Desktop publishing page content formatting

How to format documents, properly:


Documents are divided up into blocks; each block, rather than the whole page, has its own margins.  Each block usually has settings for margins, line spacing, etc.  If you change those sort of settings from within a block, they’ll be changed for that entire block, but not for anywhere else.  If you want to change settings for more than just that block, you need to select all of the areas that you want to modify (e.g. the whole page).

Every time you start a new block (e.g. a new paragraph, or a new heading, etc.), the word processor will (usually) start a new block with the same settings as the prior one.  Some will assume that each new block is a new paragraph, unless told otherwise (e.g. such as you marking it as a heading), and some will automatically pick certain types of blocks determined by the previous block (e.g. a new paragraph after a heading).

To lay out blocks, you can preset settings in the first block, and change them as you need to (as you add new blocks); or you can highlight blocks of typed text, and modify their settings, later on.

It might help to visualise how the design for pages in newspapers were once worked out; by cutting headlines and sections of texts into blocks, and placing them onto a board.  Though, imagining that each block is contained by a rubber border:  You can reshape the containing box, and the contents will flow to fit the shape of the box; but only if you’ve typed them properly into the box.


A heading is something of special meaning on a page, that may also have a different style than the body text, but its purpose is more important than its style.  Rather than play with individually styling each heading, mark them up as “headings,” “sub-headings,” etc., and use the style editor to style all headings in a consistent manner.

For large documents, marking headings as being “headings,” is a real time-saver when you’re aiming for professional results.  For instance, many word-processors have automatic features to generate “tables of contents,” and “indexes,” from the headings that’re marked-up on the page.


Paragraphs are treated as a block of text, the spacing between paragraphs is controlled by the page styling.  If you want paragraphs with blank spacing between them, that’s done by adjusting the spacing between paragraphs, not by typing an extra blank line between each one (as soon as you try and reformat a document typed that way, which is a complete pain, you’ll realise why that’s wrong—you end up with orphan blank lines between pages that mess up margins, and extra ones between paragraphs that were between pages, etc.).

Generally, word processors start a new paragraph when you press the “enter” key; it signals the end of the current paragraph, not just to break the line here.  If you’re trying to generate a list or table just by hitting return at the end of some text, you’re going about that the wrong way; there are specific functions for producing tables and lists.  Likewise, don’t use the return key to shorten the right-hand margin; adjust the margin properly.  Type a block of text as one block of text.

Line breaks

A common problem people have when word processing is that they think pressing enter works like on an electric typewriter (ends the current line, and starts a new one—causing a “line break”).  That's not how word processors (usually) work; you'll get a “paragraph break”.  Which means the content is treated differently than what you probably expect or want (blank lines between the paragraphs, automatic features insisting that you've started a new sentence and capitalising the first word, automatic indentation of new lines, starting a new list item, etc.).

Line breaks are finishing a line and starting a new one, but not starting a new paragraph.  (Such as used by some of the traditional layouts for poetry.)  You can often insert a line break with a special combination of keys (e.g. pressing a “control”, “alternate”, or “shift” key with the enter key), or picking a special formatting or “insert break” type of option from a menu.

A common related problem is how to prevent line breaks in some places.  There are times where line breaks look terrible, or make something hard to read (like in the middle of phone numbers).  For cases like these the answer isn't to play around with the block of text (trying to get the line break to occur somewhere else), but not to use plain blank spaces or hyphens in places you want to avoid a line break—you use a “non-breaking” ones there, instead.  The non-breaking space is a space character that won't break a line if it hits the margin, the entire word will be respositioned so the line break occurs somewhere else.  Likewise for the non-breaking hyphen.  Many word processors let you type them by pressing some other qualifier key (e.g. the “ALT” key), with the keys you normally use to type the character, or using a special character picking tool, or character insertion options in a menu.

For situations where line breaks might automatically happen, it's a good idea to use those non-breaking characters, even if your text isn't anywhere near the right-hand margin.  This way, if you edit the text and the contents shift position, you've already prepared yourself.  For example, here's some places where line breaks are quite awful:

Splitting words at the right-hand margin is the sort of thing you'd only do when you can't easily reformat a line in a better way—like hand typed documents where it's difficult to neatly erase and retype a lot of characters—since it makes things harder to read and understand.  When you're using a word processor, you don't have to jam words into the available space, you can neatly format blocks of text, very easily.  There's no good reason to emulate the ugly and poor printing abilities of typewriters and simplistic printing presses.


