Part 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.

If you’ve enabled invisible/non-printing characters, you’ll notice a symbol resembling a backwards uppercase P with a double vertical bar.

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 a 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.

You may have thought that you had to press return/enter twice to change paragraphs. In reality, when you do this, you’re creating a new paragraph every time you press return/enter, therefore creating two paragraphs.

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 rival the size of the font. Set your paragraph style to add spacing below your paragraph relative to the size of your text, between 1.0x and 1.25x the size of the font. For example, if your font size is set to 12pt, also set the spacing after your paragraph to 12pt-15pt. 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.

This is different from line-spacing. Line-spacing refers to the amount of space that will be automatically added to each line you type, whether or not you’re inserting paragraph or line breaks. In regular usage, you should set your line-spacing to be anywhere between 1.1 and 1.4, instead of the default of 1.0.

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.

However, there are instances where line breaks are necessary. To create one, use the Shift-Enter keyboard command. If you’ve enabled invisible characters, you will see an backwards-pointing arrow appear, indicating a return to the start of the following line.

Plain Text

What about other apps that only deal with Plain Text?

Some apps still deal with some aspects of paragraphs like a typewriter. Simple Text and Markdown exists everywhere. 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.

Legibility is more important than being stubborn about formatting conventions. Avoid sending emails without separating your paragraphs, and remember that even if you enable Rich Text Formatting in your email client, the person on the other end might be only able to see them in Plain Text.