Making Use of White Space

Do you think of “white space” as a topic important only to visual artists? One lesson I took from an all-day Poynter seminar, “Write Your Heart Out, Washington,” was that white space matters to every writer.

White space, quite simply, is the part of the page without text. Writers aren’t taught to view their prose as a visual art. Having worked in print layout in the past, I’ve labored to find the right aesthetic pairing of columns of text with visual elements. But I haven’t always structured my writing to maximize visual effect.

This isn't white space, it's my white board, where I'm mapping out a creative writing project. I appear to have some white space in the upper right.

Enter Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, author of more than a dozen books on writing, most recently Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. “White space is the most powerful form of punctuation,” said the author who includes an exclamation point after the first word in the title of his latest book. “Without it, the text looks dense and impenetrable.”

“It is the paragraph that creates white space on the page,” Clark said. This is obvious, but worth reflection. In a sentence the most emphasis falls on the last word. In a paragraph, the most emphasis falls on the last word of the last paragraph, and thus is a critically important moment in the prose.” Noting the British refer to a period as a “full stop,” Clark said, “If the period is a stop sign, the paragraph break is a stoplight.”

As a journalist I was taught to keep my paragraphs nice and short, because when they’re crammed into thin columns a very long one can indeed seem impenetrable. Now that I’m studying the personal essay, I’m learning that my habit of automatically hitting the enter key every few lines is, at best, misguided. The writers in my MFA workshop, and my instructor, have been puzzled by my paragraph breaks, which at times seemed arbitrary.

That’s because they were.

Clark taught me that even newspaper journalists should make use of white space. He shared a story from Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas French, a feature story titled “Elegy for the king and queen” from the St. Petersburg Times that French has now expanded into a book, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives. If you click on the link to the “Elegy” story above, you’ll see how French made use of not just paragraph breaks. His first paragraph is a mere seven words long. The second is longer, ending on a strong tease. The third is longer still, landing on a punch line. The fourth is a bit shorter, and ends with a moving passage. The fifth? It conveys the real thrust of the story, why this chimp is worthy of a profile. It ends with the shortest sentence in the passage — the most powerful sentence — and is followed by a three-asterisk hard break.

Dialogue, of course, is one way to create white space, although Clark was quick to point out the difference between dialogue and quotes, with the latter merely a repetition of what was said, and the former a selection of what was said that advances the story. Choose your quotes wisely, he cautioned.

I was struck by the recurrence of discussion of white space in the last panel, featuring Pulitzer Prize winning columnists Kathleen Parker and Eugene Robinson, both of whom I have the pleasure of reading in my hometown newspaper, The Washington Post. Robinson said he works with white space with each column, something he learned years ago as a city desk editor. Struggling with a reporter’s story that was overly long and overly dull, Robinson realized part of the problem was that every paragraph was exactly the same length. Parker added that she tends to include at least one one-sentence paragraph in each 750-word column. She said she views a column as a musical work, and that sentence serves as a “staccato.”

(You are lucky I was able to write down anything Kathleen Parker said, transfixed as I was merely by being in her presence. I’m not usually a sucker for blondes, and I’m not suggesting any political leanings here, but I have a mad crush on that woman. So smart. So funny. So beautiful. Yes, my wife knows of my crush. Yes, she tolerates it.)

Do you take white space into consideration in your writing? How do you make use of it?

20 thoughts on “Making Use of White Space

  1. Great topic, Patrick. I, too, have long been a preacher of white space due to my journalism and communications background. I kept it vaguely in mind as I penned my novel, too. And I do love me a good one-sentence paragraph!

    You touch on meaningful point here — that white space isn’t necessarily something you merely see when reading. When done correctly it not only looks good to the reader, it also feels good. It feels natural. I think as writers, especially budding writers, we often get caught up in plotting story arcs, monitoring word count, making sure we follow the industry-prescribed formulas for articles, scenes or chapters. Yet, it takes us a while before we learn to let all that go and instead drill down to the more finite elements — paragraph length, sentence structure, word choice, feeling, flow. When we focus on those things, I think the white space materializes organically; rather than having a copyeditor arbitrarily insert paragraph breaks to break up a gray page. And readers can feel the difference.


    1. I agree it feels natural both as a reader and a writer. Both Parker and Robinson emphasized its importance, but also suggested a certain level of muscle memory that comes from years of writing.


