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The Importance of Paragraph Composition

Gary Cosimini (who used to be a senior art director at The New York Times and is now at Adobe) sent this little quote to me recently, regarding the importance of the paragraph composer:

It is possible to have the best hyphenation routine in the world and still get results inferior to those achievable by a human, so long as the end-of-line decision is made in the vacuum of a single line of text. What makes the human operator’s result better, in many cases, is his rejection of the line he has already composed. He then goes back and resets the preceding line, bringing a small word down or up, or dividing the fall-off word in a different place, to get better results in the line that follows. In the same fashion, we believe that a good computer routine should have the same capability, and should be able to “look at” five or six lines at the same time. If it can succeed in doing this, and if it used a total dictionary with preferred hyphenation points, no human would be able to obtain comparable results in a consistent fashion.

–John W. Seybold, Fundamentals of Modern Photo-Composition, Seybold Publications, Inc., 1979. Page 233

This quote brought back all sorts of memories, including those horrible days (and nights) of tweaking line after line, paragraph after paragraph to make it look better in my QuarkXPress layouts. I don’t mean to harsh on Quark here, but another memory is of a high-level product manager there (this is about 7 or 8 years ago) calling me and asking, “What about that multi-line composer thing in InDesign… do you think that’s important? Do you think anyone cares about that?” It was so shocking that this guy wouldn’t understand the importance of paragraph composition that it actually was one of the deciding factors in me starting to use InDesign instead.

Here we are in 2007, and–like MS Word–QuarkXPress 7 still doesn’t have paragraph composition and InDesign’s H&Js just keep getting better with each version.

I was recently surprised to learn that a surprising number of InDesign users turn off paragraph composition, choosing the Single-line Composition instead. The reason? Because it acts more like XPress and when you edit a line, it only reflows that line (and subsequent lines) rather than adjusting lines before and after in a paragraph. I believe these folks really think they’re saving themselves time and aggravation, but in fact they’re going to be less efficient because they have to tweak and re-tweak. Single-line composition is living in the 20th century. It takes some effort, education, and patience to enter the 21st century and use the paragraph composer, but you’ll be rewarded by it virtually every time.

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at
David Blatner

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22 Comments on “The Importance of Paragraph Composition

  1. Yes, the Paragraph Composer is great technology. Only too bad Adobe ships it with *dreadful* defaults, which 80% of users never learn to tweak to the level of amazing spacing quality and type-color which this technology is capable of. Hence we see plenty of American Newspaper Typesetting (the horror, the horror!) coming out of InDesign.

  2. There seem to be two schools of thought on why people turn off the paragraph composer.

    The first, and IMO, somewhat legitimate is that the people they work for don’t want to go back two or three lines to check for changes in line wraps after changes are made. You can try to explain why it’s better but when the person signing the checks doesn’t like it, you do what they say.

    The second is the problem that I like to refer to as the Quarkification of layout. I wish I had a nickel for everytime someone asked why ID doesn’t [fill in the blank] like Quark.

    The reason of course is that it’s not Quark. If you want it to act like Quark, just use Quark.

    That said, I do agree that tweaks are needed to the defaults depending up the font you’re using. There’s no one size fits all here and that’s why the settings are available.

  3. Love the Paragraph Composer, always have it selected. But i am still getting singled out (single) words at the end of a sentence after a ending period. Any sollutions to prevents this from happing automatic?

  4. I love paragraph composer. That, as well as what optical margin alignment, are what made me want to try InDesign back when I first saw the brochure for 1.5. Didn’t actually start playing with it until CS, but I haven’t looked back. InDesign’s type handling was vastly superior to Quark’s (and I’m pretty sure it still is, but I haven’t used Quark much since right after 6 came out).

    I only turn off paragraph composer when I have a particularly troublesome paragraph and it’s just easier to manually fix it. But that’s fairly rare.

  5. I’m against the paragraph composer. In theory it is good but in my reality workflow it hinders my job.

    I am a typesetter and a customer will have made corrections to text, and they will have passed word breaks etc. They will even delete/add words so that a paragraph loses/makes a line for a better fit.

    To use the paragraph composer means that by making a simple correction the paragraph flows completely differently and word breaks that were OK are now not OK and the customer wants to know why it has all changed.

    So it depends on your workflow. If you are doing it for yourself then great. But if multiple people are checking and double-checking they suddenly see it all running differently. Also indexes that have been created by outside sources based on a pdf of the book can also be inaccurrate as a phrase or words might flow onto/back to another page. I know I can do indexes in InDesign put some customers want a professional indexer to do the work.

    I can therefore never use it.

  6. Adobe Single-Line Composer:

    In the past, programs like QuarkXPress and PageMaker have used single-line composition methods to flow text. This method marched line by line through a paragraph and sets each line as well as possible using the applied hyphenation and justification settings. The effect of modifying the spacing of one line on the lines above and below is not considered in single-line composition. If adjusting the space within a line causes poor spacing on the next line, tough luck. When you use Adobe Single-Line Composer, the following rules apply:

    Adjusting word spacing is preferred over hyphenation.

    Hyphenation is preferred over glyph spacing.

    If spacing must be adjusted, removing space is preferred over adding space.

    Adobe Paragraph Composer:

    InDesign?s Adobe Paragraph Composer (called the Multi-Line Composer in previous versions) is selected by default. It takes a broader approach to composition by looking at the entire paragraph at once. If a poorly spaced line can be fixed by adjusting the spacing of a previous line, the Paragraph Composer reflows the previous line. The Paragraph Composer is governed by the following principles:

    The evenness of letter spacing and word spacing is the highest priority. The desirability of possible breakpoints is determined by how much they cause word and letter spacing to vary from the desired settings.

