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How to Know When It’s Time to Indent (or Not)

Writers are so familiar with reading on the web, we've started writing everything with the same formatting. Yet there's a time and a place for different methods of formatting, and readers have a different experience as a result. Let's look at how to know when it's time to indent or not.

by Gregory Price.

I am in an online novel writing workshop that is made up of smart, educated writers. We have a doctor, a couple of business people, a journalist, a radio producer, and an educator. Most of them are well-traveled, and all of them are well read. I would dare say this is a group who knows a few things.

In the first few weeks of our writing together, when we started submitting our prose pieces into our online classroom, I began to notice something. Almost none of the other writers were using indentation in their work.

At first I thought it was a glitch, or an oversight, but then it became a trend that snowballed into an outbreak.

In my written feedback and our conversations, I started calling a couple of the students out about it; after all, shouldn’t they have known better??

But because of the unanimity of their indentation behaviour, I couldn’t help wonder though if I had missed some newsletter that announced the retirement of indentation. How could something so big have passed me by?

Blame Technology for No One Knowing Whether to Indent or Not?

Initially, I thought my computer was to blame. I haven’t updated to all the most recent software, so I thought perhaps it was a technical problem, and surely not all the other writers’ conscious choice. But that wasn’t it as I myself was still able to indent my own writing.

I then moved on to thinking it might be a regional thing. The other student brought up under the U.S. educational system like me used indentation in their submissions whereas the rest of the participants in the workshop lived in Canada.

I thought maybe Canadians didn’t know when to indent or not, or it was a northern style thing not to indent.

I also work as an EFL professor in Japan teaching writing courses to non-native university students, and the textbooks I use teach indentation as a basic rule of paragraph writing. These textbooks are from U.S publishing companies, so I settled on it being a cultural issue.

black pane window with origami birds hanging down

However, then I noticed that our class instructor, who is certainly no slouch, was also writing her instructions, notes, and feedback into our online forum without using indentation … and she is American.

Baffled, I had to bring it up with her.

She explained that the class website platform we use is not formatted to accommodate indentation. Even if you indented each paragraph of your message, the format of the site would flush all of the writing to the left as soon as you posted your comments.

So, she and the others, including myself, had to adapt to the parameters by changing how we were writing.

For our regular conversation it wasn’t problematic; in fact, the flush left paragraphs on website writing make logical sense to the eye.

But if we were writing prose and sharing it in the online forum, rather than indent new paragraphs, the traditional way to indicate a change in character, tone, or scene, instead we had to accommodate the technology by putting in an extra line of white space between sections.

Now, if the writing in our class website were the only time we didn’t see any indentation, that’d be one thing, but when we submit our manuscripts, we do it in the form of a Microsoft word file (.doc or .docx), which still very much supports the traditional use of indented paragraphs.

Yet still, even these submissions were mostly appearing sans-indentation.

double sided image of concrete fence

I thought about this, and tried researching new trends in indentation on the Internet. Of course, the Internet is about as helpful with regard to providing concrete information about new breakthroughs for indentation as it is with giving me reasons I have had a sore throat for the past week.

I found a number of conflicting reports, unrelated to geography or schooling, age, or operating system. Some layfolks had interesting things to say on the etymology of the paragraph and typesetting in this online chat forum (in which all their comments were, you guessed it, left justified). 

I also found this reassuring blog post from Editor Louise Harnby about when precisely in fiction writing you should still very much indent (dialogue, new paragraphs, etc.)

When I finished my search, I had the nagging feeling that amongst my peers maybe simple laziness was the culprit, and I was also slightly paranoid that I had a rare form of grammar cancer.

Is Indentation Merely About Needing to Evolve with the Times?

In the past, I have been accused of being a fuddy-duddy. New ways of doing things (such as people having face-to-face conversations with their cellphones in hand) sometimes rub me the wrong way, and I’m not shy about voicing my discontent.

