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Indent 1st paragraph or not?

Switch Blayde
Updated:

Bondi Beach once brought up that the first paragraph in a chapter (and a new scene) are not indented. Up until that time I had never noticed it. It's true, though, at least for the books on my bookshelf and many (not all) of the books I randomly checked on Amazon's "Look Inside."

I'm conflicted about removing the indenting from the first paragraph in my new novel(s). Anytime you touch something there's a chance of breaking something. But I want the novel to look as professional as possible.

Any opinions?

Replies:   Joe Long
Joe Long

@Switch Blayde

Personally I find indentation very distracting anywhere on the page. I'd rather have a half line gap which word processors give on a carriage return.

Ernest Bywater

The publishing world has two basic outlines for indenting that are based on position in story and the display format.

1. Print books and e-pubs the first line of a paragraph is indented to show it's a new paragraph because they usually don't have a line space between paragraphs.

1.a. The first line of a new chapter is not indented because it's the first story text line on a new page with a space above it under the chapter heading.

1.b. The first line of a paragraph following a scene change break space is not indented because of the space to show the scene change.

2. Electronic display as html or similar code paragraphs aren't indented because there is a line space between every paragraph that serves to show it's a new paragraph.

...............................

The above is what the publishing houses do. My personal approach is to indent the first line of every paragraph and to have a line space between paragraphs for every paragraph when I write the story. That way it shows in both e-pub, print book, and PDF formats, while the way the html code works the indent vanishes.

I do it that way because it means I have the one simple format for all the text paragraphs in all my display options. It ensures uniform display and I'm too lazy to have a large number of options to choose from.

docholladay

@Ernest Bywater

I have noticed as a reader how many of those dead tree publishers will have either the first letter or the first word in a much larger font than the rest of the paragraph. As a reader I would prefer the same size font though out the story. Either indent paragraphs or use an empty line or both so I can identify the breaks. Sometimes dialog should also have breaks especially when switching speakers.

I would say most here are consistent in how their story is displayed which helps.

Ernest Bywater

@docholladay

I have noticed as a reader how many of those dead tree publishers will have either the first letter or the first word in a much larger font than the rest of the paragraph. As a reader I would prefer the same size font though out the story. Either indent paragraphs or use an empty line or both so I can identify the breaks. Sometimes dialog should also have breaks especially when switching speakers.


Doc,

Two issues here. The first is the larger font first letter is known as a 'Drop Capital' or Drop Cap, and most publishers have been fading this out because it causes issues with the modern electronic formatting.

The second issue is the basic writing rule is every new speaker has to have a new paragraph. Some newbie writers mess this up, and sometimes a format error in the Submission Wizard will mess this up. Related to this is the use of quotation rules some authors use in dialogue where the have the one speaker for multiple paragraphs and simply drop the closing quote from them until the last paragraph - I avoid this like the plague, but others use it. Thus you have to watch out for it.

Replies:   docholladay
docholladay

@Ernest Bywater

True Ernest, but that factor was a part of the whole so I mentioned it.

Biggest overall factor is a writer must pick a style of usage and be consistent through out their stories. The only exception is if they find a better method then its okay to use that for any future stories.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

Since we discussed the non-indented first line, I've embraceded it because I want my published books to look professional, not like slap-dash efforts. In order to avoid issues with the first line getting screwed up, I've created a style called "FirstParagraph" which eliminates the indents, so the formatting it automatically handled (if you label it correctly). It works well, but you've got to be adamant about checking it.

However, when I convert those files for SOL, I strip off the paragraph class (in html) to plain paragraphs to avoid my source file looking differently than the SOL copy. (SOL strips out all paragraph formatting.)

I think it looks nicer and it also reinforces the chapter/section break. It's subtle enough so readers don't notice it, but it makes it clear that it's a clear scene break.

However, for ebooks, you can either add it or ignore it. There doesn't seem to be any consistency in how first lines in ebooks are handled and most authors/publishers simply ignore them.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

Since we discussed the non-indented first line, I've avoided it because I want my published books to look professional, not like slap-dash efforts. In order to avoid issues with the first line getting screwed up, I've created a style called "FirstParagraph" which eliminates the indents,


Whoa! The first part of that says you avoid the non-indent, however, the latter part says the opposite, that you don't indent the 1st paragraph (using a special style).

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@docholladay

I have noticed as a reader how many of those dead tree publishers will have either the first letter or the first word in a much larger font


That was common way back. Not only was it larger, it was fancier. I've decided not to do that.

Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

1.a. The first line of a new chapter is not indented because it's the first story text line on a new page with a space above it under the chapter heading.

1.b. The first line of a paragraph following a scene change break space is not indented because of the space to show the scene change.


These are the two I'm considering doing.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

This is a really good article on the subject: http://www.interpretationbydesign.com/?p=5125

I remember a graduate school professor explaining it like this: You indent to indicate a new paragraph. There's no reason to indent the first paragraph because it's obvious that it's a new paragraph since it's the first one.

Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, which many designers consider the Bible of typography, says it like this:

The 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.

If Robert Bringhurst is not an authoritative enough source for you, Wikipedia says this: "Professionally printed material typically does not indent the first paragraph, but indents those that follow."

Ultimately, it's not incorrect to indent the first line of the first paragraph of narrative text. People aren't going to point and laugh if you do it. But in my estimation, left justifying the entire first paragraph is one of those subtle nuances that sets professional design apart from amateur design.


