Paragraph and Page Spacing in Writer

Document design is all about space -- the space allotted to an element, and the space between and around elements. This concern is especially obvious when you are setting up paragraphs and page spacing. Writer has all the options you need for setting the spaces in and around paragraphs and pages, and all of them are easy to find and start using. However, to use them effectively, you need to know something about the general guidelines of typography. These are not firm rules, so much as observations over several centuries of what works and what doesn't in a text-heavy document.

Since these guidelines are not well-known and rarely taught, here are a few basics to help you improve the design of your documents. Some of them require care and planning, and maybe even the use of a calculator to determine proportions, but use them when you are designing your templates, and you can give your documents an extra edge in readability and aesthetics that may help make your readers more receptive to your thoughts and arguments.

Paragraph spacing

The start of a new paragraph is indicated either by an indentation of the first line or extra space between paragraphs. Conveniently, Writer places both options on the Indents and Spacing tabs of the Paragraph dialog for styles or individual paragraphs. This tab includes options for a indentation in the Indent Pane and settings for the space above and below a paragraph in the Spacing pane. Usually, you will want to select the Automatic box for indentation so that you don't have to manually indent. Often, too, to avoid confusing yourself, you can use either Above or Below settings for spacing.

So far, so simple. However, to use these settings to maximum effect, you should follow a few common sense rules:

To start with, use either indentation or extra spacing, but not both. Either choice indicates the change of paragraph well enough by itself that it doesn't need to be bolstered by the other. Looking around, you'll find a tendency for technical and online documents to use extra spacing and works of fiction to use indentation, but these are matters of convention rather than the result of any practical concern. For instance, if a document generally uses indentation but also includes subheadings, you can omit the indentation of the first paragraph below each subheading -- the subheading alone is enough to indicate a new paragraph.

Secondly, the amount of indentation should vary with the line length and the size of the typeface. Automatically using an half inch indentation, the way that most people do, is a legacy of typewriters, and now nearly three decades out of date. In a standard line of 72-80 characters, you usually need an indentation of one lead -- that is, an indentation equal to either the size of the typeface in points, or to the spacing between lines. Given an average setting of 12/14 (that is, a 12 point font with 14 points of line spacing), that means an indentation of less than a quarter inch, given that an inch equals about 72 points. As the line length increases or the font size decreases, the indentation can be two, or even three leads. By tying the indentation to these other elements of the text, you give your documents a unified look and feel.

Usually, a block quote is also indented, which brings up the third guideline: Give a block quote either the same indentation as the first line of a new paragraph, or twice the indentation. If the block quote has extra space before or after it, but other paragraphs don't, you can omit the indentation. My own preference is for a block quote to use the same indentation as the first line, on the grounds that keeping indentation lengths to a bare minimum makes for a cleaner looking document.

Finally, if you use subheadings, adjust the space above and below them so that the subheadings are closest to the text that they headline. One of the weak points of HTML used without style sheets is that you have no easy way of making this distinction without adding far too much space above a subheading. However, don't go too far the other way in a document processor like Writer -- to make the difference in spacing easily detectable, you need at least 4-6 points more space above the subheading than below it.

Page spacing

Most people hardly think about page layout, except when they want to minimize margins to squeeze more text on a single page. Yet if you are interested in making your documents more legible, the basic page elements are well worth taking some time to think about.

In Writer, basic page elements are set from the Page tab of the Page dialog for styles or individual pages. Traditionally, layout is considered in terms of of a two-page spread, since that is what a book reader sees, and, despite the fact that the only way to see a two page spread in Writer is to select File -> Page Preview. Writer's Page dialog follows this tradition.

One of the options for in the Layout Settings pane is to have the right and left pages' margins mirror each other, and choosing this option replaces the settings for left and right margins in the Margins pane with settings for inner and outer margins instead. The inner margin is the one closest to the middle of the page, and requires special extra space if the document is to be printed and bound, because all binding techniques require some of that margin. Usually, a minimum of three-quarters of an inch is required in the inner margin for binding, and more is preferable. That usually means that the inner margin is set to be much wider than the outer.

Beyond this physical requirement, the main purpose of the margins is to frame the text and accentuate it in the same way that a picture does a frame. Since few documents include decorations in the margin these days, the only way that margins can fulfill this purpose is by generous use of white space -- in other words, by being as large as possible.

However, the question is, how large should they be? Writer's defaults for letter size paper is just over three-quarters of an inch, which is almost certain too small. Jan Tschichold, who was one of the first to artiulate the principles of modern typography, suggests a number of time-proven formulas for determining margins, and advocates the Golden Section as the ideal. Somewhat more loosely, Robert Bringhurst, the modern design expert, offers a complicated formula in The Elements of Typographical Style for determining optimal margins. Yet neither of these attempts at precision, I suspect, are likely to appeal to the average Writer user, simply because they are too complex for daily use.

Besides, these formulas are for book design, with which few users of Writer are concerned. Moreover, those who are interested in books are always concerned with the cost of printing, and, therefore, with getting as much on a single page as possible.

For these reasons, the simplest rules for deciding margins are to tie it to the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the main text frame. The larger the text frame, the larger the margins should be. If possible, a multiple of another design element, such as the indentation, can be used to help unify the page's appearance.

Devoting two-thirds the size of the text frame to the combined margins on either side of it will frame the text well, but, in practice, most people will probably decide to use less. But, if you do so, remember that, since the height of the average page of text is greater than its width, the top and bottom margins should be larger than the left and right or inner and outer margins.

Unlike margins, other page elements can be set more exactly. The distance from the text of headers, footers, and footnotes -- all of which are set from the Page dialog -- window -- should be set using the lead. So, too, should the maximum height for each footnote.

For headers and footers, keep information to a minimum -- perhaps just the page number. Unless you are concerned with establishing your ownership of the work in the event of copying, you do not generally need to repeat the document's title or your name on every page. The only exception might be an anthology of different works and writers. Yet, for the most part, people tend to put far too much information in headers and footers, to the detriment of a document's appearance.


From these details, you should be able to extrapolate some of the meta-guidelines of layout: Keep the design simple, and eliminate anything that doesn't make a reader's experience easier.

These rules are the exact opposite of the novice's tendency, which is to pile extra features on extra features, just because they can. Although an entire generation has been born and matured since the introduction of the personal computer, culturally, we are still adjusting to the power of our software, and, too often, we're tempted to use features for no better reason than the fact that they're available. But, if you keep things simple and make sure everything has a purpose. you'll be on the right path to designing more effective documents.

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