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.
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.
Whether 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.
What if you want to set off an entire section of text?
What about the rest of you? Any fun styling tricks you’d like to share?