The Importance of White Space

Wendy Lawton


Blogger: Wendy Lawton

A couple of weeks ago I got one of my favorite kinds of calls. It was an offer to let me go through the library of a young pastor who died in 1963. His widow was preparing to give up her home and knew she could no longer keep all his books.  I was to take anything I wanted before the book reseller was to come. Happily, everyone knows how much I love buying pastors’ libraries—especially those books that are marked with notes and underlines.

I ended up with three boxes of wonderful classics—several C.S. Lewis American first editions, first edition Bonhoeffers, O. Hallesby, sets of G. Campbell Morgan, A. W. Tozer, Thelicke and others. *Sigh* My shelves are filled with new-old treasures.

As I began to thumb through the books, planning which I’d read first, I noticed the difference in the interior design and writing style of these classics. Most are dense. Small type, long paragraphs, long sentences and few divisions and sections. What a difference from the nonfiction books being published today. Off-putting to modern readers.

It reminded me how important white space is. The books being published today allow for plenty of white space with pull quotes, sidebars and sections. Even novels look different to the eye. No more long paragraphs of description—pages need to be broken up with dialogue. White space.

I look forward to discovering the buried treasure in these books but I must say that I appreciate our interior book designers of today. Some ideas are so weighty, they need to have a little white space around them to give us pause to let the wisdom soak in.

The funny thing is, as I tried to design an attack for reading these treasures, I realized my own reading calendar is every bit as dense. It’s not just books that are crammed— our lives need white space as well. I crave time to read non-work reading. I need time to putter around the garden and to try out new recipes. I am a better friend, a better wife, a better mom and grandmother. . . even a better agent when I design white space into my over-packed life. We can’t be creative without time to dream, time to look out the window.

G. K Chesterton didn’t know he was referring to white space when he said: “The modern world has far too little understanding of the art of keeping young.  Its notion of progress has been to pile 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.”

What about you? How do you write to allow for white space? How do you create white space in your life?


Literary Agent Wendy Lawton talks about the importance of white space– both in book design and in life. Click to Tweet

How important is modern interior design in books? Could white space give us the room to ponder? Click to Tweet




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  1. Lee says:

    Thank you, Wendy, for this intriguing visual image of life. God scheduled white space into our week and called it the Sabbath. For years I fought against the idea, thinking that I could put those hours to better use attacking my to-do list. I have learned to embrace this Sabbath white space–it is a wonderful gift from God.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I just read Senator Joe Lieberman’s book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath and was convicted anew that we ought to be Sabbath keepers, not because it’s another “should” in our lives but because it will enrich our lives, add depth and put everything else in perspective. Now to institute it. 🙂

      Thanks, Lee for reminding us. A perfect first comment!

    • I am right there with you, Lee.
      I fought it too.
      But honoring the Sabbath brings restoration and renewal into my life ~ God’s spaces of white.

  2. Ahhh, I LOVE this concept. In the first year of dating a certain guy, somebody didn’t have a sweet clue how to chill.
    Not. A. CLUE.
    We did a lot of hiking in and around Vancouver, and someone had given him a book with hiking trail maps to the 50 Biggest Trees Near A Vancouver. One day we headed up Lynn Canyon to find some massive old growth something-something and he was stoked.
    But…itty bitty frogs, no more than in inch across, covered the trails. EVERYWHERE!! Hundreds and hundreds of them! Well, guess whose girlfriend decided to watch these babies hop and flop?
    Yup. Captain Coniferous.
    As we crossed the river, we got into an argument and I told him he could go find his stupid tree all by his killjoy self, because he was a grump. I parked on the dry riverbed, made a little camp by some fallen logs. I was right next to a busy trail and felt safe to stay alone. I put on my pith helmet (yes, a pith helmet) pulled out put my beach towel and my book and watched all kinds of people go by as I sat against the sun bleached cedar trunks and watched the wee froggies hop and play.
    A few hours later, Stanley bursts out of the jungle and gives me the “Dr Livingstone, I presume” look.
    He was covered in dirt, sweat and annoyance. And the precious
    “Soooo, John, did you find the tree?”
    “Hey, chill. SO what. Was the hike nice?”
    “Ohhhhhh, really?”
    “No. What did YOU do, huh?”
    “Oh, I read and chatted with people and watch the frogs and listened to the river. It was great, I feel like I went on a mini-vacation.”
    I smiled at him and waited…

    He tossed the book and burst out laughing. “I really ought to learn to slow down.”
    “Yeah, babe, you do.”

    We just had our 24th anniversary.

  3. *oops, “and the precious book was in his hand”

  4. Sarah Thomas says:

    Amen. I’m an advocate of porch sitting this time of year.

