Much Ado about Paragraph Spacing

During a recent webinar, a couple of questions came up regarding interparagraph spacing. How much space is needed between paragraphs, and is it better to add space before paragraphs or after?

Let me preface this post with a  caveat: The paragraph spacing guidelines I provide here are based on the methods that have worked best for me. Your mileage may vary. I look forward to any comments and thoughts that you have, even if they run counter to my own.

The amount of space required between paragraphs depends on your taste and sensibilities. In fact, you don’t need to add extra space between paragraphs at all. Interparagraph spacing does not affect legibility as long as there are other sign posts that signify a new paragraph to the reader. For example, indenting the first line of a new paragraph is frequently used in lieu of paragraph spacing. Type purists will tell you never to use both indents and paragraph spacing to indicate a new paragraph, but there’s no reason, beyond convention, that you can’t use both.

Whether you use indents or vertical spacing to signify a new paragraph is up to you. The amount of vertical space between your paragraphs is largely an esthetic decision. Just make sure you abide by the laws of proximity by keeping information that belongs together within closer proximity than unrelated information:

  • Keep  a heading closer to the paragraph that follows it.
  • Keep a list closer to the paragraph that introduces it.

In regard to whether it is better to add the interparagraph spacing at the beginning of a paragraph or after depends largely on your documents, but be consistent.

Paragraph spacing in FrameMaker

This is an example of paragraph spacing being applied above and below. Notice that (aside from the first paragraph style) each paragraph style has more space above than below. Adding more space above ensure that lists appear closer to their introductory paragraph. Also notice that the list contains tighter paragraph spacing.

Where I work, our paragraph styles contain both space before and space after. We add 9 points above and 6 points below normal paragraphs. Lists are a little tighter than that (4 points above and 4 points below). The first paragraph after a heading has zero points before, which enables that paragraph to align with the sideheads in FrameMaker. Many organizations have a dedicated paragraph style for the first paragraph in a section, because often the first paragraph contains a drop-cap or some other signpost that a new section or article is beginning.

Incidentally, in both Word and FrameMaker, you can add space above and below paragraphs, and the software will reflect the greater of the two spaces. For example, if you have a paragraph with 6 points below followed by a paragraph with 9 points above, there will only be 9 points of space between them (not 15 points).

That is the system that works for our publications. If you want to use space before and after, as we do, make the space before larger than the space after. This will ensure that your lists are in closer proximity to the preceding paragraph.

InDesign users, beware! InDesign does not handle paragraph spacing the same way FrameMaker and Word do. InDesign adds the above and below spacing, so that 9-point space and that 6-point space will actually create a 15-point space. If you are using InDesign, I suggest that you be consistent in your application of interparagraph spacing: all above or all below. If you try to mix and match, you will only confuse yourself and others on your team.

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  • Steve Blossom  On 12 August 2011 at 10:59 pm

    If you have to choose between “before” spacing and “after” spacing, then go with “before” spacing. It’s pretty easy to determine how much space you want before the current element in your document, while it’s much more difficult to predict what the next element will be.

    • Michael O.  On 15 August 2011 at 6:40 am

      A very good point. Thanks, Steve!

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