23 Jan On the correct use of, part 03 — Line and paragraph breaks

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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

03. On the correct use of : Line and paragraph breaks

Paragraph breaks

The paragraph break is one of the most commonly used breaking character, likely without anyone realizing it. Every time you press Return/Enter in your word processing app, you insert a paragraph break.

You may have thought you were simply skipping to the next line. Paragraph breaks do seem to allow you to do this, yes. But it’s a consequence of starting a new paragraph, and is not the same as a line break.

That’s how typewriters work. When you press the return key, the ribbon/carriage is repositioned to the below line. They’re called carriage returns for this reason, and are likely the source of this misconception.

Imagine paragraph as a block of text that retains a consistent style (unless you modify individual characters) : font style, font size, font colour, text alignment, line height and spacing, paragraph spacing, and such. When you insert a paragraph break, you can modify its style without affecting neighbouring paragraphs. For more on paragraph styles, read the article about Paragraph and character styles.

You may have thought that you had to press return/enter twice to change paragraphs. In reality, when you do this, you’re creating two new paragraphs with no paragraph spacing below them.

Instead, press return/enter only once. Modern word-processing apps have added the option to add space after a paragraph, and while it’s common for it to be set to 0 at default, you should increase this to equal the size of the font. Set your paragraph style to add spacing below your paragraph equal to the size of your text. For example, if your font size is set to 12pt, also set the spacing after your paragraph to 12pt. Depending on the font style and size, you may even prefer to set it to half of its size for smaller text, to double its size for larger text.

Line break

Line breaks are probably what you thought you were doing by pressing Return/Enter. However, your word processor treats paragraph and line breaks very differently. Line breaks allow you to insert space without exiting the paragraph, ensuring that the paragraph style will remain consistent.

However, line breaks are not an efficient way to separate your paragraphs. Refer to the above section concerning paragraph breaks and configure spacing after paragraphs for a better solution.

You might not use line breaks very frequently. You should rely more heavily on your word processor’s ability to automatically move to the next line when you type. With margins set, it’ll know when to wrap to the next line by itself.

What about other apps that only deal with plain text?

Some apps still deal with some aspects of paragraphs like a typewriter. Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail, Evernote, Notepad, … In these cases, you’ll have to revert to hitting return/enter twice to create the impression of a new paragraph. It’s the only way. Avoid sending emails without separating your paragraphs.

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