In instances of formal writing, indenting is still standard (see how the various style guides handle it). Yet in other contexts, such as when writing a business letter or a block of text in a CV or résumé, it is not only acceptable but preferable that one not indent.

Technology has also modified our indentation use. Because many sites like our classroom website, auto-justify all text to the left, it’s become standard for all website writing to be so.

(The irony hasn’t escaped me that this very essay may likely not avoid appearing sans-indentation as soon as it is party to the programming whims of this particular website).

  • Texts- left.
  • Online chats- left.
  • Facebook messenger- left.
  • Online dating apps? Could swipe either way.

Looks like the times are a-changing and indeed, the formats used in many contemporary and emerging methods of communication have upended traditional norms of written communication. 

Evolve or bust, I suppose.

Perhaps it is tricky to program indentation, or perhaps programmers don’t consider it important, or maybe on computer screens indenting brings about odd physiological responses in the eye mapping of text, who knows.

railway tracks

The beauty of language is that it is a living thing that evolves. When it does not, it dies. (Latin has had the same grammar for centuries.)

From time to time though, languages become extinct in order to make way for more useful forms of communication.

I maintain that we should be vigilant and pick apart our language in order to deliberate whether we should maintain certain norms, or whether it’s time to let them fade into the obscurity of that which is now deemed inefficient.

Staying the Course: Indentation or Bust

I believe indentation is valuable and should continue to be used for a few reasons:

  1. It looks as if care were put into the overall visual effect of the work.
  2. I feel it provides the writer with more time for reflection, as to the message conveyed in the paragraph, and that it warrants the pinkie taxing press that creates the indentation.
  3. It also adds another tool to the writer’s box, which is being able to use an extra line of white space from time to time to separate a thought or flashback with even more clarity.
    1. If I add a few spaces at the beginning of a paragraph about my mother, the reader understands that this is a new theme or idea to be presented about her.
    2. If I add a full blank space, and an indent, it lets the reader know that the following is a shift in the flow of the main body of work.
    3. Perhaps we will learn of a story flashed back from my mother’s past, or a side note about her best recipe.

However, if we regularly use spaces to separate our paragraphs, our ability to use them for certain effect becomes watered down, like my mom’s lemonade (one of her lesser recipes), and we are simply spilling out a potent splash of ingredient to the flow of our writing.

What the Others Think About Indenting or Not: A Mixed Review

After I called out my intelligent peers about their indentation habits, I got some feedback.

Their remarks ranged from militant quill-gripping fists in the air, proclaiming how we as writers are the protectors of the sacred art form of the scribes and that we should not go lazily into the long electric dark ages;

The others just e-shrugged and mentioned that we live in an age where presidential proclamations are regurgitated into 140 characters and emojis are becoming an actual lexicon.

Is a space as wide as a thumbprint really worth preservation, or will indentation fade into nostalgia-filled obscurity and be looked back upon like the illustrated drop cap?

For my money, I believe it is a part of our formatting worth upholding, though with the antagonism of formats created by programmers, as opposed to those created by linguists, and sheer laziness, sometimes by those same linguists, it might just be a losing battle. Time will tell.

I’ll say this: if we as writers have the mental wherewithal to remember to charge our phones before they die, I feel confident that we can indent when we need to.

Originally from Memphis TN, Gregory Price has lived and taught in Europe, China, and now works as an adjunct professor at Tokyo University of Science in Japan. He holds an M.A. in ESL and a BFA for painting and sculpture. He is currently producing abstract photography based on radial symmetry of textures from various cities around the world and writing a novel.

A portfolio of some of his visual art can be found HERE.

2 Responses

  1. Greg– I just read this and and your bio. I will pop in and look at your visual art. How long have you lived in Japan? John

  2. Hey John…I’ve been here for 15 years 24 days 11 hours and 12 minutes…shoot…13 minutes…uh…14 minutes and 22 seconds…uh…it’s never-ending…

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