Self-publishing: the importance of “white space” in your book

A book’s “white space” (or “negative space”) is the parts that are not covered by text or images. That is, in a white-background type of book, it is literally all the white space around and in between the text and images.

Why is white space important?

White space in a book is important for a few reasons.

  • Any composition (of visual art) needs white space for balance, and the pages and spreads of a book is no different.
  • It gives the reader “head space” to relax, outside the text and/or images.
  • It gives the reader “eye space” for the eyes to relax, outside the text and/or images. Or, if you like, it gives the reader “breathing space” around the content.
  • This relaxing “space” for the brain and eyes allows the reader’s mind, including their creative mind, to enlarge upon the words or images that are on the page. It is as if the white space creates a pathway of creativity for the reader, between one block of text to the next, and/or one image to the next. Having sufficient white space in which to be creative, in between the text and/or images, creates a more engaging experience for the reader.

Problems caused by not enough white space in a book

  • Without the right amount of white space, the composition of the artworks that are the book/pages/spreads is not in balance.
  • The book may be too “busy” – too much going on and not enough headspace or eye-rest around all those blocks of text, and/or images.
  • This busy-ness may be tiring for the reader (their brain and their eyes). A narrative (of text and/or images) with too little white space on the page is less engaging than a narrative with plenty of white space around it.
  • The lack of enough relaxing space for the brain or eyes limits the amount of leeway the reader’s mind has to be creative, to enlarge upon what it has seen, and to make reflective/self connections between the text/images, and the reader.

Use plenty of white space in the margins of your book

Including plenty of white space in all the margins adds a layer of professionalism and reader-engagement to the book for the following reasons.

  • Allowing plenty of white space on the top and bottom margins gives the reader a feeling of having enough room, or space.
  • Allowing plenty of white space on the gutter margin (the two inside margins of the open book) means it will be physically easy to read all the text, and look at all of the images, throughout the book.

On the other hand, the following applies if margins are too narrow.

  • Having margins that are too narrow on the top or bottom of the page creates a feeling of being crowded – not having enough space. And the reader may think it looks cheap: that the author/publisher has skimped on the margins so they could fit more words on each page, so that the pagecount and the cost of printing lower.
  • Gutter margins that are too narrow make it difficult to read the book, from a phsyical point of view. If the reader has to bend back the recto page just so they can read the text on it from left to right, they may get fed up with the book and stop reading. And, too-narrow margins on the gutter side and/or the outside margin just create the impression of cheapness, unprofessionalism.

Use plenty of white space in the front matter of your book

Including plenty of front matter in your book – and within that front matter, plenty of white space – adds a layer of professionalism to the book, as well as making those introductory pages more engaging, thus more reader-friendly.

Readers expect at least a couple of pages of front matter, and white space around a lot of that front  matter, in any book. As a general rule, the more pages the book has (i.e. the thicker a book is), the more front matter (including white space around that front matter) is required.

For information about what to include in the front matter, go to: Front matter.

White space in a book of poems, or with challenging content

The deeper or more challenging the content, the more white space is needed to give the reader “room” to cope with that content.

Some examples of the type of content (text) that requires more than  the usual amount of white space around it are as follows.

Poetry: the reason poetry is usually set out in certain lines and stanzas is because the poet wants to emphasise certain ideas expressed by words or lines or stanzas of the poem, and the reader needs white space (or “breathing space”) around those ideas/sets of words, in order to digest them separately from the previous, and next, ideas represented by words, lines or stanzas.

Sensitive or challenging content: if the content is violent or explicit in such a way that the reader may find it somewhat overwhelming, white space can be used to “couch” the content in enough white, or “breathing”, space to make it more palatable to the reader. White space literally gives the reader a break from the harsh content they are reading. If the content is challenging to comprehend (for example, an explanation of a mathematical or coding problem and solution that would be difficult for most readers to understand), the use of white space will also assist those readers’ brains by giving them that breathing space, or maybe you could call it “subconscious thinking space” , around the text or equations, that will  enable them to understand the content.

Any content that is dot pointed or in numbered lists: the use of lists when representing a lot of information is helpful to the reader not only because there is a little dot or number to grab the eye at the start of every item,  but also because those lists contain white space between and around each item. Again, this white space allows the brain room to “breathe” within the content.

Other articles about white space

Please note all the above are my own views, based on thirty-odd years of producing self-published books. Not everyone will agree with all of them.

Following are some articles/books by others about the use of “white space”.

This is my favourite book about white space. Whilst it is primarily about white space in the comics genre it has a lot of brilliant things to say about the use of white space in general: Scott McCloud’s Making Comics.

Articles about the importance of white space and how to use it:

Image copyright J Kane.

Back To Blog