I am guilty of creating islands of thought. According to web designer Nathan C Ford, musing in his blog on the field of macrotypography (the layout of text), this means separating paragraphs with a whole line space, as on this page. Block paragraphs are formed, which does tend to break up the flow.

Such style is commonly used online. Even newspaper web articles are formatted this way. For on-screen text, this seems like the right thing to do. Websites are not usually read in a linear way – our eyes dart all over the screen, hang on clear heading, and text is often skimmed for sense – so giving each thought its own space makes it easier for the reader to find the right information.

Also, the web was not built by literary types. I doubt many web developers care much about how text is presented. (The difference between an en dash and a hyphen has certainly passed them by; I have previously had trouble using the en dash for online content as it doesn’t display properly once coded for a website.) Writing this piece on the WordPress user interface, I can’t even find a way to do a first line indent.

Starting a new paragraph signifies a new idea in the text, a progression of what’s been written in the previous paragraphs. It is large punctuation for the whole prose. In a piece of text, paragraphs are like the beads on a necklace – separate but linked. Indents, or even pilcrows if you want to be very retro, separate the ideas, but the thread is not broken.

So for printed text, showing a new paragraph with a first line indent is better – more aesthetically pleasing and more economical with space. I write so often for on-screen purposes that I’d forgotten about the indent. It seemed almost old fashioned, not the modern way: like the double space after a full stop. I tried it on the last job I did and it just looked wrong. But it works so much better in some instances – in future I’ll stop isolating my paragraphs and will be bringing back the indent!

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