Fun With Formatting Ebooks: Paragraph Styles

Whether a reader is conscious or not of doing it, they are judging at least some of the quality of your writing by how it looks on the screen. When you send your writing into the world you want it to look polished, professional, and assertive. Even if you don’t use fancy bits and curlicues, you can make your ebook look polished, professional and, yes, assertive–as in, “I am a smart and sophisticated writer who knows what she is talking about, so pay attention!“–just by taking care with your paragraph styles.

The most basic of basic styles are indented and block paragraphs. Convention says, indented paragraphs for fiction and block style for non-fiction. Why the convention? Indented paragraphs are quicker to read (not really, but doesn’t it seem that way?), while block paragraphs tend to be weightier, denser, and can add a measure of gravitas to the text. It’s really a preference and not about right and wrong. Readers do expect text to look a certain way, though, and you take a chance of distracting them from the prose if you mess with their expectations.

For those of you using anything other than html to format your ebooks, (pardon my shouting) NO TABS! Tabs, and using the space bar to indent paragraphs, play havoc with ebooks. NO TABS. Your word processor enables you to use style sheets–use them. NO TABS.

How wide an indent?   para6

The narrow indent is a leftover from the days of pulp fiction when every sheet of paper counted against the bottom line and so the publisher needed to cram as much text onto a page as possible. It looks a bit squishy, especially if the reader prefers narrow line spacing on their device. Wide indents are a writer habit, I think, from being used to working on manuscripts with their half inch indents. Too wide, though, and the ebook can assume the look of a manuscript, and that’s not polished. I prefer a medium width indent of 1.4ems (.3″ in a word processor).

Block paragraphs require spaces between the paragraphs so they don’t run together.

para5Whether you’re using a word processor or html, you need to include that extra leading in your style sheet–not (never) by manually inserting a blank line between paragraphs. Be aware, too, that you do not want to increase the space between indented paragraphs. Doing so means users of the Kindle iOS app will end up with huge spaces between paragraphs. Smashwords will reject files for inserting extra space.

Another style is one I don’t recommend for full paragraphs. Centering.


Don’t forget that centering IS a style. Don’t just highlight the text then click the “center” command in the menu bar. Make sure your text indent is set to zero so the center doesn’t end up off-center.

Sometimes you’ll need to set off text. Quotes, song lyrics, poetry, missives.

para2para1The only difference in coding between the first block quote and the lines of poetry is the use of italics.

What if you want to set off an entire section of text?

para7Keep it simple, aim for sophisticated, and keep your reader’s comfort in mind while you style your paragraphs.

What about the rest of you? Any fun styling tricks you’d like to share?


30 thoughts on “Fun With Formatting Ebooks: Paragraph Styles

  1. Hi Jaye:

    Excellent synopsis, as always. There is a reason why I print and include all of your posts in a 3-ring binder, and this post is a perfect example of why.

    Some questions: When you do a block quote, do you indent both margins or just the left one? In fiction, do you recommend justified text for standard paragraphs or left-justified? And what margin setting do you recommend for the entirety of the text?


    • Fun with margins (Hi Jon!). The Kindle default has decent margin control. When it’s set at 0 (zero) I never have a problem with text running “off the page.” I’ve seen that in Kindle books, but I have no idea what the formatter could have done to screw up the margin that badly. With EPUB books, though, I set a universal margin @page {margin: 10px;}. I don’t know what happens on Nooks or iPhones when the margin isn’t set, but in Calibre and on an iPad I’ve seen the text “running off the page.”

      As for justified versus non-justified, I think it boils down to preference. The Kindle devices have a justified default. BUT the Kindle for iOS isn’t justified, so in my basic CSS I designate justified. Back to preference, I read a lot of manuscripts, which are not justified. In my brain, justified text looks “finished” whereas non-justified text look “in progress.” I still don’t like the way Kindles justify text by stretching spaces, but overall it looks better with two straight margins.

      Block quotes have two indented margins. Kindles don’t respect “blockquote” and results vary widely, so I don’t bother with it. Paul Salvette gave me this code for a perfect block quote every time:
      {text-indent: 0;
      margin: 0 3.5em;
      text-align: left;
      padding: 0;}
      Depending on the purpose, I’ll italicize the text or add a bottom-margin to give it some leading. By left justifying it, it prevents shorter quotes with lengthy words from being overly distorted by justification.

      One thing people using a word processor should NEVER do is justify the text in the source file. Word especially inserts some horrendous codes that break ebooks and prevent the user from adjusting the margins and line spacing.