  2. I absolutely take white space into consideration—as a reader and a writer. It’s like my eyes/brain cannot process a big chunk of prose. I literally skip it. There’s a reason people harp on the paragraph thing. Readers need a natural (or even forced) place to take a mental breath.


    1. I’m with you on big chunks of prose. I have been intrigued, however, to come across some writers (I’m thinking James Baldwin) who use the occasional page-long paragraph to take me on a wild ride. Too often, however, we are not Baldwin, and we need to give the reader a breather.


  3. I love this topic. So glad you wrote about it.

    I’ve worked with writers who write in big slabs of text for their novels, trying to get them to see the art form inherent in knowing where to break for another paragraph.

    I’m coaching a client right now who is learning to break up big slabs with story and dialogue so her writing isn’t solely introspective. The first time I asked her to rewrite a section of the book, I was so excited to see her beautiful use of white space. And the passage had taken on a new rhythm.

    I’m also learning a lot about white space as a screenwriter. There has to be a fine balance between dialogue, effective description delivered in a minimum of words and what’s referred to as cinematic storytelling – all in 110 pages or less. That’s very short, page-count-wise, but it’s not license to cram more words in. Nobody will read a screenplay that’s as dense as a thicket. Lots of white space is one mark of a good script.

    Thanks for giving me an excuse to expound on a pet topic. 🙂

    P.S. Like Nina, I think of it in terms of ease of breathing as I read.


    1. It’s interesting to hear you encounter a bunch of writers who need to break up “big slabs,” when I think my years of experience of writing very short nonfiction has caused me to have to go back at times and reunite pieces that shouldn’t have been broken apart. So many challenges!


  4. What a great post — I am always thinking about white space. I’m a journalist by training too so I know just what you mean about the paragraph! Then as a business/tech writer (often responsible for my own layout and design) white space took on a whole new meaning. As for fiction & creative nonfiction, I find it’s necessary to look at it in an even different light — as you say, it becomes a powerful part of the punctuation.


    1. Absolutely. I suspect I could identify certain writers simply by the white space of their pages. Hemingway, with his war-correspondent short bursts. Faulkner, with his long passages of description. Twain, with his mix of dialogue and short observation. It makes me want to take out my contact lenses and look at some pages!


  5. Kate Arms-Roberts

    I have been thinking a lot about white space recently. Word of wisdom on writing for the Web suggest even more white space than on the printed page, and I tend to agree. I would also suggest that my most recent blog post is an excellent demonstration of too little white space, though it functioned nicely as a writing exercise.

    On the other hand, I find too much white space and too many short paragraphs as irritating as too many long paragraphs. And, when looking at a piece and deciding if I want to read it, I tend to assume that a lack of length in at least some paragraphs reflects a lack of depth of thought.

    I suppose it is all about the appropriate length of paragraph to balance the needs of the work and the needs of the reader.


    1. Kate Arms-Roberts

      Sorry, that second sentence doesn’t make much sense. The joy of not editing after being distracted by hungry kids.

      I meant to say that I have seen much advice to include even more white space when writing for the Web than when writing for the printed page.


    2. Yup, I think I annoyed some of my classmates with too much white space. My instructor also informed me that my Word settings default to automatically inserting additional space at the end of each paragraph. I’ve disabled that. Who knew?

      Agree on the web site. I’ve designed and overhauled sites for employers before, and I always 1) declutter, and 2) minimize multiple clicks to get where you want to go.


  6. Hi, like this article. I’m a poet so white space is hugely important; when you are working with dense, compact language, the white space is the only thing that allows the reader to take a breath. And the space is part of the message – some poems have long, Whitmanesque lines, others are more spare, like e.e. cummings; less or more white space makes such a difference in how the writing feels. As you suggest, it is just a different kind of punctuation.


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  8. I definitely do because I myself will not read something that’s too gray heavy. Beach Lane Books editor Allyn Johnston once referred to that as “a wall of words.” Nobody wants to bang their eyes against the wall.


  9. As a visual artist … I can say that yes, your eye always needs a place to rest. In the one creative writing class I took in college, we discussed white space in poetry but not in other areas. Interesting.

    Anyway … very well written Patrick, and a good topic. You are growing as a writer before our very eyes. I’m proud of you my friend! (and, I honor your wife tolerating you announcing your crush to the world! 😉 )


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