Do you remember a time when you suffered from sensory overload?
This happened to me at a SIGGRAPH Conference in Detroit, Michigan, my first and last computer graphics conference. I remember sitting in a large room in front of an enormous screen with no idea of what to expect.
What followed was a blur of fast-paced images that left me breathless and in need to flee for visual quiet which I was unable to do. Trapped in a room full of people, I wondered how many others felt as I did. I needed the world to stop. Many, many people are feeling that way right now, as they hunker down in their homes.
White space helps keep sensory overload at bay. Being bombarded with too much sound can cause some to become irritated, so can too many visuals.
I think about my days as a Resource Specialist Program teacher and how upset my students with learning disabilities became when there were too many words or math problems on a page. Sometimes they felt so overwhelmed that they panicked and froze, unable to complete more than a small percentage of their work. Adding white space changed everything. It gave breathing space. Calm.
Like a pause in a song, white space can help create drama, emotion, a bit of quiet before a storm of words.
White space is the canvas where we paint our words.
Writers can affect readers with the use of white space in several ways.
1. White space draws the reader’s attention to the words on the page, makes the print easier to read, and improves comprehension.
2. Space on the page makes finding where the reader left off reading quick and easy.
3. Kerning, the space between letters, can change the look of the print and add meaning. Just as using all capitals can be interpreted as yelling, extra space between letters may emphasize speaking words slowly. “You need to s l o w down.”
4. The use of white space at the beginning and ending of chapters gives the reader a visual break. Some writers and formatters choose to begin a new chapter halfway down the page. Others like to start all chapters on the right hand side of the book for physical copies. A new chapter beginning on the same page as the previous chapter looks like a formatting error.
5. Line spacing may be adjusted to fit next to or around a photo or illustration, or from left to right margin across the page. Avoiding a line with the final word of a sentence dangling all by its lonesome self on the following page is a good thing and can be done using line spacing as well as kerning.
6. Blank pages are helpful in the case of an anthology of short stories, particularly if the spacing and word count send the ending of one story onto the right-hand page. A blank side gives the reader emotional space to regroup for the next tale.
Ways to create white space:
1. The use of images surrounded by a margin of space: illustrations, icons, graphs, photos, all give the reader a brief rest and let the mind focus on something different.
2. Bullet points and numbered lists make reading quicker, scannable.
3. Variable sentence lengths make for more pleasurable reading. Too many long sentences in a row create blocky text. If you pause and go back to a big block of text, it is really difficult to find one’s place.
4. Use shorter paragraphs. Big chunks of information are frustratingly hard to read.
White space doesn’t have to be the color white.
Anything not drawing one’s attention on the print on a physical book, eBook, or webpage is considered white space. A patterned or colored background is also considered white space.
The first thing your potential reader sees while perusing what to read next is the book cover. Whether shopping in a bookstore or online, your future customers will make a visual first-pass. If the cover is appealing, then they’ll read the back cover information and read some reviews prior to purchase.
Much of the time, we don’t pay too much attention to white space. It should go unnoticed. However, when there is too much information in too little space, we clearly miss it as we stumble into cluttered chaos.
Busy covers do not work. When pouring over the many thumbnail images of book covers online, too much informative print will be difficult to read. If there is a plethora of elements on your book’s cover, there’s a good chance the reader will avoid your book.
White space on the book’s cover allows the creation of a focal point to make that cover pop!
How do you use elements of white space in your work?
Photo credits: ©Tirachard, ©Rosinka79
Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.