Whitespace (also called negative space, since it isn’t always necessarily white,) is that stuff between the words… all of that empty nothingness. But it’s more than a gap or wasted paper. There is a psychology behind it and a good reason not to cram every word you can muster into the margins… the chief reason being: it tires your brain out, stresses the eyes, and makes readers put down a would-be page turner.
Famous author G. K Chesterton wrote, “The modern world… pile[s] one thing on top of another, without caring if each thing was crushed in turn. People forgot that the human soul can enjoy a thing most when there is time to think about it and be thankful for it. And by crowding things together they lost the sense of surprise; and surprise is the secret of joy.” He might not have been explicitly talking about the psychology of words on paper, but his words really do apply.
Visually speaking, white space provides relief and gives intelligent organization to elements on a page. Think of white space as being in-between characters, between lines, between everything, it’s all white space. The negative space helps separate text elements from each other and helps our brain digest those pieces. Effective use of white space means that you don’t crowd content unless you have an intentional reason (and it had better be good enough to potentially sacrifice quality over). Your goal as a writer (or editor or typesetter, and all of those duties are on the shoulder of Indie authors,) is to enhance readability.
Designer Alvalyn Lundgren notes, “Psychologically, we require white space for comfort’s sake. It helps us understand what we see because it separates information… Without the appropriate use of white space, one thing flows into another with no relief, ideas merge, and the message becomes confusing. When that happens, communication ceases…” This is a concept that has not always been the same and older books tried to cram as many words onto a page as possible. Those older books are, by their nature, more difficult to read. They also didn’t have the same technologies we had today such as word processing. I have actually been inside an old print shop and had the privilege of running the physical typesetting for a day. Having that experience has shown me how/why they did it that way! It was a lot of physical, mechanical labor, and adding design elements like whitespace was not a high priority.
Lundgren likens it to a house. “Think of it in this way: If there was a room in your home where every inch of space was taken up by a piece of furniture, you would be unable to navigate through or use the room. Empty space between furniture is required for the room to be useful. This same concept applies in communication.”
At the few most recent literary conferences I attended agents emphasized the importance of the right balance between narrative and dialogue. The reasoning was because of something they dubbed “information fatigue.” They brought up the psychology of it: that our mind needs those little pauses between the sentences. It helps develop a flow and cadence… without it, it’s like the mental equivalent of exercising without being given a chance to breathe… like being blasted with a hose of nonstop water while you’re trying to catch a breath.
The thing is… we can shut the water off. That’s when readers put the book down.
That’s never our goal, as authors: to make our book difficult enough to read that our audience avoids it entirely. Think about the level of information overload. It is constant. Cell phones ring. Apps send us alerts. Television commercials shift audio volume. All in an attempt to jolt you into seeing their information instead of yours.
I consulted on a book for an older gentleman and he insisted that his book be formatted a certain way that eliminated almost every scrap of whitespace. He wasn’t particularly interested about the psychology behind it. As Indie authors, that is totally up to us! However, we need our information to be as easy to read as possible, so pay attention to where industry norms have gone. Those major publishing houses have sunk billions of dollars into research over the decades. Use that knowledge to your advantage!
As they note about white space over at Writing Sideways, “there’s a delicate balance between too little and too much… If there is too much white space, then the piece looks unprofessional. If there is too little white space, then the reader has a hard time keeping their place.”