Writing Well For a Modern Audience: Rule #1 – Use White Space

Rules are meant to be broken.

I’ve heard that somewhere before, can’t remember where.

It’s a lie.

A more accurate statement would be, “Rules are guides and they can be broken but you must be armed with a “why”. A writer should only break rules when he knows obeying the rule is counterproductive.

Like I mentioned in the previous article, rules are not mandatory. They are like safe havens you run to when in doubt. You can ignore them but only when you know what you’re doing.

If you’re just starting out however, you need to appreciate rules.

Writing is a lot like juggling. It involves you throwing up so many words and ideas onto the page, trying to deliver some measure of coherence in your story. As you juggle, rules are your training wheels. They help you build your confidence and ensure you don’t get egg yolk on your face as you do your juggling act.

There’s a universe of incredibly useful rules out there. Today, we’ll be discussing the use of white space.

White Space

Let’s do a quick test. Which do you find easier to read?

This? :


Or this:


There’s a reason that first article has gotten 81,000+ claps on Medium (mindblowing, by the way!). The text is way easier to read than the second one which is clunky and claustrophobic.

The difference is the use of white space.

What is white space?

Whitespace is the portion of a page left unmarked or blank. It is the space between your words, sentences and paragraphs.

Quick note: even though it’s called white space, it doesn’t mean the actual space must be “white”. The blank space may be filled with any color as long as it is free of any text or words.

White space is all about formatting.

“Alternatively referred to as spacing, white space helps separate paragraphs of text, graphics, and other portions of a document, and helps a document look less crowded.”

White space is one of the tricks in a good writer’s repertoire. It’s way up there in the “tricks that will improve your writing exponentially” category.

White space gives your writing a shot in the arm, albeit in a covert way. Readers rarely notice your use of it unless you use it poorly.

So why do many people refuse to use it?

I don’t know but I have a hunch. I’ll use myself as an example.

I wrote my first essay (or composition exercise if you attended a missionary school like mine) in Primary 2. The topic was “What I Like About Myself”.

Just before giving us classwork, my class teacher scribbled four “rules” on the board:

Rule 1: Essays have 3 parts. Introduction, Body and Conclusion.

Rule 2: The introduction and the conclusion are one paragraph each.

Rule 3: The body has between 3 to 5 paragraphs.

Rule 4: Limit each paragraph to carry just one point each. Only one.

She spent about 30 minutes explaining each rule and its implications.

As my first introduction to prose writing, this would become the foundation of my career, who knew?

That was over 20 years ago.

It’s been several years of classes, courses and workshops, and more rules have been added. However, Rule 4 stuck with me. It’s safe to assume most literate people have this rule stuck in their heads as well.

To be clear, it’s a good rule, when taken in context.

Limiting each idea to a single paragraph helps you to reel in your thoughts and gives your writing some structure and clarity. In fact, it’s a great rule for kids learning to write prose. It’s also helpful if you’re writing for a print publication because space is a premium on that medium.

Weirdly, one of the things that put me off reading newspapers when I was younger was the cluster of words on each page. They looked so intimidating!

However, as a professional writer, Rule 4 has officially run its course.

We’re in the center of a digital revolution that means most of the prose being generated today will not be consumed on a sheet of paper but through a screen of some kind.

This means that, space is no longer at a premium – you can have as much white space as you want when you write.  

Look at all that beautiful white space!

However, using white space takes practice. It’s not as easy as saying, limit every paragraph to 4/5 lines of text (even though that’s a good start).

Using White Space

As a writer, think of yourself as a director. You’re in charge of what people experience when consuming your work. You have the control, whether you know it or not.

The trick to using white space is putting yourself in the reader’s shoes.

It’s easy to get lost in the writing itself as you try to capture your thoughts and give them life. But it’s also important to view your writing from the readers’ perspective.

How I do this?

Imagine yourself giving a presentation., let’s say a TED talk. The hall is packed with people ready to hang onto your every word. You have a 10-15 minutes for your presentation.

How do you deliver it?

You could decide to cram your words and sentences together, rushing through your presentation. That’s a bad idea though. It doesn’t matter how clever or original your ideas are, rushing will exhaust your audience quickly, or worse still, bore them.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a few TED talks and I noticed the best presenters always pace themselves. They pause often, sometimes for dramatic effect, sometimes to ask rhetorical questions, sometimes to let the audience soak in the gravity of what has been said (or about to be said).  

It’s subtle yet incredibly effective. It engages the audience and enhances the presentation.

Think of your articles as a presentation and the reader is your audience. Cramming your words together is like rushing through your presentation. We’ve agreed this is a terrible idea.

Instead, use white space the same way you’d use pauses during your presentation. As you write or edit, whenever you come across a sentence you feel you’ll pause before saying, start it on a new line.

Like this.

See?

It’s easy.

As a personal rule, I keep my paragraphs at a maximum of 3 lines, 4 maximum.

You can give your writing even more “pauses” using bullet points and sub headings.

Using white space is like a sculptor taking a block of text and chiseling at it till the project looks good, smooth, pleasing to see.

Without adequate white space, your writing looks claustrophobic, unfinished. And if it looks horrible, it will be hard to read.

When writing, your ideas are important. But if you want to give your ideas to have legs, to travel far, you have to work on your presentation.

So go on, start experimenting with white space today.

Cover Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
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