    In cooler months, the fireplace is the ideal spot to find some white space. And the woods–the woods ANY time of year. My characters love it when I carry them to the woods in my head.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Ooo, I love this. I dream of porch sitting as well but here in California where I live porches long ago gave way to landscaped front yards. We studiously avoid anything that looks like availability to our neighbors. Hate it.

      I vote that you somehow add a huge wraparound porch to your house– big enough to fit a hanging porch bed. (Or is that just my dream.)

      • As soon as I read your comment about California and porches I nodded. Very well articulated. The new housing developments have narrow porches, more for looks than for a bounty of comfy chairs and camaraderie.

      • Sarah Thomas says:

        You’ve just described one of the KEY aspects of the dream house we’ll build one of these days. And no, you’re not the only one dreaming of a hanging porch bed. And a slipper tub in the bath, and a gas stove in the kitchen, and a REAL wood-burning fireplace . . .

  5. Mini-retreats in my garden offer white space for me. Although I haven’t spent time to plant new areas for several years, I look forward to the perennials showing up – like familiar friends stopping by to chat. It is fun to invite a few of them to sit at my desk while I write!

  6. I wholeheartedly agree. I am really happy with the encouragement I’m seeing in the modern church to develop community. We keep every other Sunday afternoon blocked off for company. The alternating Sunday we also keep free, in the hopes that we will be invited into someone else’s home. And yet it almost never happens — I don’t expect that this is a reflection on us as a family, but rather a result of the lack of white space in most family schedules. My husband and I schedule things out literally months and years ahead of time, but that includes blocks of free time. Community simply isn’t possible without these margins available for opportunistic connection.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Our church is doing “Dinner for Eight” groups to try to re-teach hospitality. In our crazy-busy lives it is a disappearing art.

      • Mary Keeley says:

        Wendy, we have “Dinner for Eight” groups at our church too. And we’ve had wonderful, stimulating conversations around the table.

    • lisa says:

      So true, community doesn’t happen without the white space.

    • It can be SO hard when you invite others and they don’t reciprocate! Was it something you said? Don’t they like your cooking?? We are trying’Simply supper’ this summer for the friends who don’t have children. We tell the that it is a simple meal, they can come around 6 p.m and just spend a couple of hours, so if they have other things to do they can leave and get on with them [and so can we]. We’ve tried it 3 times so far.The only trouble is that they’ve come at 6 and stayed..and stayed!

  7. First editions, Wendy?! Note to self: thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt not covet. 🙂

    We had a lightning strike near our home a couple weeks back, and it knocked out our DSL equipment. We haven’t yet sprung, financially, for internet on a cell phone, so I was without web access for a couple of days. (I know, I’m in the dark ages.) Instant white space! I was glad to get web access back, but I also realized how much I needed a break like that.

    When you say “no more long paragraphs of description,” do you mean description of setting, thoughts, and emotions? (Do you remember that page-long description of a turtle climbing a rock in The Grapes of Wrath? I loved it in high school, but my peers were less than thrilled.) What about action scenes? Do they also need bits of dialogue interspersed or just shorter paragraphs?

    • Jeanne T says:

      I was trying not to covet those first editions too, Meghan. 🙂 If it makes you feel better, I call my phone the “Amish” phone, because it doesn’t have any of the bells and whistles of the new ones. 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I think today’s readers have little patience for the long meandering passages of even a generation ago. I loved james Michener. Remember his geese preamble to Chesapeake? He’d never get away with that these days.

      Of course I was making a generalization. Literary writing is a different animal and of course each author’s voice is distinct. But overall we are an impatient lot.

    • L.M. Montgomery was a professional at the page-long descriptions. Breath holding eloquence at its best.

  8. Thank you for a great blog. I was just reading “The Hollywood Standard” for a screenplay I am working on and Rielly also says to allow for a lot of white space, just like you said.

    I work full time and have six kids at home. If I don’t have a day or two to just decompress, I can’t write, I can’t focus. And I love the line “time to look out the window.”

    Thanks again.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And Donna, I think if you deprive yourself of those creativity recharges, your imagination and creativity will dry up and you’ll just be “producing” books (or scripts).

  9. My husband and I tend to get very busy. We have a lot of commitments and friends. What can I say? We’re popular! (Ha, just kidding!)

    Anyway, we decided we needed a break, so a few months ago we planned a whole four-day “staycation,” where we made absolutely no plans. We just had that weekend over 4th of July, and it was fabulous. Just so…relaxing. I even did some productive stuff. But there wasn’t that pressure to perform, and things that would have been burdensome any other weekend were fun and enjoyable this weekend. Because I didn’t HAVE to do them.

  10. I’ve been a single mom since last Monday. My husband’s in Romania for his brother’s wedding. He’ll be home soon. Can. Not. Wait!

    So needless to say, with three kiddos around, there’s been no white space at my house. I’m falling behind on things I need to do, and yesterday I had to decide what to let go. Each day was too dense.