It's the last sentence that makes we want to not indent the first paragraph.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ernest Bywater

My take on the whole article is: This is what they've been doing, and what the current gatekeepers look for, so you need to do it to fit their mould.

The whole argument for the indentation is to show the new paragraph start when there's no other way of doing it. I've yet to see any argument as to why you shouldn't also indent the first line of the chapter etc., other than it's what others are doing.

Mind you, it's only in the last 40 or 50 years the first line stopped starting with a non-indented drop capital. The drop capital ceased due to modern printing issues, but keeping it non-indented stayed. So why need it stay as a non-indented line as well?

You can choose which you want, everyone else will. However, it's clear indent or not indent is an author's style choice and neither is mandatory.

docholladay

@Ernest Bywater

You can choose which you want, everyone else will. However, it's clear indent or not indent is an author's style choice and neither is mandatory.


Just be consistent. Your regular readers will definitely notice if you fail to do so.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Whoa! The first part of that says you avoid the non-indent, however, the latter part says the opposite, that you don't indent the 1st paragraph (using a special style).

Typo. I've embraced it (non-indented first lines).

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

These are the two I'm considering doing.

It's generally an either or decision, as you need something to highlight when paragraphs begin and end. If you're publishing, depending on the size of the story, you'll probably go with the indents, since it saves a couple pages in print costs. Online, it doesn't matter as much, which is why SOL favors the additional blank lines. However, since I do both, I try to be consistent, using one technique in both situations.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Ultimately, it's not incorrect to indent the first line of the first paragraph of narrative text. People aren't going to point and laugh if you do it. But in my estimation, left justifying the entire first paragraph is one of those subtle nuances that sets professional design apart from amateur design.

It's the last sentence that makes we want to not indent the first paragraph.

Like the use of "said", it's subtle. Designers will notice it, while readers typically won't, though they'll still regard it as being "more professional", even if they can't pinpoint the reason for it.

Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

Mind you, it's only in the last 40 or 50 years the first line stopped starting with a non-indented drop capital. The drop capital ceased due to modern printing issues, but keeping it non-indented stayed. So why need it stay as a non-indented line as well?

I assume it's partly to differentiate print books from the cheaper ebooks, which often don't use indented text at all. It's a way for publishers to say, "See, don't you enjoy the feel of professionally designed text, rather than the mess of plain text flowing endlessly in those damn ebooks?"

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Crumbly Writer

@docholladay

Just be consistent. Your regular readers will definitely notice if you fail to do so.

In terms of being consistent, if you use the indented paragraph format, be sure to check whether each new section indents or not. I typically catch it during the conversion to html, where it seems to stick out like a sore thumb. But otherwise, it's easy to forget when you're typing up a storm, and easy to miss during a casual review.

Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

My take on the whole article is: This is what they've been doing, and what the current gatekeepers look for, so you need to do it to fit their mould.


Actually, I don't remember if it was this article or another, but it said it doesn't matter with your manuscript because the publisher's formatter will take care of it. So it has nothing to do with the "gatekeepers."

Also, another article said the Chicago Manual of Style says you can do it either way.

But there were enough references for not indenting to convince me not to.

Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

you need something to highlight when paragraphs begin and end.


I think you misunderstood me. The two I referred to was the first paragraph in a chapter AND the first paragraph after a section break.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

from the cheaper ebooks, which often don't use indented text at all.


Why do you say that? Ebooks indent the same as paperbacks.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

you need something to highlight when paragraphs begin and end.

I think you misunderstood me. The two I referred to was the first paragraph in a chapter AND the first paragraph after a section break.

I was referencing either indenting each paragraph, or adding a blank line between the paragraph to help highlight new paragraphs, not when when to not indent (it was a follow-up on the basic topic), concerning why the indent was needed at all).

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Why do you say that? Ebooks indent the same as paperbacks.

Not always, and because the number of pages and font issues change the equation for ebooks, they tend to prefer the blank line between paragraphs (Amazon doesn't though, as it helps fill smaller screens with text that might otherwise contain excess blank lines).

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

ebooks, they tend to prefer the blank line between paragraphs (Amazon doesn't though


My only experience with ebooks is Amazon, but I doubt Amazon would change the formatting submitted to it by a traditional publisher from indenting to non-indenting with a blank line between paragraphs.

Websites use the blank line method. But I thought ebooks mirrored print books.

The only change I make for ebooks (from the print convention) is instead of a blank line to indicate a new scene, I use a centered "* * * * " because since you don't have control over page formatting the blank line could be the last on a page or the first on the next page in which case the reader wouldn't even see it and not know it's a scene change. I actually go one step further by having blank lines before and after the "* * * *." I really want a scene change to stand out.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

The only change I make for ebooks (from the print convention) is instead of a blank line to indicate a new scene, I use a centered "* * * * " because since you don't have control over page formatting the blank line could be the last on a page or the first on the next page in which case the reader wouldn't even see it and not know it's a scene change. I actually go one step further by having blank lines before and after the "* * * *." I really want a scene change to stand out.

Using "* * * *" for a section break only works on websites like SOL, where they substitute those symbols for a horizontal line figure < hl> in html. For books, I typically use either a graphic or underscores "__________", since they make for a more pleasing visual image.

Typically, you can add spaces before and after any paragraph through the paragraph style definition (CSS in ebooks and websites).

However, most ebooks sites (smashwords, lulu, etc.) all specify that you can select either indented text or a blank line to signify new paragraphs, showing there is no consistent requirement about which is used.

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