How and When to Use White Space In Writing

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Man holding blank slate

Pick up a book. Go on, right now.

Turn to a random page and take note of what you see.

Is the text on the page dense with long expository paragraphs and little space between lines? Or, is the text more broken up, including shorter paragraphs, dialogue (fiction), subtitles (nonfiction), and plenty of space between lines?

White space is just what it sounds like: the white space left on the page around the words.

Writinghood says:

White space is the emptiness between the characters, lines and paragraphs of your article or story.

Why Do We Need White Space?

White space is refreshing, and it helps prevent readers from losing their place when they look away from text momentarily. Whether you’re writing print fiction or nonfiction, or some form of online writing, white space is your friend.

Author Cheryl Kaye Tardiff writes this excellent explanation of its importance:

Using white space helps the reader process the information in the story/work, gives their eyes a break and keeps them interested. Look at each page as if it were a work of art.

Some sentences will have more impact on their own.

Other sentences need more information and will evolve into a long paragraph of vital information. [...] [K]eep in mind that the longer the paragraph, the more chance that someone will skip it. Our eyes tend to naturally look for white space.

And the sentences closest to the white space are the ones most remembered.

Notice how Tardiff uses white space even within this explanation.

What Does White Space Look Like?

Let’s compare two fiction excerpts to get a better idea of what white space looks like. (Note that neither of the following books is written entirely in the manner of the excerpts given here; both books are effectively balanced to make for good reading.)

Here’s one from The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank, which features plenty of white space:

My father shot me a look; and I looked back at him, Why is everything I want to know wrong?

Henry changed the topic: he’d been promoted from intern to assistant. I could tell he expected my parents to be pleased, and I saw right away that my father, at least, wasn’t. It was harder to tell with my mother; she wore the mask in the family.

The issue, I realized, was college. Henry still hadn’t decided if he was starting college in the fall.

He’d already transferred four times, or five counting twice to Brown. The reasons he gave for transferring each time were always sound and logical, like “better course selection.” I wondered about the reasons he didn’t say.

This is contemporary fiction with a relaxed narrative, so it feels natural to include a lot of breathing space.

Now, here’s a much denser excerpt from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge:

Inwardly, he suffered the quiet trepidations of a man who had witnessed twice in childhood the nervous breakdowns of a mother who had otherwise cared for him with stridency. And so if, as rarely happened, a customer was distressed over a price, or irritated by the quality of an Ace bandage or ice pack, Henry did what he could to rectify things quickly. For many years Mrs. Granger worked for him; her husband was a lobster fisherman, and she seemed to carry with her the cold breeze of the open water, not so eager to please a wary customer. He had to listen with half an ear as he filled prescriptions, to make sure she was not at the cash register dismissing a complaint. More than once he was reminded of that same sensation in watching to see that his wife, Olive, did not bear down too hard on Christopher over a homework assignment or a chore left undone; that sense of his attention hovering — the need to keep everyone content. When he heard a briskness in Mrs. Granger’s voice, he would step down from his back post, moving toward the center of the store to talk with the customer himself. Otherwise, Mrs. Granger did her job well. He appreciated that she was not chatty, kept perfect inventory, and almost never called in sick. That she died in her sleep one night astonished him, and left him with some feeling of responsibility, as though he had missed, working alongside her for years, whatever symptom might have shown itself that he, handling his pills and syrups and syringes, could have fixed.

I believe Strout kept this as one very long paragraph for a reason—that is, as a stylistic choice which matches the more formal feel of the narrative. She doesn’t keep this up for very long, but how does reading such a long, unbroken paragraph make you feel?

Would you want to read page upon page of it?

When to Use White Space

Writinghood says:

If there is too much white space, then the piece looks unprofessional. If there is too little white space, then the reader has a hard time keeping their place.

So, there’s a delicate balance between too little and too much.

In fiction, different styles and genres of writing allow for less white space. What’s right for one piece of writing may not be right for another. In some cases, it likely comes down to intuition on the author’s part.

Long expository paragraphs definitely have a time and a place, as long as you don’t exhaust your reader with too much of the same thing.

Although white space is important in fiction, I’d venture to say that it’s even more important with nonfiction—especially instructional or educational material—and blogging.

If you’ve read more than a couple of articles here at Write It Sideways, you’ll know I keep my paragraphs short and provide a lot of visual white space. People want to be able to scan blog articles for only the most relevant information, which is why it’s important to break down text into helpful subsections with descriptive titles, write in very short paragraphs, and keep the actual blog free of clutter.

For other blogs that demonstrate excellent use of white space, check out the masters at Zen Habits and Copyblogger.

Could your story, article, or blog use more white space? How do you use white space in fiction to make your writing more effective?

What types of writing do you feel demand more white space, and which demand less?

