On the other, if it makes absolutely no sense, it probably shouldn't be considered a break at all, and you should just start a new paragraph normally. You should add extra space if there's a vague argument for a new section, but not a very compelling one.

Again, style-guides will often have rules as to how such extra space should be signalled (including perhaps saying that they never should, and banning such extra space entirely). A common form is "# # #" centred, as a paragraph of it's own before the new paragraph.

If you're self-publishing, you will have to decide how much extra space to give, and whether to add something like a row of three asterisks or not. Whichever you choose, have one single style for such breaks. Avoid printing any at the start of a page, if necessary remove that break for your print-run, and let the page break be it's own break for the reader. (But do leave it in at the start of the page if it's for someone else to publish, they'll need to know where that break is as it will not be on the same position on the page in the final version). Use full multiples of the line-height of the rest of the text. So for example, with our 10pt text with 12pt line-height example above, you might have a 24pt gap between scenes, or 12pt, then three asterisks, then 12pt.

It can be a good idea to set up a style in your word-processor for such indicators of a break. This again allows you to change the style to match a new style-guide, or to reliably find-and-replace all of them.

*Since typescripts are received electronically these days, some will not care beyond a requirement that you use "hard breaks" (that is, paragraphs rather than line-breaks) between paragraphs, because they will just change the style themselves. This is another reason to follow the advice above. Conversely, if one really does want two manual returns between paragraphs, then if every single such return in your text is a new paragraph, it's a simple find-and-replace to change them all.

†An exception would be some fiction and poetry writers who make typographic choices part of their medium, and people whose actual topic is typography (and the only fiction writers I can think of that count, have a background in typography).

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Oh good. Now I don’t have to write all that. :) –  tchrist Feb 18 '13 at 1:40
    
Also: Welcome to 10k. –  tchrist Feb 18 '13 at 2:10
    
I tend to find a full line height (12pt in your example) a bit excessive for block paragraph spacing. I would normally go with the text size instead (10pt here) to avoid breaking the flow of the text too much. Apart from that, +1. And I'd give it +100 if I could, and if I could get the writers of the world in general to read it and understand that hitting enter twice is not how you make a new paragraph. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 6 at 9:16
    
@JanusBahsJacquet I'd never go that small, if only becuase it can be nasty when ascenders are written over descenders of the line above. –  Jon Hanna Oct 6 at 10:51
    
@JonHanna I think you misunderstood—I'm not talking about basic leading (10/12 or 10/13 is my usual go-to there, too), but the separating line between blocks of paragraphs; in a 10/12 text of the spaced-not-indented type, I'd have a space of 10pt, rather than 12pt, before each paragraph, giving the first line an effective line height of 22pt, rather than 24pt. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 6 at 11:33

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