      • Hi Jaye:

        Thanks for the margin and alignment insights. Time to wade back into my novella and make some final tweaks!


  2. Remember Edna Mode from the movie The Incredibles shouting “No capes! No capes!”

    That’s what came to mind when you said, “No tabs!”

    Here’s a funny one. Often, the publisher’s default on my Nook looks perfect (indented paragraphs, not block) but the font is too small for my eyes. When I increase the font, suddenly the paragraphs are both block paragraphs AND indented. I don’t understand why the ePub would read one way when the font is small, but suddenly jump to another way when the font is big?

    • Hi Margaret:

      Are you changing the publisher defaults to off when you do this, or are you merely switching the size of the font? Making the font larger can have some effect on the marging and indents if both are specified in ems, which are tied directly to the size of the font. Margins should be expressed in pixels (px) and indents in ems so that the overall canvass remains consistent throughout but things expressed on the canvass — such as ems — stay proportional to the variably sized text around it. If that makes sense. 😉


      • I’m changing the publisher defaults to “off” when I change the font size. Often, I have to change the margin width as well for a comfortable reading experience. But with a Nook, once you change the font size, the publisher defaults are “off,” right? (I read on a Nook color.)

        It doesn’t bother me too much, I was just curious about why the extra space between paragraphs jumps in there, uninvited.

      • Hi Margaret:

        If your Nook is like mine (I have a Nook Tablet), then the font SIZE can be adjusted without turning off the publisher’s defaults. If the margins change when you do this, then the publisher has erroneously tied margin widths to font size.

        What type of Nook do you have?

        Hope this helps.


    • I have a guess. The formatter converted a MOBI file to an EPUB file. I imagine what has happened is that there is a conflict in the line spacing. The default for Kindles, I believe is 120%. Only not really. When a file is converted through KindleGen, it creates three device formats. The Kindle for iOS is the trouble maker because it does squishy things to line spacing. So the conversion goes through a nutroll to make everybody happy with variations for the default ranging between 110% and 120%, with (on iOS) increased leading between the paragraphs. All well and good. (though I think that extra leading looks awful)

      But if you take that MOBI file and run it through Calibre to convert it into an EPUB, all hell breaks loose. I’m still guessing, but I bet the Nook is picking and choosing between too many options and ending up giving you a mish-mash.

      The differences between formatting a MOBI file and an EPUB file seem petty, but they have an impact on how devices handle the ebooks.

    • Ain’t that the truth, Margaret? What’s especially difficult is that there are many conversion program/processes that SEEM to do the job. Calibre, Smashwords, MobiPocket. Those converted files work some of the times. Getting a file to work ALL the time is the rub. It doesn’t help when device makers update the device or come out with new models. Quite often ebooks that were perfectly fine, are suddenly broken. The only way I know to combat that is to be meticulous about formatting for a particular file type, while trying to not interfere with defaults.


    • That would explain why it doesn’t do that all the time, only sometimes. If the formatter made an ePub from scratch, everything would be fine, but if the formatter just got an ePub by converting a Mobi file, then things get weird.

      I wish every format would play nice with every other format. Alas, that is not the case.

  3. I’ve had to become very aware of all this during the process of putting my novel, eventually destined for both ebook and print, up first on my blog. Every Tuesday a new edited scene goes up – and, it seems, every Tuesday I find a new battle to fight with the WordPress 2012 theme I’m using.

    It has been an education – and it has made me try all kinds of alternatives, because the optimum formatting for fiction on a blog that doesn’t allow indented paragraphs is very different from the sample ebook you made me.

    Unfortunately, I have spent too much time fighting with this (after years of wrestling Word into submission with styles).

    We have too many buttons to push!

    Add fonts and font sizes, italics and underlines, to the mix, and it’s a wonder every post and page isn’t completely unintelligible.

    My last battle – which I have reached a truce with WordPress on – was to get a temporary Table of Contents to look even remotely right.

    What you don’t realize, as a writer, until you get into it, is how much time and effort it takes to get it to ‘look right.’ And that’s before considering stylistic choices. Aargh!

    I guess it’s also good for my aging brain, so I do get some benefit from the process.

    Thanks for your guidance – I think I have ALL your posts bookmarked. And I will still probably get professional help before publishing – but it helps to know what I want, and that only comes from being forced to think about it.

