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I write academic textbooks, mainly used by engineers, which means they contain a lot of equations, tables and figures. To get the best possible result (same font in text, equations, tables and figures) and to have the best control over the presentation of ideas, I always design a camera ready PDF document for printing. I am a reasonably proficient LaTeX user, but I know nothing about design. So before I publish my books, I usually consult a semi-professional designer.

So in 2013, when I finished my first project, a semi-professional designer advised me to use paragraph spacing instead of indents. After that, I completed three more book projects. Each time, a different semi-professional designer tweaked the page layout a little (the page size usually changed due to the requirements of different publishers), but no one complained about the spaced paragraphs.

I am finishing my fifth project, and a LaTeX expert with extensive knowledge of typography complained that my document looks bad because of the spaced paragraphs and that I should look at other books on my shelf. In fact, I got cold feet when I suddenly realised that the great majority of academic notebooks (> 95%) use indented paragraphs instead of spaced paragraphs.

LaTeX quite naturally supports both variants, spacing and indentation (the latter is the default). On the other hand, such disproportionate use of one variant over the other suggests that there must be a good reason.

Perhaps this is nitpicking for some of you, but I have put an enormous amount of work into my projects, and it breaks my heart that it could all be ruined because of a possibly amateurish design decision. Could you please tell me how big a problem spaced paragraphs are, whether I should switch to indented paragraphs immediately, or whether it really does not matter.

I can share a page layout of my latest project if that helps; with spaced and indented variant if necessary.

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  • It is a matter of opinion. But this is also why you codify your own macros so that you can style the paragraphs as you wish. But what its worth i prefer the even rarer hanging captions with spaced paragraphs.
    – joojaa
    Jun 30, 2023 at 17:27
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    Whether or not it looks bad is subjective (I happen to agree with your designer, but as the existing answers have shown, not everyone does), but there is no doubt that in professionally published books, indenting is vastly more common. The only exception I can think of where spacing is more common than indentation is in children’s books and in marketing material (but that’s not printed books) – elsewhere, I would say using indents is standard. Jul 1, 2023 at 0:33
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    The reason why people use indents in long books is more to do with page count spaced indent works worse on bad quality paper and wastes pages. which is why you see it in most softcover books. When you have thin paper its important that text on both sides align. In textbooks with good quality thicker paper you can do either if your budget permits.
    – joojaa
    Jul 1, 2023 at 7:13
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    @joojaa I just want to check if I understood you right. You say that using indents instead of spacing has two advantages: it takes less space (obviously) and the text lines on one side of the paper cover the text lines on the other side of paper perfectly. So it is more appropriate for thin paper and cheaper softcover books?
    – Pygmalion
    Jul 1, 2023 at 18:25
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    @joojaa Even on thicker paper, lines of text should ideally still line up across spreads, otherwise the spread gets an uneven, lopsided feel. Especially if the last lines end up not aligning, and especially especially if you have a multi-column layout and the last lines of each column don’t align. Baseline grids are a thing for more reasons than just saving a page or two. Jul 2, 2023 at 13:08

4 Answers 4

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The purpose of indented paragraphs is to visually separate the text. This allows readers to more easily track where the paragraphs start.

This same visual separation is equally accomplished via spaced paragraph

Using either is merely a matter of design style/aesthetics. There is no "right" or "wrong" choice.

I, personally, use both at the same time - spaced and indented - in much of my work. However, my work is typically more sales oriented than academic.

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This is an opinion.

LaTeX expert with extensive knowledge of typography complained that my document looks bad because of the spaced paragraphs

I do not know what "extensive knowledge" of typography is. But an expert does not complain but explains.

1. First a background idea.

I have been designing for some years now; before almost anyone had a computer. This meant that designing something needed to be more carefully planned because you needed to deal with some issues like spacing beforehand. Sometimes paragraphs needed to be aligned in a grid manually (and I mean, physically, cutter and glue).

