What’s the Rule for Indenting First Paragraphs?

Dear Kate…

You get to do what you want with that indent. Setting the first line flush left for a chapter-opening paragraph (and after space breaks within the text as well) is the general “norm” when it comes to interior text design, but there’s no absolute hard-and-fast rule. My designer colleagues tell me it’s nice to have the freedom to play with this element—they’d put a big ol’ indent if that worked for a project’s design style—but you’ll almost never see examples of that because breaking from this norm can strike readers as awkward. Keep that in mind if you’re designing the interior for your own self-published project. If you’re just wondering how to format your manuscript for submission, go with the tried-and-true flush left treatment for those chapter and break openers. Definitely don’t submit manuscripts set in that blog-like style that has extra line spacing between paragraphs and all first lines flush left.

Happy writing!
The Editor


  1. Yep, even more annoying than the variation in indenting rules are the extra lines that Word puts before and after paragraphs and dialogue lines. Why 0 can’t be the programmed-in default, I do not know. Glad to know all the options about indentions.

    • I, too, wish the default format in Word was the more traditional formatting. For those who don’t know how to get rid of those extra line spaces between paragraphs: Highlight your text (‘Select all’ if need be), then go to the top menu bar, select FORMAT > PARAGRAPH > INDENTS AND SPACING, then tick the box “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style.”

      • You can set up a default template so all new documents will be correct. Open new doc, go to paragraph format and choose 0 space for after (default is an annoying 6), save. Then save as to Word Template using the windows symbol in top left corner. (You’ll see the Word Template choice there.)

  2. Thanks for both mentioning the different styles of indents (I’ve noticed that flushed 1st paragraphs thing in books and have wondered about it) as well as how to get rid of that annoying extra line in Word!

  3. I only like that flush left thing if there’s an oversized letter or word marking the beginning of the paragraph. Sometimes they have very nice artwork. 🙂

  4. Have the rules changed for this? I’ve been told that (with CMOS) not indenting the first paragraph is now wrong or something. It’s difficult for me to accept…

    • Thanks for this question. I’m happy to field it. For readers who may not know the abbreviation, CMOS is The Chicago Manual of Style (sometimes CMS). You can read the 17th edition’s full stance on paragraph indents without a subscription via the “Spotlight” feature on its blog at https://bit.ly/39Ra61Q. This pull-out line addresses our question here: “Paragraphs immediately following a chapter title or subheading also may begin flush left (it’s optional).” So go with your preference and book design in a published book. For manuscripts, I like the flush left option, but it’s up to you.

  5. So, how did indents begin? Typesetters discovered that block paragraphs, which use a space between pagraphs, consumed more paper. The idea of creating an indent, allowed them to not have to use the extra space. The indent defined the break between paragraphs. The first paragraph, by typesetting rule, is flush because there is no paragraph above it, and it is only used on the second to the last paragraph of all chapters, not on the first ones.

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