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Design

Quick Tip: How to Align Your Ragged Paragraphs in Adobe InDesign

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Whether you’re designing a book, a poster, a flyer or a magazine, you’ll no doubt come up against this common typographic problem. ‘Ragged’ paragraphs can make your type designs look uneven and messy and distract from the overall loveliness of your layout!

Take a look at this Quick Tip to discover some simple and quick methods of banishing those dreaded ragged lines for good.

First Up... What Exactly Is a Ragged Paragraph?

Pick up any respectable publication—be it the latest issue of Vogue or the latest literary novel from Penguin—and you’ll notice (or rather won’t notice) something about the paragraphs of text. They will be just that—unnoticeable. 

Professional typesetters and layout designers are expert at making paragraphs appear imperceptibly good. The paragraphs interact seamlessly with the rest of the layout, making the margins and graphics look fantastic, and helping the chosen typeface to shine.

One reason that these typeset paragraphs look so good is that they don’t have exaggerated ragged edges. A ragged paragraph has lines of text that finish haphazardly at different vertical points, creating an uneven block of text that looks a bit messy, like in the sample page of typesetting below.

ragged paragraph

Solution #1: Tone Down the Ragged Text

One thing to note is that ragged paragraphs can look OK, if they’re on the subtler side.

Look at the revised typesetting below for the same page. 

flushed left text

The text is still flushed left (choose Align Left from the Character Formatting Controls panel in InDesign), with a ragged alignment, but the text looks generally more pared back, and is much more easy on the eye.

To make text appear less ‘ragged’ without having to justify text (see Solution #2, below), you need to play around with the size of your type and adjust hyphenation settings.

To achieve the look here, I reduced the Font Size of the body text to 11 pt, and increased the Leading* to 14 pt, to give the text some vertical breathing space.

leading

*Tip: increasing your leading a little makes most paragraphs look about 100% better!

I also ensured that hyphenation was switched on, by checking the Hyphenation box in the Paragraph Formatting Controls panel. This allows longer words to split across lines, helping the lines to stretch further and appear more uniform.

hyphenate text

Another tip for controlled ragging is to ensure non-letter characters, such as hyphens and commas, don’t appear too often at the end of each line of text. Try to identify stray characters like these and minimise them—they have a tendency to make paragraphs look more ragged than they actually are.

So ragged text, when done well, can look very elegant and neat. It’s become increasingly popular with typesetters and layout designers, who like the literary, intellectual look it brings to books and magazines.

Solution #2: Justify Your Text and Apply an Optical Margin Alignment

The sure-fire way of getting rid of messy paragraph lines is to justify your text. Fully justifying text flushes text to both the left and right sides of the text frame, creating a uniform block of text that visually fills the frame completely.

To justify your text in InDesign, choose Justify with Last Line Aligned Left (a good choice for books and magazines) or Justify All Lines (a high-impact, decorative choice for posters and flyers) from the alignment options in the Character Formatting Controls panel.

justify text

There are some tips for justifying your text that will help you get the best result possible. Here, I’ve chosen to Justify with Last Line Aligned Left, and kept Hyphenation on. This creates a visually uniform block of text, but you can see that a couple of words have been split at awkward points (e.g. 'be-comes', 'dig-nified').

with hyphenation

To help the reader, you might be better off switching Hyphenation off. As the text is set to Justify, the words are pulled across to fill the space, creating larger spaces between each word on some lines. In this example it’s not too noticeable, and makes the text easy to read. 

without hyphenation

However, you may find you need to play it by ear, and judge whether some spaces are looking too large and clumsy. After all, you don’t want a block of text that looks sparse and patchy. Adjusting the Font Size of whole blocks of text and/or subtle Tracking of individual words/lines can help make your text look more compressed.

To complete your justified typesetting, and help your layout look even more tidy and lovely, you can also optically align the paragraph to the edges of the text frame.

To do this, open up the Story panel in InDesign (Window > Type & Tables > Story) and, with either the text frame selected or the text selected, check the Optical Margin Alignment box. 

optical alignment

Any small characters, such as apostrophes, or even character features, like prominent serifs, will be pulled just outside of the boundaries of the text frame, ‘optically aligning’ your block of text and making it look more visually uniform and boxy.

final justified

Conclusion

Getting rid of ragged paragraphs may be a subtle tool in any typesetter’s arsenal of skills, but it can make a huge impact on the presentation of your layouts.

To sum up, you’ve got two (arguably, equally sound) options for tidying up your type:

  • Option 1: Keep your text flushed left and ragged, but minimise ragging with Hyphenation and by adjusting Font Size, Leading and Tracking.
  • Option 2: Justify your text, pulling all text across to meet at both the left and right sides of the text frame. Experiment with Hyphenation and Optical Margin Alignment to get the best result.
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