Silences and spaces


In order to be a good speaker, you need to be aware not just of the words you use, but of how to use silence, and the way pauses can affect your audience. Writers, too, need to be conscious of how they construct texts to create pauses in the minds of their readers.

There are lots of different ways to break up a text: punctuation is used across all genres to signal pauses, paragraph breaks apply to prose in general, while chapter breaks are relevant only to longer texts; tree structuring and bullet point lists are reserved mostly for non-fiction, while line breaks and stanza breaks are tools specific to poetry.

The writer uses all of these elements as signals and clues for the reader about how he intends his text to be read. But once a text is complete, the writer passes it on to the typesetter, who has a different set of tools he can use that add space and silence and that can help or hinder the reader.

As readers, we tend not to be consciously aware of page design, although we occasionally recognise that there’s something about a particular book, independent of how interesting or compelling the content is, that makes it more – or less – appealing than others.

With more people self-publishing, more and more books are being produced by non-experts, by writers who may have enough knowledge to produce a clear and legible manuscript using their word-processing software, but who don’t have the training and skill of a professional layout artist or typesetter.

Most people involved in writing or publishing are aware of the phrase white space and realise that the visual impact of a text, whether on page or on screen, can have a huge effect on how the reader perceives the content. The problem is that white space isn’t a particularly simple concept and a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Here we take a brief look at just a few of the different ways in which white space occurs on a page.

The visual impact of a text, whether on page or on screen, can have a huge effect on how the reader perceives the content.
Blank pages

In addition to the endpapers that separate the book cover from the pages that contain the body of a text, you will often find additional blank pages at the beginning or end of a printed book. Now that many books are printed digitally, this is less common, but framing the main bulk of the content with appropriate front and end matter is still important, giving the content room to breathe and helping to indicate that the book has been professionally produced.

The space around a text is vitally important.

Most novels start each new chapter on the page immediately following the previous chapter. (Occasionally, chapters even begin halfway down a page, although this isn’t the norm.) For novels, where chapters tend to follow directly on, one after the other, this encourages the reader to continue without a break.

Kerning and tracking

Kerning refers to the space between specific pairs of characters, while tracking refers to the space between all the characters in a piece of text. Since typefaces are professionally designed to take into account the way the different letters work together, there are not many occasions when it is necessary to change either kerning or tracking. Sometimes, though, particularly in very small or very large font sizes, a very slight adjustment can make the text easier to read.

The typesetter can choose from a range of techniques to anchor the text on the page.

Particularly with the larger fonts used for headings and titles, an adjustment to kerning may be necessary to make a word hold together better. Of course, the problem is knowing just how much tweaking can be done without spoiling the effect the original typeface designer intended.


The space around a text is vitally important. If the text begins or ends too close to the inner edge of the page, a cheaply produced book may quickly start to fall apart as the reader forces it wide open to be able to read the text close to the spine. On the other hand, margins that are too wide will leave the text floating in a sea of white. As well as setting margins in accordance with the page size and font, the typesetter can choose from a range of techniques to anchor the text, including paragraph rules (horizontal lines) and footer and header detailing.

Inter-line spacing

The space between lines of a text – the leading – can also be adjusted to squeeze a text or to force it to occupy a larger space than it would do automatically. Again, there is skill involved in knowing just how much liberty can be taken with the default settings. It can be tempting to use changes to leading and tracking to prevent single words or lines running on to the next page (widows) or paragraphs beginning with a single line at the bottom of a page (orphans), but this is best left to professional typesetters.

In addition to all the above, there’s the problem of designing a text for a specific printed page and then converting it so it can be read on a screen: any tweaks you’ve made to the layout may affect the screen version. On many handheld devices, the reader can choose the font and font size they want. This means your tweaking may be irrelevant, or may suddenly be revealed by certain reader choices as an unexpected and unwanted break or an awkwardly displayed section of the text.

It’s also important to remember that every adjustment to a text has a knock-on effect; the fact that you can tweak typographical elements, doesn’t mean you should. If you change the margins in one place, you may cause problems elsewhere; if you manage to pull back a widow here, you may cause another later on. And if you keep on tweaking indiscriminately, making a slight alteration for every problem that arises, you risk destroying the coherence of the text as a whole.

Make an empty space in any corner of your mind, and creativity will instantly fill it.
― Dee Hock

At Tantamount we offer a whole range of editorial services for authors, publishers and businesses, so even if you aren’t quite sure of the right terminology, why not tell us about your project and let us work with you to see what needs doing next?