March 27th, 2020

White Space in Writing

Ellen Buikema

Do you remember a time when you suffered from sensory overload?

This happened to me at a SIGGRAPH Conference in Detroit, Michigan, my first and last computer graphics conference. I remember sitting in a large room in front of an enormous screen with no idea of what to expect.

What followed was a blur of fast-paced images that left me breathless and in need to flee for visual quiet which I was unable to do. Trapped in a room full of people, I wondered how many others felt as I did. I needed the world to stop. Many, many people are feeling that way right now, as they hunker down in their homes.

White space helps keep sensory overload at bay. Being bombarded with too much sound can cause some to become irritated, so can too many visuals.

I think about my days as a Resource Specialist Program teacher and how upset my students with learning disabilities became when there were too many words or math problems on a page. Sometimes they felt so overwhelmed that they panicked and froze, unable to complete more than a small percentage of their work. Adding white space changed everything. It gave breathing space. Calm.

Like a pause in a song, white space can help create drama, emotion, a bit of quiet before a storm of words.

White space is the canvas where we paint our words.

Writers can affect readers with the use of white space in several ways.

1. White space draws the reader’s attention to the words on the page, makes the print easier to read, and improves comprehension.

2. Space on the page makes finding where the reader left off reading quick and easy.

3. Kerning, the space between letters, can change the look of the print and add meaning. Just as using all capitals can be interpreted as yelling, extra space between letters may emphasize speaking words slowly. “You need to  s  l  o  w  down.”

4. The use of white space at the beginning and ending of chapters gives the reader a visual break. Some writers and formatters choose to begin a new chapter halfway down the page. Others like to start all chapters on the right hand side of the book for physical copies. A new chapter beginning on the same page as the previous chapter looks like a formatting error.

5. Line spacing may be adjusted to fit next to or around a photo or illustration, or from left to right margin across the page. Avoiding a line with the final word of a sentence dangling all by its lonesome self on the following page is a good thing and can be done using line spacing as well as kerning.

6. Blank pages are helpful in the case of an anthology of short stories, particularly if the spacing and word count send the ending of one story onto the right-hand page. A blank side gives the reader emotional space to regroup for the next tale.

Ways to create white space:

1. The use of images surrounded by a margin of space: illustrations, icons, graphs, photos, all give the reader a brief rest and let the mind focus on something different.

2. Bullet points and numbered lists make reading quicker, scannable.

3. Variable sentence lengths make for more pleasurable reading. Too many long sentences in a row create blocky text. If you pause and go back to a big block of text, it is really difficult to find one’s place.

4. Use shorter paragraphs. Big chunks of information are frustratingly hard to read.

White space doesn’t have to be the color white.

Anything not drawing one’s attention on the print on a physical book, eBook, or webpage is considered white space. A patterned or colored background is also considered white space.

Book covers:

The first thing your potential reader sees while perusing what to read next is the book cover. Whether shopping in a bookstore or online, your future customers will make a visual first-pass. If the cover is appealing, then they’ll read the back cover information and read some reviews prior to purchase.

Much of the time, we don’t pay too much attention to white space. It should go unnoticed. However, when there is too much information in too little space, we clearly miss it as we stumble into cluttered chaos.

Busy covers do not work. When pouring over the many thumbnail images of book covers online, too much informative print will be difficult to read. If there is a plethora of elements on your book’s cover, there’s a good chance the reader will avoid your book.

White space on the book’s cover allows the creation of a focal point to make that cover pop!

How do you use elements of white space in your work?

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Photo credits: ©Tirachard, ©Rosinka79

21 responses to “White Space in Writing”

  1. Ellen, I easily suffer sensory overload, and I never thought about the effect of white space on creating quiet in my blogs and newsletter. Thanks!

    • ecellenb says:

      Hi Karen! I feel your pain. We recently joined an organization of volunteers that help children afford to continue their education. Their website is crammed full of words and drives me crazy. When I read it I feel tense. I wonder how many others feel the same way?

  2. Dialogue naturally creates a less dense looking page. When you consider that most readers enjoy dialogue...and are visually drawn to it when skimming...we need to use it to our stories' best advantage. White space--like personal space--is essential (especially these days). Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Ellen.

    • ecellenb says:

      Glad to know you've found this information useful, Christopher. I hadn't considered the personal space - white space connection. Brilliant!

  3. alicemfleury says:

    I wonder if its possible to have too much whitespace. Sometimes as I write, it seems my pages are lack in printed word.

    • ecellenb says:

      My suggestion is balance in all things. Some genres call for more white space than others. One example would be Picture books.

    • ecellenb says:

      Absolutely, Amber! We want our readers to enjoy our work. We can have the best story ever in cramped spacing and hardly anyone will take the time to read it.

  4. Amber Polo says:

    An important reminder and one not usually addressed. Make it easy for readers!
    A great post.

  5. Excellent post. I'm a firm believer in this. White space creates an ever changing pattern on each page. Paragraphs that go on and on form a massive block of shapes. When I run into epic paragraphs these days it strikes me as lazy writing. Lazy writing is selfish writing and doesn't put the reader first. Reading a book with ample white space is surfing on endless waves. Too little white space? It's being stuck in the middle of the Pacific in a lifeboat with no current taking you anywhere.

    • ecellenb says:

      Thank you Ontyre! When I see those long, blocky paragraphs I want to get in there and break it up into smaller chunks. I love critique groups that help with this part of writing.

  6. vanderso says:

    I'm sharing this on my blog, justcanthelpwriting.com. It's a topic I haven't seen addressed. Paragraphing decisions and, as a reader mentioned above, dialogue contribute to white space. I do notice, though, that too much white space can create a page that feels jumpy and encourages skimming rather than reading for nuance. I say this because I've just finished a book in which almost all the paragraphs were one or two lines with runs of short dialogue between. So I like your response urging "balance in all things."

  7. Eldred Bird says:

    Great post, Ellen, and something people don't normally think about. I try to take these things into account when laying out the interior of my books, but this gives me some new elements to think about.

    • ecellenb says:

      Thanks, Eldred! I believe many of us have a sense of white space without really thinking about it. Glad to know I've given you something to ponder.

  8. janetsm says:

    I'm making a conscious effort to incorporate white space in my blog posts by writing shorter paragraphs and sometimes inserting separators or skipping an extra line between sections. You make a lot of good points. Thank you.

    • ecellenb says:

      I am sorely remiss with my own website and need to check to see if I am practicing as I preach. LOL. Spacing really makes a difference in readability.

  9. Terry Odell says:

    When my former book club chose "Hamilton" I flipped through a few pages and decided that there was no way I could get through it. The fact that the genre wasn't anything I'd read was only part of the issue. Talk about dense. Which is my problem with a lot of 'literary' fiction.

    • ecellenb says:

      Wow. The book had two strikes against it for you. Did your past book club mix up the genres?

      • Terry Odell says:

        Yes, although most of the books were of the "I wouldn't have chosen that to read" variety. I did find some I enjoyed, although not enough to spend that much of my time in that group. The last straw for me was when the self-appointed group leader said, "all these books have been published and have been edited, so we shouldn't talk about the writing, just the story."

  10. Laurie says:

    I'm adamant about using short paragraphs in my contemporary romances. I just think it makes the story easier to read. Sometimes my editor wants to combine two shorter paragraphs. At times, I'll allow it, but other times, I pass on the suggestion. So many people read romances on devices now that I just want to leave the reader with some space to rest their eyes a bit. It's also better for print books. When I format my books for publication, I check to see if any pages look "blocky."

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    great thoughts. a good formatter and editor can help with some of it.

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