Paragraph spacing needs to be related to inline spacing. A very easy way to keep it consistent is to make a double-line space, like in an old typewriter.

But you also can use a fraction, for example, 1/2 spacing. This will re-align the lines of let's say a two-column design every two paragraph spaces.

If you use arbitrary spacings you can have some issues when comparing two columns. It could look a bit amateurish if you are really in nitpicking mode.

These dimensions are also related to spacing on paragraphs that have different font and inline sizes, like titles or footnotes.

2. Looks bad?

A design aesthetics depends on a lot of things. Size of the page, the material of the page, color, font, line extension, language, paragraph extension, document extension, letter spacing, paragraph spacing, amount other things. And every aspect affects the others.

Attributing one aesthetic opinion "looks bad to me" to one element is, in my opinion, short-sighted.

Using paragraph spaces, not only does not look bad but also makes reading easier. Yes I studied engineering before switching to graphic design. A lot of "academic texts" look awful. Some look nice, but again by a combination of factors.

But in the end is not that important. I really, really doubt your work will be ruined by paragraph spacing.


3. Your other question

Why the vast majority of academic books use indented paragraphs instead of spaced paragraphs. Is this just historical continuity or creative inertia?

Hard to tell. It could be probably by some standards of the publisher, the easier to align I mentioned, some lack of creativity, "just because it has been done like that", and some subjective inertia like the comment of the expert you mentioned.

There are some rigors expected in academic papers, like footnotes, the usage of figure-text relations, bibliography, etc. But I doubt the spacing is one of them.

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    I find your answer very relatable. First, I have a single-column text and the paragraphs are regularly interrupted by equations of different heights, so I think that uniform spacing is neither necessary nor feasible. Second, I think that it could be argued that in my case spaced paragraphs are actually better. The equations are surrounded by a white space and these white spaces are so dominant that indents become almost invisible. Spacing between paragraphs makes their separation more prominent. But I have zero expertise in design, so I would like to know if you would agree.
    – Pygmalion
    Jul 1, 2023 at 8:24
  • The first point, is, to keep calm about spacing. Spacings are a good option. This question is a good question as it is, so try posting another more specific one with some image examples. Remember to keep the question specific, so is not closed as "opinion based".
    – Rafael
    Jul 1, 2023 at 17:50
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I am grateful for the discussion and for the responses. Nevertheless, none of the answers really describes what I finally concluded and chose.

Most of the responses suggested that either option was fine. But there were few arguments in favour of indented paragraphs, given by @joojaa and @Janus Bahs Jacquet:

With thin paper, it is important that the text on both sides aligns. But even with thicker paper, use of indentations makes spreads even and the last lines are aligned. This is an issue especially with a multi-column layout.

Here is the example for indented paragraphs

enter image description here

and here is the example for spaced paragraphs

enter image description here

However, I am writing a book on science. This means that often the paragraphs are interrupted by formulas that have usually different heights (not to mention plentiful figures and tables). Even if I use indented paragraphs, the result looks messy and the last lines do not align. The advantages of indented paragraphs are lost, as shown below

enter image description here

Also, because of the extra formula spacing, formula spacing is much more prominent than paragraph indents. I have therefore decided to use paragraph spacing to reduce this effect, as shown below

enter image description here

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I work for a book publisher and I'm afraid to tell you that the only books I see with paragraph spacing instead of indentation are those designed by authors (not graphic designers). If you are intent on self designing, I recommend you buy a few books such as Hart's Rules and Chicago Manual of Style which will at least explain the conventions of book design (of which there are many). As with art, it is important to understand the conventions before breaking them (and if you break them you need a good reason). Your chosen method doesn't have balanced lines, the lines should run across the spread, as others have already noted. This can be achieved despite the insertion of formulas and figures by choosing where the following paragraph starts (i.e on the baseline grid). See this design for example:

enter image description here

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