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What are the proper rules for indentation in text?

When should there be larger spaces separating paragraphs?

In this particular example, I am writing a math book, so there are several different "parts" (theorems, proofs, definitions, examples), so it is more complicated than say a plain essay or novel.

Since I am using LaTeX, this is equivalent to the question "What is proper use of \noindent, \bigskip, \medskip and \smallskip?"

EDIT: So, this is more about how to do the layout, (in this case, I use LaTeX, so I would be happiest with an answer that tells me how to do it in LaTeX, but the question is syntax-agnostic).

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Questions on LaTeX should go to that respective SE site –  Joe the Person Jan 2 at 14:00
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This question actually comprises of several questions covering indentation and vertical spacing. Are you specifically asking about Latex and the usage of the commands you mention, or are you asking about indentation in general? If the former, you're better off asking your question at the Latex SE site: tex.stackexchange.com If the latter, you should clarify the answer with what style rules you plan on using, e.g. Chicago, as different style guides have different rules. –  Craig Sefton Jan 2 at 15:46

4 Answers 4

The fact that software offers certain possibilities of markup does not mean that you should use them. A good example is underlining. To my knowledge all software allows underlining of text; nevertheless underlining is not longer used in professional publications from newspapers to magazines to books since the demise of the typewriter.

That said, indentation has two main uses in regular prose texts:

  • to identify the beginning of a paragraph, and
  • to mark long quotes

Usually the vertical distance between paragraphs is the same as that between the lines within one paragraph. If the last line of one paragraph ends close to or at the right margin, it is hard if not impossible to discern wether or not the next sentence continues the present paragraph or is the first in a new one. If you indent this sentence, the paragraph beginning becomes unmistakeable.

For the same reason, you never indent the first line in the first paragraph of a chapter, because it is already clear from the chapter heading that a new paragraph starts here.

Vertical spacing is used to:

  • separate subchapters, and
  • mark long quotes

If you want to divide your text into sections that are smaller than chapters but longer than paragraphs, you can use a large space to separate these sections. Sometimes a narrow horizontal rule or three asterisks or some ornament are added to the space dividing these sections of text. Especially the three asterisks, which echo the three dots of an ellipsis, are used when there is a jump forward in time and the story continues after a summary of the events that were not narrated.

A common rule says that quotes longer than 40 words should be indented (sometimes from both sides) and separated from the main text with a space above and below. Some style guides even ask for smaller type size. In narrative text this is used to mark up letters, newspaper articles, graffitti etc. that the protagonist encounters and reads.

How deep an indentation, or how large a space separating subchapters should be, is a design question and has no universal rules.

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Indentation will always depend on the style guide you're using, so you should always check that first. The following assumes Chicago rules.

With regards, to paragraph indentation, see: Should I indent the first line of the first paragraph in a chapter? In addition to the indentation rules, you should also have no extra spaces separating your paragraphs.

Other usages of indentation occur when doing block indentation, in which case, see this answer here: How to cite an entire paragraph?

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In most novels I see, the text is indented on each paragraph, with no blank lines in between.

Sometimes, when the story is moved to another location/time, some separator appears between the two sections such as a line.

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I would indent the first line of each paragraph except for the first in a chapter. my reasoning for doing so is that with math texts you may have multi-line formulas in the middle of sentences (which you should try to minimize) and paragraphs this would allow you to break the paragraph for the formula without indicating the start of a new paragraph. I also like a half line break between paragraphs in documents discussing complex subjects because every bit of clarity helps with comprehension. For purposes of this discussion a chapter is a group of paragraphs separated from the previous and next such group by at a minimum a heading and identified by a number.

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