First Paragraph Of An Essay Indent

It has been a while since I have taken a firm stance on some bit of typographic minutia that most normal people don’t care about, so today, I’m writing about whether you should indent the first line of the first paragraph when laying out narrative text. Get ready for a wild ride, similar to previous posts on drop caps, double spacing after a period, and the serial comma. (For those of you who are really into this sort of thing, I have created a category called “Typographic Minutiae” in our sidebar. Tell your friends!)

Not long ago, I was in a meeting with a freelance client whom I had not worked with before. I was nodding at comments and suggestions while going over the first draft of a newsletter: “Take all of the text from this Russian novel and put it on page 3.” Nod nod nod. “And in all the leftover space make this 50-pixel-wide photo huge.” Nod nod nod. “And use 17 different styles for these headlines.” Nod nod nod. “And indent the first line of the first paragraph in these blocks of text.” Screeching record-scratch sound.

To give you a visual of what I’m talking about, see the examples above. (Thanks to Bleacher Report for the text.) I have always set the first paragraph of a block of text, either at the very beginning of a passage or after a subhead, flush left, including the first line, as with the example on the left.

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. Now go design a ball that is really a mask that will save the world. (Grad school was weird.)

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.”

As with all typographic styles, if you follow a specific style guide, you should defer to it. (And whatever style you follow, be sure to follow it consistently rather than mixing and matching.) There are some style guides that say you should indent the first line of all paragraphs, including the first one. For instance, most newspapers follow the Associated Press style guide, which calls for indenting the first line of all paragraphs. That said, I have always hated AP style because 98 percent of its guidelines are intended more for saving money on ink than actual clarity of language. (Most newspapers also fully justify (on the right and the left) narrow columns of text, which looks ridiculous, so if that’s your model for good design, best of luck to you.)

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.

This entry was posted in Graphic Design, Typography and tagged 1st Ed, Bleacher Report, Different Styles, Double Spacing, Drop Caps, First Draft, Grad School, Graduate School Professor, Minutia, Minutiae, Narrative Text, Nod, Paragraph Indent, Paragraphs, Record Scratch, Robert Bringhurst, Russian Novel, Scratch Sound, Serial Comma, Subhead, Typographic Style, Wild Ride by Paul Caputo. Bookmark the permalink.

A first-line in­dent is the most com­mon way to sig­nal the start of a new para­graph. The other com­mon way is with space be­tween para­graphs.

First-line in­dents and space be­tween para­graphs have the same re­la­tion­ship as belts and sus­penders. You only need one to get the job done. Us­ing both is a mis­take. If you use a first-line in­dent on a para­graph, don’t use space be­tween. And vice versa.

A first-line in­dent on the first para­graph of any text is op­tional, be­cause it’s ob­vi­ous where the para­graph starts.

Typ­i­cally, a first-line in­dent should be no smaller than the point size of the text, oth­er­wise it’ll be hard to see. The in­dent should be no big­ger than four times the point size, oth­er­wise the first line will seem dis­con­nected from the left edge of the text block. So a para­graph set in 12 point should have a first-line in­dent of 12–48 points.

But use your judg­ment—con­sider the width of the text block when set­ting the first-line in­dent. For in­stance, nar­row text blocks should have first-line in­dents to­ward the low end of this range. Wider text blocks should have big­ger indents.

Don’t use word spaces or tabs to in­dent the first line—as you re­call from white-space char­ac­ters, that’s not what they’re for. Para­graphs in­dented with word spaces or tabs are hard to keep con­sis­tent and dif­fi­cult to re­for­mat. Use the right tool for the job.

How to set a first-line indent

Right-click in the text and se­lect → . Un­der , from the popup menu la­beled , se­lect and en­ter the mea­sure­ment in the ad­ja­cent box.

→ (or op­tion + ⌘ + t) → but­ton → pane → un­der , in the box la­beled , en­ter the measurement.

Use the property

by the way

  • It’s pos­si­ble to set a neg­a­tive first-line in­dent, or hang­ing in­dent. Hang­ing in­dents are used in lists to cre­ate a rec­tan­gu­lar text block with a list bul­let that dan­gles off to the left. (Like this one.) Avoid us­ing a hang­ing in­dent with­out a bul­let—your text block should not re­sem­ble Ok­la­homa. Text should only be in­dented inward.

  • rop caps are, I sup­pose, an­other op­tion for the first para­graph—the first let­ter of the para­graph is en­larged so it de­scends three or four lines. In cer­tain dec­o­ra­tive con­texts, they’re tol­er­a­ble. But if you’re just us­ing the drop-cap func­tion in your type­set­ting pro­gram, it’ll just look pre­ten­tious and dorky.

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