Tab Is Not Indent, and Other Formatting Problems You Cause Yourself

Tab Is Not Indent, and Other Formatting Problems You Cause Yourself

We all want our written work to look nice. Whether you’re preparing a book for possible publication, or just writing up a document for coworkers or friends to read, you’ve probably wrestled with formatting. Weird spacing, mismatched fonts, and other errors can leave us frustrated with Word or Google Docs — but sometimes the problem is, as they say, between keyboard and chair. That weird formatting you’re battling is probably your fault. You are actually making this harder than it needs to be.

Don’t indent paragraphs with tabs or spaces

Sure, you can indent your paragraphs, if that’s your style — but stop using tabs or spaces to do it. When you hit the tab key, your word processing program (Word, Google Docs, etc.) will insert an invisible “tab” character. That looks OK for now, but different programs and different settings can change how that tab character gets displayed. If you want to get persnickety about it, you can adjust the tab stops in Word, but all bets will be off if somebody else opens it on their computer. The whole “tab” concept is a holdover from typewriters, and we don’t need it here.

So should you use spaces instead? No! This is going to look even worse with digital wear-and-tear. The size of a space depends on the size and style of the font you’re currently typing in. So maybe you think four spaces isn’t enough, and you’re going to use six. But then if you change the font right before printing, those six spaces might now look too wide. How are you going to fix it everywhere? By not getting into this mess in the first place.

The proper way to indent your paragraphs is to enable first-line indents in your settings. Here are instructions for how to do it in Word, and here are the instructions for Google Docs. Now, every paragraph will be indented by the same amount, and if you don’t like how that looks, you can change it across the entire document in just a few clicks.

By the way, you’re not giving up your creative freedom when you do this. You can still type un-indented paragraphs. Just start a new paragraph, and backspace to remove the indent. It will be saved as a non-indented paragraph.

Stop hitting the Enter key

The other way we commonly mess up our own formatting is hitting the Enter key too damn much.

Want to start a new page? Please do not hit Enter until you get to the next page. The spacing here is, again, dependent on the font you’ve chosen (plus your margins, and other settings you’re liable to change in the future.)

Insert a page break instead. That’s literally what it’s for. A page break is an instruction to your word processor to stop putting words on the current page and to skip to the next page. It will still do that even if you change the font, even if you add an extra paragraph, even if you’re on page 503 of a 700-page document.

Another place to stop hitting the Enter key, and this one I plead from the bottom of my heart (it is a cherished pet peeve): after every paragraph. Please don’t. If you want an extra space after every paragraph, go to Format > Line and paragraph spacing > Add space after paragraph. (That’s for Google Docs. Word instructions are here.)

Why does this matter? Because if you’re going to write a draft in Google Docs and then paste it into a different editor that adds the space automatically (like the one we use for Lifehacker articles), someone is going to have to delete all of those extra Enters. (That someone is me.)

Bottom line: Learn how to use formatting settings

If you’re sensing a pattern here, it is that your word processor is capable of doing all the formatting things you want done, if only you will let it. Wresting control by sprinkling in spaces and linebreaks is just messing up its work. There’s a division of labour here: You provide the words, the computer provides the formatting. This ultimately benefits both you and anyone else who needs to read or edit your words.

So rather than changing the font style and size when you want something to look a little different, instead select it and apply a style. Chapter heading? Think “Header 2,” not “Arial, bold, 18 point.” That way, they’ll all be consistent (no more “oops, I did some of these as 20 point”) and you can change them all to Papyrus in a jiffy. And then change them back when you decide, no, that’s not quite right after all.

We’re not in the typewriter era anymore, so it no longer makes sense to adjust a document’s appearance on the fly. We’re creating a copyable, editable document, and we need to stop inserting things that are going to screw up the formatting for our future selves. And on that note, here’s a bonus rule: Quit putting two spaces after a period.

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