    Uneven spacing is preferred to hyphenation. A breakpoint that does not require hyphenation is preferred over one that does.

    All possible breakpoints are ranked, and good breakpoints are preferred over bad ones.

    The paragraph composer is more sophisticated than the single-line option, offering generally better overall spacing because it sacrifices optimal spacing a bit on one line to prevent really bad spacing on another, something the single-line method does not do.

    However, there is one frustration in dealing with the paragraph composer: When you try to edit text or play with tracking to get rid of an orphan or widow, the paragraph composer keeps adjusting the text across several lines, often counteracting your nips and tucks. The single-line composer doesn?t do that.

    Extracted from the Indesign CS2 Bible, by Galen Gruman.

  7. From my experience Kel is right, if proof readers and clients start seeing line breaks change without apparent reason then they throw a fit and want the whole thing read again to make sure nothing is lost or mark it up to make the line breaks like they were before.

  8. I work with InDesign for layout but I am not an editor, proof-reader or typesetter. My request is for any source of information to read which you’ve found especially useful in getting up to speed on such things as typography and h&j issues, etc. I’m an avid reader and fast learner. Would appreciate any of your favorite sources, especially on subjects of leading and styles.


  9. Quark has nothing to do with it; I always turn the Paragraph Composer off and do everything manually, line-by-line, as a matter of course. Why? Because it?s not enough to be ?efficient?; I?d rather put in a bit of overtime putting out a product I can be proud of. Of course, I anticipate the replies now: that it is indeed possible to tweak the Paragraph Composer to the point of yielding perfect results every time, like line-by-line composition does; well; that would be interesting to see. How do you do it?

  10. JV, it’s not about trying to get paragraph composer to yield perfect results. It’s simply a matter of time spent on a project. If you charge by the hour, then you should definitely use single-line composer. But using paragraph composer gets you most of the way there, so you only need to tweak a few lines instead of most of the lines!

  11. I don?t charge by the hour, I simply spend too much of my ?free time? working. :) Anyway ? can you really tweak stuff that?s been paragraph composed? When I tweak that one line that looks ugly, Paragraph Composer steps in and re-tweaks the whole paragraph … the whole feature seems to me to preclude manual tweaking. :/

  12. JV, you are correct that changing a line often changes the lines before. That is quite frustrating and a number of people have suggested that Adobe add a “freeze” feature that would stop previous lines from moving.

    However, until something like that happens, my suggestion is to turn on Paragraph Composer for all paragraphs, but then when one paragraph is difficult to work with and isn’t behaving well, then change that one paragraph to Single-line composer and do it by hand. My point is that single-line should be the exception, not the rule.

    I want you to spend your free time having fun, not tweaking paragraphs! :)

  13. I am working on a long text document with paragraphs the length of several pages (others wanted it this way). Now in the proofs we discover many hyphenation errors. I first thought I’ll just switch to the Singe-line Composer for the line in question, but this causes the whole paragraph to get re-hyphenated, without me changing anything in the actual text. Very annoying.
    I see the benefits of the Paragraph Composer, so I would very much like to keep it. In fact, there is no real choice for the Single-line Composer since the results are inferior.
    With the advent of CS5, is there a possibility to sort of ?freeze? the Paragraph Composer and stop it from changing the linebreaks in the whole paragraph?
    If not, anyone an idea how to solve the problem?

  14. .. “many hyphenation errors” suggests that the language was not correctly applied to the text. I can’t vouch for every supported language, but ID’s native hyphenation of English, German, French, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish looks nigh-on flawless to me.

    (Unfortunately, it’s also possible the language is correct and ID’s hyphenation is faultless — and it’s your author lacking basic grammar knowledge. I’ve had this happen even with university-grade writers.)

    Your ‘freeze lines’ idea is self-contradictory. If you freeze line breaks, you cannot change hyphenated words either. If you do change the hyphenation, there is no point of using the Paragraph composer, since one line would suddenly gain one or more characters and the next line would lose them. Fly, fly away, Consistent Spacing!

  15. I’m very new to InDesign. I’m mostly working on books, novels, where hyphenation and gappy lines in justified text isn’t such a problem as it is in publications where there are columns of text. In my work do you think I would be just as well having it set to single line?

  16. PJ, au contraire. What do you expect to gain from disabling this feature?

    Short or long lines, columns or not: the Paragraph Composer is always going to make your plain text look better.

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  18. I know this is a really late addition to the discussion, but I add it in case someone else comes along and finds it useful.

    You can already freeze paragraphs set using the paragraph composer. Just insert a forced line break at the end of the line preceding the line you want to change and that will prevent all lines before the break from being affected by changes after the break. You can also insert another forced line break at the end of the line after the ones you wish to amend, and that will likewise freeze all line endings below that second break. Say, for example, that you want to take over a word (or part of a word) at the end of line 4. Insert a forced line break at the end of line 3 and one at the end of line 5 and you’re set.

    This has been possible since at least CS2, so I am always surprised when people say that they don’t use the paragraph composer because they can’t stop their line breaks from changing when making an author or editor correction.

    Also, RJ, if you want to avoid widows, use the widows setting under the “Keep Options” tab and then you can let the paragraph composer do its work. I would never use kerning to affect line breaks because to me that’s just bad typesetting. The paragraph composer is perfect for books and similar long documents, and because the measure is usually wider in those sorts of publications, you can get very even spacing. Loose or tight lines are more of a problem when the measure is narrow, as in newspapers or magazines.

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