If you can read this, you’ve probably been reading for more years than you haven’t been reading. In fact, you’ve been reading for so long that you rarely consider the process of reading. You probably don’t even realize that you react to the way the text looks, even before you begin to interpret the words.
On the page, white space, or lack of white space, can immediately comfort you, overwhelm you, intrigue you, or make you hesitant. White space is exactly what you think it is: the clean part of the page, the absence of text.
Why do you think teachers usually ask students to double-space their typed essays? They’re not trying to be annoying. They don’t worship the MLA Handbook (okay, maybe some do). When a teacher has to read a stack of papers, she doesn’t want to have to fight to see the words. Double-spaced text is reader friendly.
My favorite example is the restaurant menu. If you’ve been to a typical diner, you know that the multi-page menu (see photo at left) is cluttered with images and text. If you’re visiting a diner, you probably have a few dishes in mind – otherwise, how would you ever be able to choose?
However, when you visit an upscale restaurant, where the dishes are usually novel, the menu is often well-designed and uncluttered. Each course gets a dedicated amount of space on the page.
The white space, or lack of white space creates a mood; it even designates social class. White space is luxury. White space says, “I care about design and visual appeal more than I care about printing costs.”
Beginning writers rarely put any thought into how text looks on a page. And how can you blame them? They are focused on the sentence level, adjusting punctuation and syntax. They are simply making sure the sentences are coherent.
But Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, suggests that white space can be a form of punctuation as much as a comma or a period is a form of punctuation. He writes:
Inside the text, white space is a writer’s and a reader’s best friend. White space helps emphasize what is most important on the page or screen, provides a kind of visual index that clues in the reader to the main parts of the story, and ventilates tedious grayness, relaxing the eyes and reassuring the mind.
White space, I would argue, should be considered a form of punctuation, partly because other traditional marks of punctuation work have been designed to create it.
These days, we often read text via a screen. Because the screen already strains the eyes, the writer needs to make that the task of reading is as easy as possible. While the content of your work maybe be difficult and challenging, looking at the text long enough to get something out of it shouldn’t be.
If you think that creating white space is the job of a layout designer, you’re so wrong. Anyway, how many writers these days have access to a layout designer? A writer can and should create white space with paragraph breaks, indentations, line breaks, and page breaks; these tools can be used to create a rhetorical effect.
Give the reader direction. Take advantage of that power! White space, like traditional punctuation, lets the reader know when to pause and when to linger. You have the reader’s attention – now, try to keep that attention for as long as you can.
(Diner menu photo by Zach Alexander)
I’d add chapter size to this, even though it is technically not the same thing. It may sound like an oxy-moron, but all things being equal, I would be more likley to read a 500 page book laid out in 5-7 page chapters, than a 300 page book with chapters that are an average of 15-20 pages. There is just something about having that nice built in point of breaking if I want to. With a long chapter, slower readers like me need to break in the middle.
Certainly white space and paragraph choice are a type of punctuation. It is often more evident in poetry and experimental fiction. The “wall of text” is intimidating.
This reminded me to double space what I’m writing. It’s so much easier on the eyes. Plus, now it’s twice as long!