    I’m finding that I’m doing too much. So I have a few volunteer spots that I plan on giving up in a few months. I’m also teaching my oldest kids–13 and almost 12–how to take over aspects of running the house. But for now that creates more work than help. Eventually it will pay off so I’m keeping at it.

    Wendy, when my husband was in seminary, a pastor who was about to retire allowed him and two friends to pick through his massive library. I think Steve ended up with a few boxes full. Nothing as unique as your finds–no first editions, I believe–but some valuable, valuable commentaries. I think for the first couple years, he’d grin just remembering that event.

    • Having older children take over some aspects of housekeeping is how I keep my sanity, Sally. It’s worth the effort!

    • Jeanne T says:

      Sally, we’re training our kiddos to take over caring for the house too. It’s been nice, because it’s opened up some writing time for me this summer. They still have much to learn, but I’m thankful for what they do. May you have more white space in your days soon!

    • My kids already do some housework–empty the dishwasher, fold laundry, sweep, clean parts of the bathrooms. Now I’m teaching my daughter to actually wash and dry all the laundry by herself and my son to entirely clean the kitchen. So it’s some of the bigger jobs that take a lot longer. And constantly reminding them to pick up after themselves–which I’m fairly certain they won’t figure out until they’re living on their own.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Sally, if your husband loves those kinds of books I found a super source for those fabulous marked up, well-loved treasures. I took out an ad in our denominational magazine to say that I was interested in buying pastoral libraries. People clipped the ad and I had great opportunities for several years. Pastors who retire usually have no one willing to take on their prized collections.

      And as to your active kids, the time is coming so quickly when your house will be silent– just enjoy the last few years of chaos. probably more important than white space.

      • I’m amazed that these pastors have no one to take their libraries. If they’d contact a Christian college where guys were training to be pastors, they’d be inundated!

        One reason I’m getting rid of my volunteer positions is because I’m spread too thin. I don’t have the time I want for my family. They’re far more important. With an eighth grader, we’re too aware that our days with him are numbered. It really is shocking how fast that time goes by. Didn’t I just potty-train him a little while back? 🙂

  11. Jenny Leo says:

    I adore white space. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to take it, that I’m not slacking or goofing off but making it possible to be full-throttle the rest of the time. I took the summer off from one particular volunteer commitment and it’s been so wonderful to have the extra time that I’m thinking of relinquishing it permanently. I’ll reassess in the fall.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Volunteer positions can wear one out but as an author I think it is important to stay engaged as well as seek quiet time. I could happily be a hermit but I keep reading passages in the Bible that say we need to “live in the land.” I take that as meaning I need to stay engaged in my own hometown no matter how much I’d like to rationalize that away.

      Of course it’s all about balance.

  12. I thought I had enough white space, but a touch of burn-out told otherwise. Thanks for the great analogy…

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And when you sense that “touch” of burn-out, you need to make white space a priority.

      Don’t you think it’s easier to reach burn-out when we have such wide-ranging relationships via social media? Sometimes it is overwhelming.

  13. Jeanne T says:

    I loved this, Wendy. And what an amazing gift that pastor’s wife gave you!!

    My hubby is great at evaluating our schedules to see if we have enough white space in them. This past year, we were overcommitted. Plain and simple. It cut into writing time, time with our kids and “down” time. My hubby in particular NEEDS his down time. We are praying about adding white space to our days by stepping back from the areas where we serve for 6-12 months.

    I’m struggling with the thought of saying no to a couple things, but it’s because I love the people. So, I’ll have to find another way to connect with them. I’m scared and excited at the thought of having only a couple outside commitments each week, for a season. Then, we can reassess and see what we recommit to. Or not.

    On a daily basis, my white space comes early in the morning and after the kids are in bed. I still have things to do but I can work on them at the speed of Jeanne rather than the speed of light. Every now and then we have weekends where nothing is planned. Our whole family loves those times!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      What a gift to have a husband who looks at the big picture. It sounds like you are extrovert (“love the people”). Don’t forget, extroverts get recharged from being around people, introverts get drained and need to seek quiet to recharge. We all need to find what recharges us.

      • Jeanne T says:

        Yes, my man is definitely an introvert, and I am the extrovert. 🙂 He and I have learned the signs of his over-saturation point and work to get him some alone time. There are times when I need it too. But I do get recharged being with people I know and who know me. 🙂

  14. Jill Kemerer says:

    Last month I read a book published in the mid-nineties. It was an autobiography by Reggie White. The fonts and page layout made it obvious it wasn’t from this decade! That’s one of the things I love about reading–even the pages make it fun! 🙂

    I’m working in some white space this week, but today has been solid black–all the chores and appointments and bills I’ve put off. 🙂

    • Wow. Amazing to see how recently things have changed.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Styles continue to evolve. I think we’re going to see things become even more succinct with the Twitter effect. Can you picture a small book with only 140 characters per page? Hopefully it won’t be that bad. . .