If you were indenting the first line in a paragraph, you can do that either by typing a tab before the first character, or adjusting the paragraph margins so that the first line starts in a different position than the following lines (this will handle styling each paragraph automatically, and allow you to easily adjust the indenting for the entire document as one styling adjustment).  The second approach can also be used to outdent paragraphs.

Many word processors have a left margin marker on the ruler that’s split into upper and lower halves; with the upper half marking the position of the first line’s starting point, the lower half marking the position for the rest of the paragraph.


To tabulate results, you can either use the tab key, to jump across the page in precise steps, to position text in vertical arrays, as needed (this method is messy; if you re-edit some text in a line, you may also have to re-edit the number of tabs in the line, and the tab stops might not be in places that you need them), or you can use the tab key once between each item, then highlight the entire block of text, and drag the tab stops around (in the ruler), so that everything neatly fits together (easier illustrated by trying that, than describing it).

Tab stops have more functions than traditional typewriters, too.  As well as the traditional effect, where text starts immediately where you place the tab (left-tabs), you can use tab stops as the point to centre text around (centre-tabs), or the point where text finishes (right-tabs), or even to centre around a decimal point in your text at the tab stop (decimal-tabs).  Decimal tabs are useful for tabulating monetary figures, or measurements, particularly when there will be an inconsistent number of numbers to the right of the decimal point.

Quantity  Item       Cost
       1  hammer    $20.0
      10  nails      $1.1023
      23  screws     $6.363
    5378  hooks    $146.985

The first column (quantity) is right-aligned, the next column (item) is left-aligned, and the last column (cost) is aligned around the decimal point.

Alternatively, many programs have a “table” function, where you create a table on the page, with the required number of columns and rows, then type into it.  Not only does this take care of positioning the content in a tabular manner, it can also draw rules between the rows and columns, and neatly include headings.  Some can even do some math between the table cells (useful, if you were tabulating the costing of something).  Generating tables with a proper table tool is a far superior way of doing these sorts of things (like the prior example) than attempting to type tables out by hand.  Tabs are better off for one-off indentations of single lines, and the like.


Most word processors have some way of formatting some text as being a list, with each item after a bullet point (or numbers), with consistent spacing between the side of the page and the bullet points and the following text, and keeping any text that flows over two lines, in step with the text margins.

This sort of thing is hard to do, well, without a proper list generator (i.e. formatting that by hand).


There are different sized spaces available to be used between characters, some of which will vary throughout a document based on what’s around it (yet one reason why you don’t format documents using blank spaces), others based on your choice of space to be used.  Generally, you don’t mess with inter-character or inter-word spacing, the software does that for you (based on the information it knows about the fonts being used).  However, it’s common practice to use double spaces between sentences in a paragraph, and after colons, when you don’t have software that automatically uses wider spaces in those places (see the spacing information on the page on typography for more information).

Line spacing

If you wish to use a non-typical line spacing, such as double spaced, then use the editors function to adjust the line spacing, rather than typing extra carriage returns between lines.  Not only does this produce consistent results, but you can re-edit a paragraph without having to take out line breaks appearing in bad places.

There’s two aspects to line spacing, they’re both related, but quite separate things:

Decent word processors will allow you to adjust the whole document by modifying the default style for paragraphs, rather than having to select the whole document, then having to adjust the line spacing (which will also modify spacing between things that aren’t paragraphs).

Page breaks

Most editors will automatically break across pages, where text flows across a margin or print border.  If you re-edit a portion of a page, you may affect where it ends, and the same for any following pages (remember that you’re not typing onto empty space, but typing new material between existing material; as it expands, you’re going to affect anything that follows it).

You can control where page breaks occurs, in various different ways:

On some word-processors, if you type between pages, you’ll insert new pages (in between), as needed to fit your new material in; any following pages will remain with the same layout as they had before.  On other processors, you may end up typing over the page breaks, removing them, and reflowing the remainder of the document around your new material.

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