The Great Indentation Debate

by • April 22, 2014

paragraphs, indentation, writing, GrammarlyWriters have a lot on their plates. They have to fend off writer’s block, perform meticulous research, and ensure the content they produce captivates their target audiences. They must pay close attention to catch spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes, as well as find typos.  And formatting often takes a back seat on a writer’s priority list – especially when it involves something so seemingly trivial as indentation.

The first thing a reader may notice when they access one of your web, e-book, or print pages is the appearance of the content. Formatting involves making decisions about font type and size, as well as the space between lines. Don’t believe that this could possibly make a difference? According to some research, if the Federal government decided to change its preferred font from Times New Roman to Garamond on all printed documents, it could save around $400 million!

Indentation, the much-maligned formatting technique, provides readers with a sense of continuity. Indented content typically means the reader is about to embark on another topic or start a new section of a novel. It presents content in logical fashion, but the debate continues as to which indentation method works best for writers. Should you indent paragraphs as you type or simply skip spaces?

What the Style Conventions Have to Say

When in doubt, refer to a style convention to answer a question about formatting and sourcing content. Nevertheless, take note, the APA style, Harvard Style, and Chicago Manual of Style differ in their approach to indentation.

Chicago Manual of Style

Considered the most referred to convention style, the Chicago Manual of Style requires all text to be double-spaced, including the text placed in the notes and bibliography sections. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that writer indent the first line of a new paragraph by hitting the tab key. You hit the tab key between three and seven times to provide the proper space between the first line and the left margin. The problem with using the tab key for indentation concerns the appearance of text in electronic books. Some e-book software programs do not recognize the tab key as a form of indentation.

APA Style

The APA style identifies two types of indentation: First line and hanging. First line indentation begins to the right of where the next line begins. APA requires most paragraphs to adhere to first line indentation. Hanging indentation places the first line of a paragraph to the left of where the next line starts. APA recommends using hanging indentation for reference lists. Writers should manually set the reference position for indents .5 inches from the left margin. Writers should double space content that includes tables, headings, quotations, and references. The number of indentation spaces varies depending on the style of writing. Formal presentations should include only a few spaces of indentation, while casual content can use more indentation spaces.

Harvard Style

The Harvard Style manual recommends that a writer indent content as he or she types, as opposed to indenting paragraphs after the writer completes the manuscript. Although this method takes more time, the reasoning behind it makes sense. Writers who add indents as they write organize their content through the creation of paragraphs. The writers who wait until they complete the rough draft of their manuscripts typically have trouble finding the right sections that should separate into paragraphs.

To Set a Paragraph Indentation by Using Microsoft Word

The advancement of technology has virtually taken the manual typing of indentation spaces away from the hands of writers. Now, we utilize word processing software, such as Microsoft Word, to set indentations. To set a paragraph indent in Word, place the cursor in the paragraph where you want to indent or highlight the entire paragraph. Access the format menu and click the “paragraph” command. Within the paragraph dialog box, enter the desired width of the indent and then select the type of indent. Click the “OK” button and then close the dialog box.

The Bottom Line

Freelance writers differ in their indentation preferences. However, when it comes down to it, the type of indentation used to format a document typically depends on who you are writing for. Before you finalize a project, check with your client to see if he or she prefers the Chicago Manual of Style, APA style, or Harvard style of indentation. Then, set the client’s preferred indentation formatting by using the easy to access commands within Microsoft Word.

In your own writing, what type of indentation do you prefer? Share in the comments!

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