      • Jill Kemerer says:

        Oh, I hope not, Wendy! Twitter-style books make me shiver. I still love diving into a long, long novel now and then. 🙂

        Sally, I was surprised too, but go to the library and thumb through a few older books–you’ll see!

  15. I love the idea of formatting our life with white space. Based on some of the comments above, stillness and observation is a part of the process.
    In the garden, it’s amazing what you can hear when you stop digging or snipping. Seed heads pop open and scatter across the flower bed. Hummingbirds chatter and chase. One time my daughter and I watched and heard a praying mantis eating a bee.
    Our internal and external life is enhanced when we quiet ourselves and watch.

  16. We recently added a hammock to our backyard, and it’s been a fantastic white space for all of us. My 2 young kids and I enjoyed it for awhile this afternoon, each with a book and our thoughts and the birds chirping. Refreshing. I often feel guilty creating that white space. It’s definitely a lie of our times that busier = better.

    Oh the treasure of old, marked-up books. I do love paper and think we will lose history and insight if we go all digital (no boxes of letters, no marked up books – so sad!).

  17. lisa says:

    White space is a beautiful thing. I see it most with my kids. When they just play with no timetables or agenda. They come up with the most fabulously creative ideas ever. I always think, if I did that will my writing…

    Also you can’t beat what God does with white space when you are with him 🙂

    • Jeanne T says:

      Well said, Lisa. It’s kind of sad. My kids sometimes ask me, “Are we on timer for our play time?” I’m working to give them playtime with out time constraints. 🙂 Summer helps with that. And I LOVE what God does with the “white space” time I get to spend with Him.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I remember long afternoons of play. We hated being called for dinner. I think you are wise to encourage child-directed play. I cringe at the over-scheduling of children with lessons, play-dates, sports, etc.

  18. Sarah Grimm says:

    White space for my life? What an amazing idea. I so needed to hear this today.

  19. One thought that “haunts” me in a good way is the question I posed to radio listeners, not realizing it was meant for me. “Are we doing too much serving and too little soaking?”


    This is all great fodder for a proposal soon to land on Wendy’s pristine clear desk. 🙂

  20. JJ Landis says:

    Oh, how I need some white space right now! Great blog post.

  21. This is a great post – I am a writer but also a physician that works in Hospice. Over the years, my patients have taught me about white space, dignity, character and appreciation for family and special MOMENTS. It’s the space and memories you hold in your heart that follow you in life and there is infinite room for that. I often reset priorities, to do lists and so called expectations when I am lucky enough to experience a special moment with family, friends, loved ones and strangers who just really need a smile and a loving touch.

  22. This is not only important, it’s Biblical. I used to “preach” about it to my clients as a counselor specializing in anxiety disorders of perfectionistic females. The Bible is full of rest. Even God rested at the end of each day to ponder “This is good.” And then for a full day when it was all done. The Old Testament law requires resting of fields, taking sabbaticals and having feast days. These things are essential. God calls Himself “I am,” a state of being, not “I do.” We cannot assume we don’t NEED rest if even God did.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Preach it, Connie! I’m guessing as a specialist in “anxiety disorders of perfectionist females” you are never short of clients, sadly enough. Makes one wonder why we do this to ourselves?

      I’m going to copy out your prescription and leave it in a prominent place. 🙂

  23. I love “white space”.

    ………………… it reminds me of the quiet spaces between the notes of a song.

    …………………………….. White space is also called – Negative Space – but, I’m so optimistic. I never use that term.

  24. Really loved this post. So true and I realize how important “white space” is not only to my mind and body but my spirit as well! Thanks for sharing.

  25. I am up at Lake Tahoe for a week of work and relaxation.
    This morning I sat on the deck in the chair with my feet up on the ottoman and soaked in EVERYTHING.
    The shades of blue blended with the green pines and aspens were my white spaces.
    I needed it. God knew.
    Blessings abound in those spaces of white.

    Thank you, Wendy. I loved the example you shared. And I can picture you carefully turning the pages of those books!

  26. I absolutely love this post. I must have white space in my life or I will shrivel up and die. I just didn’t happen to know what to call it. Thanks!

  27. Just wanted to let you know that I thought this was important enough to share on my Parenting from the Source page on Facebook. Are we teaching our children to have white space in their lives? I pray we are for they need it even more than we did when we were kids.

  28. Lisa R says:

    I just came across this as I searched for information on white space in novels. I especially loved the line: “Some ideas are so weighty, they need to have a little white space around them to give us pause to let the wisdom soak in.” And the comparison with life gives me a lot to think about, especially since I am over-committed right now and I’m afraid things are getting crushed.