{ 10 comments }

mgumgu March 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm

I believe whitespace can also be used to set the mood. Therefore; different choices may be correct for different parts of a longer text. Big blocks of uninterrupted text to induce a feeling of unease, hurry, tension, perhaps a dreamlike state where reality is obscured. And very short pieces of text divided by whitespace to make the reader stop and think, to anticipate, to work up their imagination. I’m really not sure how professional it would be to use different amounts of whitespace in a single piece, but i am always “pro-styling”. After all, we’re living in an era where packaging is as important as content, if not more so.

Suzannah March 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Wonderful insights! Thanks for sharing :)

Foisttoni March 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm

White space sets up the cadence, the sounds and images we want to convey for each story. They are more prevelent in a thriller or mystery, needed in romantic or some types of genre fiction and less used in traditional literary works where long expository prose narratives and backstory are needed to set the scene.

Charles Dickens or Thomas Woolfe didn’t need a great deal of white space … Janet Evanovich couldn’t write about Stephanie and Morelli or her hilarious cast of characters if she didn’t use white space. It provides the choppy, often quick wit or movement needed in certain works.

Thanks for a thoughtful post :)

Suzannah March 16, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Good examples with Dickens/Woolfe vs. Evanovich. Storytelling of the past does often differ from contemporary storytelling, and white space is just one of the ways.

Andrea March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm

One of the toughest lessons I learned as a marketing copywriter was that, important as my text was, I had to limit it in order to keep white space. Otherwise, yes, the reader’s eye skips right past it. The heavier the block of text, the more likely.

Ironically, while I’ve applied that lesson to my nonfiction and blogs, I haven’t consciously used it with fiction. That may be because, once I get involved in a story, I don’t care about long paragraphs. If it’s good writing, it carries me through. On the other hand, flipping through a book for the first time and seeing huge blocks of print…that can be a turnoff.

It’s something I’ll have to start noting in my own work. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Suzannah March 16, 2011 at 9:11 pm

That’s especially true with blogging, too. I rarely read large paragraphs of text online. It makes my head and eyes ache just thinking about it!

Rob Kennedy March 17, 2011 at 10:11 pm

YES YES YES

More White Space

Especially with eBooks, The Book Thief found a great way of breaking up black blocks of text. I now double carriage return (CR) around chapter start and end. I add a double CR and insert a diamond shaped symbol where I feel a character or a reader needs to breathe between paragraphs. (I know there’s a name for this)

The ellipses… please use them … I don’t want to go on and on and …

Cheerio

Rob

Julie March 20, 2011 at 12:22 am

I started out my career writing for newspapers (and not the ‘serious’ type — local news).

That trained me to write in short paragraphs and spread things out. I was still at school at the time and was sure my English teacher was going to disapprove. Learning to thwart the English teacher early in life, has turned out to be an excellent life lesson.

sefcug March 21, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I am the editor for a computer user group newsletter.

I am constantly editing submissions with long paragraphs by splitting them up, adding appropriate headings, etc. to create more white space.

Readers of the newsletter and one I used to edit for another group, have told me that they like the use of white space.

I also subscribe to a lot of blogs through Google Reader, and find that most of my favorites use white space effectively for online reading.

Jan Miyamoto November 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm

I’ve always used white space, especially since my writing is heavily dialogue driven since I was a child. I’ve never been told not to use it in creative writing and I have opted against it in more descriptive pieces. I wrote a short story and stylistically, I thought that white space was appropriate with the short dialogue. It was done out of instinct more than it was a decision of mine, but I just got severely shot down by my advisor (I’m co-editing the school magazine this semester) and she wrote a huge note and taped it on the wall about white space and how it was only used to create a break in acts or a break in time and to never print/publish prose with white space to indicate breaks in paragraphs or dialogue. She also said not to remove that note from the wall. Ouch! That kind of hurts, especially when she threw a fit about something like that to the other staff members while I wasn’t there. Anyway, I removed the white space and my story doesn’t look right at all. I’m disappointed on how it looks. She said it wasn’t artistic either.

I have an eye for design and I have had classes. In art, white space is extremely important. White space has been emphasized greatly, especially white borders in watercolor and the use of the white paper itself as part of the art piece. In technical writing, white space has been drilled into my head constantly and I’m sure it’s been emphasized a lot before.

I wish I’d just been told not to do that for the magazine. I guess I understand that to some it may look unprofessional and she stays within the rules of professional non-fiction writing, but I like white space and I’ll continue using it. I definitely prefer it because it’s easier on my eyes. Someone that has vision problems like myself is drawn to white space and the rule that all our papers have to be double-spaced has created made people comfortable and attached to it. I’m guilty of being one of them. I think it makes writing look nicer when it’s busy.

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