23 Jan On the correct use of, part 02 — Word spaces, tabs and first line indents

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Most of us have to write something from time to time. An essay. A paper. A blog post. A report. An article. It doesn’t matter what it is, what matters is that it has to get done. And too often, your writing app gets in your way, without ever letting you know why. For some reason, there’s suddenly too much space below one of your sentences. Your paragraphs align at three different places. Creating columns breaks your whole document.

This series aims to make the process simpler by outlining steps to understand and solve the problems in your documents.

Part 01. White-space characters

Part 02. Word spaces, tabs and first-line indents

Part 03. Line and paragraph breaks

Part 04. Page and section breaks

Part 05. Hyphens and dashes

Part 06. Parentheses

Part 07. Spaces before and after punctuation

Part 08. Quotation marks

Part 09. Paragraph styles

Word spaces

Press the space bar. Insert a word space.

It’s that simple. Word spaces are the most used white-space/formatting/non-printing character. They’re represented by a single dot when they are enabled and visible in your word processor.

Never use more than one word space consecutively. It used to be common to add two spaces at the end of a sentence. Not anymore.

Especially don’t use word spaces to align words or images. Use tab stops or insert columns.


Tabs aren’t all that intuitive. But when you figure them out, they can be useful to align your content without creating tables. They’re represented by right-arrows when white-space characters are enabled.

By default, word processors add tab stops at set intervals, usually half-inches. You can also add your own tab stops by dragging them onto the ruler or by using the tabs preferences (double click on any tab in the ruler).

First-line indents

You may have seen it before : the first-line of a paragraph that is slightly offset to the right than the rest of the paragraph. It’s common for MLA and APA style papers. The way MLA and APA format guides suggest doing this is to add a 1 inch tab from the left margin, or even to insert 5 word spaces. If you’re being graded on formatting, always follow instructions to the letter. In all other cases, use a first-line indent.

It’s a first-line indent and is sometimes used instead of paragraph spacing. Never use both; it’s one or the other.

In almost all instances, you’re better off using paragraph spacing. It’s cleaner and more legible.

But if you insist on using first-line indents instead of paragraph spacing… don’t use a tab as a first line indent. Use the indentation function. Specify an indentation of 1x to 4x of your paragraph’s font size. For a paragraph set in 12pt font, use a first line indent of 12pt to 48pt. You might have guessed it : I would use 2x of the font size at 24pt.

Also, if your professor or employer insists on specific formatting (such as with MLA and APA formatted works), do whatever they say. Some things aren’t worth fighting over.

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