Hanging Indents: Perfecting the Bulleted List

Has this ever happened to you? You’re typing a list in Microsoft Word or Powerpoint;  the first line is short so it looks just fine. But the second line is longer, and the text wraps below the bullet, like so:

An example of an incorrectly formatted bulleted list

An example of an incorrectly formatted bulleted list using manual bullets (Opt-8)

Clearly, your list needs a hanging indent: a typographical tool that allows your bullet, symbol or number to stand alone, while the text wraps neatly next to it.

One way to achieve this is to use your text editor’s “bulleted list” button. But what’s this? There’s a glacial gap between the bullet and the text, and it’s indented much farther than it needs to be!

An Example of a preformatted bulleted list

An example of a preformatted bulleted list, using the "Bulleted List" button in Microsoft Word. Notice the huge gap between the bullet and the text, and the extra large indent?

A more  elegant solution is to create your hanging indent manually, allowing you to control the spacing between the bullet and the text and to dictate the amount of indent. The result looks like this:

Example of a properly-formatted hanging indent

Example of a manually-formatted hanging indent. Notice the tighter spacing between bullet and text, and the more modest indent?

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Type in your own bullets, using the Opt-8 key command. Note: using manual bullets also allows you to make them smaller or larger as desired, or to replace them with a symbol.
  2. After your bullet, press the TAB key. Then, write your text.
  3. Press ENTER/RETURN after each item on your list. Note: to force a line break within the text of an item on your list, use the command SHIFT-RETURN.
  4. Highlight the text you want to format.
  5. Locate the ruler at the top of the page. Slide the bottom triangle over a tick on the ruler, and the top triangle back a tick on the ruler (you can adjust the amount of indent to suit your document by experimenting with these two settings).
    Hanging Indent Settings

    Settings used to create a hanging indent

  6. Click on a ruler line to generate a tab stop (black arrow). Slide the tab arrow to match the position of the bottom blue arrow.

Generally, I like to indent the space of two letters when calling out a paragraph of text. A full tab stop is overkill, and can make you quickly run out of space in your document if you have a list with several sub-lists.

To add another level of sophistication, consider customizing the space between your bulleted lines using the “Paragraph Spacing” function (under Alignment and Spacing in Word). In the following example, I’ve added 4pts of spacing between paragraphs:

Bulleted list with manual space after setting

Bulleted list with manual paragraph spacing

The hanging indent function is common to most programs that allow formatting of text, including Microsoft Word and Powerpoint, TextEdit, Adobe Illustrator, InDesign (use Command+Shift+T to bring up the tabs ruler) and more. Mastering this function will give you tighter typographic control and create documents that look professionally-designed versus created on a template.

Happy formatting!

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