How to make your Google Docs easier to read using indents and spacing

Learn how to adjust paragraph settings in Google Docs to manage indents or add space between paragraphs instead of using Tab or Enter to align or separate text.

Two paper page-size blue rectangles, with left one having white lines showing left-align no indent, and right one showing first line left-aligned and remaining lines indented (i.e. a hanging indent).

Image: TechRepublic/Andy Wolber

The goal of a hanging indent—where the first line of the paragraph aligns with the left margin, while the remaining portion of the paragraph is indented—is to make certain types of paragraphs easier for readers to scan. These days, you might recognize a hanging indent as the paragraph format used in the reference section of a formal paper. You might also encounter a hanging indent in other types of lists. And in print, hanging indents are sometimes used in pieces with content in the margins, such as illustrations or side notes.

Google Docs gives you tools to format paragraphs with a hanging indent properly, without the use of the Tab key. For example, a inefficient way to create a hanging indent would be to type the first line of a paragraph, then tap the Tab key as you enter every additional line in the paragraph. Even a minor edit to your text could require you to realign each line. 

SEE: 10 free alternatives to Microsoft Word and Excel (TechRepublic download)

Google Docs also includes a first line indent option. A first line indent does exactly what the words imply: Indents the first line of the paragraph. Once you know the first line indent term, the negative indent makes sense (Figure A). A hanging indent is also sometimes called an outdent.

Figure A

Screenshot of Google Doc with example paragraphs that display indent settings at none (top example), hanging indent (middle), and first line indent (bottom).

While the default paragraph indent in Google Docs is set to None (top paragraph in image), you also may format any paragraph with a hanging indent (middle) or first line indent (bottom).

Along with indent options, you also may want to examine paragraph spacing options. Much like indents, spacing between separate paragraphs streamlines reading. Much like indents, people sometimes use extra keys (e.g., extra blank paragraphs) when a setting might suffice. Here's how to adjust paragraph indent and spacing efficiently in Google Docs.

How to reformat a paragraph with a hanging indent in Google Docs

  1. Open a Google Doc in a desktop-class web browser (e.g., Chrome on Windows, macOS, Chrome OS, Linux, or Safari on iPadOS).
  2. Select the paragraph or paragraphs you want to format with a hanging indent. If you don't select any text, any special indent options you choose next will apply only to the paragraph where your cursor is located.
  3. From the menus, choose Format | Align & Indent | Indentation Options | then, from the Special Indent drop-down, choose Hanging (Figure B). 
  4. Typically, the default is an indent of 0.5 inches. You may modify the indent value to make the indent either less or more than the default.
  5. Select Apply.

Figure B

Screenshot shows three images: (upper left) image of menu selection of Indentation options, (upper right) three indent drop-down menu shows none, first line and hanging indent options, (lower right) hanging indent selected, with .5 inch setting.

Within Google Docs in a browser, choose File | Align & Indent | Indentation Options to customize indent and margin settings.

Google Docs also allows manual margin adjustments. To do this, enable the on-screen ruler (View | Show Ruler), select text, then move either of the two blue down-pointing arrows to adjust margins or adjust the blue horizontal rectangle to control the first line indent. Any adjustments to paragraph margins you make also may be accessed in the Format | Align & Indent | Indentation Options Settings (Figure C).

Figure C

Screenshot shows Ruler in Google Docs, with blue triangles to mark left and right margins, and horizontal rectangle to indicate indent.

Alternatively, you also may select one or more paragraphs, then adjust margin and indent settings in the Google Docs ruler.

How to add space between paragraphs in Google Docs

To visually separate paragraphs, people will often insert a blank line between paragraphs in Google Docs. In some cases, this can be useful. Just tap the Enter or Return key twice when you complete a paragraph (Figure D).

An alternative way to add visual separation between paragraphs is to adjust a Google Docs setting to add space.

Figure D

Screenshots of sample Google Doc to show paragraph separation with blank paragraphs (left), which results in text that takes up more vertical space on a page than text formatted to "add space after paragraphs" shown on on the right.

Many people type Enter or Return to add a blank paragraph between paragraphs, as shown on the left. Google Docs also offers the option to add space after each paragraph, as shown on the right.

  1. Select a paragraph or paragraphs in a Google Doc.
  2. From the menus, choose Format | Line Spacing | Add Space After Paragraph. Alternatively, in some cases you might select Add Space Before Paragraph (Figure E).

Figure E

Screenshot of File > Line spacing > Add space after paragraph menu selection.

Select Format | Line Spacing | Add Space After Paragraph to format text without the need to add blank lines between paragraphs.

How to format a paragraph with a first line indent in Google Docs

A regular first line indent moves the first line of text in from the margin. Often people tap the Tab key before they type text in a paragraph, but with proper paragraph format options, that Tab is not needed. 

  1. Select a paragraph or paragraphs to format as a first line indent. 
  2. From the menus, choose Format | Align & Indent | Indentation Options | then, from the Special Indent drop-down, choose First Line. 
  3. As with a hanging indent, the default indent is 0.5 inches. You may modify the indent value to make the indent either less or more than the default.
  4. Select Apply.

Your experience?

In Google Docs, a formatted paragraph can provide text with a negative indent and an appropriate amount of space added after paragraphs. You don't have to manage either indents or paragraph spacing with added Tab or Enter keystrokes.

Do you use either the negative or first line indent options in Google Docs? If so, what sort of content do you typically format in this manner? Do you add blank lines between paragraphs? Or do you use the Add Space After A Paragraph option? Let me know, either in the comments below or on Twitter (@awolber).

Also see