    • Hey, ABE, I know what you mean. I should spend more time on making the blog look better, but it’s low on the priority list, so “readable” is my standard for right now. I sure understand the impulse to tinker and improve and learn. Most professional ebook formatters seem to have a background in programming. They understand how computers work. Not me. I’m clueless. What I have is curiosity and the chance to fulfill a long-time dream to produce books. Through this blog I’ve met some knowledgeable people, like Jon and Paul and William, who don’t seem to mind my questions and are generously willing to help me solve problems. I also have a few friends who are willing to let me experiment with their ebooks, so I can push the envelope and acquire new skills.

      Every time I buy an ebook, i examine the formatting. Yes, I JUDGE. If I see something I don’t like, I try to figure out why. If I like it, i try to emulate it. It’s more than mere technique. I’m looking for the underlying reasons for why something strikes me as pleasurable, or not.

      I don’t expect everyone to share my obsession. I do like knowing that there are people out there (I hear from them here and in emails) who are paying attention to how their ebooks look. They are interested in enhancing the reader experience. In the past year I’ve seen an overall improvement in the quality of ebook formatting. That tells me I’m not alone.

  4. You do know that when programming first started in earnest (might also have been in business), the best people to pick up programming were WOMEN with ENGLISH degrees? (“What do you do with a B. A. in English?”, song, male puppet nicknamed Princeton, musical/puppet show on Braodway Avenue Q – fabulous.)

    There are lots and lots of caveats with that piece of ‘knowledge,’ such as that there weren’t all that many women at the time (50s? 60s?) who had college degrees, and many of the programs weren’t really open to women, and the jobs they were aiming for were often as teachers because that’s what they were expected to do, many of these programming jobs were for places like banks, and the women were the low-level low-paid workers, and no I am not going to give you a link because it comes out of the vast attic of trivia that is my mind, etc., etc., BUT the basic principle was that these were intelligent, educated women who asked good questions and had nice logical minds – eminently suitable for programming.

    I have no idea what degree you have, or whether you have one, nor do I care – but you definitely have a nice precise accurate logical mind. Which is why you care, and why you’re good at it.

  5. No degrees, alas. Me and classrooms, not such a good fit. Heh.
    I know what you mean. At the risk of sounding sexist and speaking in too broad generalities, I think the female mind is better at staying focused on point even in the throes of creativity. Plus most women i know have a higher tolerance for the boredom of repetitive tasks than do men. As for the English degree, well, that does make sense–male or female–given that programming is a language. Knowing how to communicate in one language makes it easier to communicate in another, right?

  6. Ahh, margin-bottom, the bane of my existence (yes, I have a very lame existence). You’re going to drive yourself nuts. Why not just mess with the top margin, and have the paragraph after the blockquote have a margin-top. That’s how we do and I’ve never looked back. What do you think?

    • Thus far it hasn’t driven me nuts, Paul, but now I’m nervous. I couldn’t get it to work by adding to the margin line in the CSS, so that’s why I just put in a separate margin-bottom designation. So I guess changing the T margin in your CSS code would make more sense, wouldn’t it? *facepalm*

      I’m not certain what “scripting” is, but you’ve got me curious. if you’ll point me to an article that isn’t too technical, I’ll check it out.

  7. Grrrr … if formatting ebooks was more like typesetting print books I would have fewer gray hairs. Margins mean something quite different in the print book world. As for padding? This is a technique used by authors to flesh out a skimpy book, or quilters worried about the thickness of the batting they have chosen.

    It is not a typesetting term, sigh.

    If only HTML/CSS coders had consulted book typestters before setting their rules.

  8. Maggie wins for laugh of the day. I had an easier time learning German (mein Deutsch ist sehr schlect!) than learning geek-talk. I tend to go with the flow. Half the time I feel like a chimp with a handgun. I can make things happen, but lord, some of those things…

  9. You do realize that you are making it quite difficult to read other people’s ebooks, don’t you?

    I’m reading one from an author who should know better. He’s got huge blank spaces, gigantic paragraphs indents which look awful – and many other things I might not have noticed as much before. Sigh. Standards.

    It will be one more thing to learn, do or have done properly, and keep from getting in the reader’s way.

  10. Pingback: An Admonition for Self-Publishers. Ahem… | J W Manus

  11. Ahhhhhh – your final example is exactly what I need, but where’s the code??? Pretty please can I have the code to make it look like that (and it actually work in Kindle)?? 😀

  12. To offset a block of text use a div class: div.offset {margin-left: 1.4em; margin-right: 1.4em; margin-top: 0; margin-bottom; padding: 0;} Style the text within the division with p classes. You can adjust the margins as you see fit to widen or narrow them.

    And yes, this works just fine on a Kindle (or a nook, or a smartphone, or a computer, or….)

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