If you’re writing the degree program you’re in, SBL style normally requires four 1-inch page margins.1

There are two common kinds of exceptions to this:2

  1. Your title page, which should have 1-inch side margins but 2-inch top and bottom margins.
  2. The first page of a major section (e.g., your essay body, a chapter, an appendix, your bibliography), which should have a 2-inch top margin.

For title pages, using section breaks to achieve the necessary margin sizes is useful. But this usefulness partly depends there being a hard division in content between your title page and what comes next.

Your title page is only ever going to be one page. You’re never going to make edits to your title page and want text to flow over from there onto the next page.

When (Not) to Use Section Breaks to Change Essay Margins

The same isn’t true in the body of the other major logical sections of your document.

For these, you may very well want to make a change on the first page. That change might need to change where the division falls between that page and the one following.

In this context, using section breaks to manipulate the top margin may have undesirable side effects.

Not least among these is potentially having to manipulate the section break or the text around it multiple times in order to get the margins to work like you’re wanting.

There is, though, a much easier way to change the top margin here without creating a new section.

An Easier Way to Change First Page Margins

And that easier way is simply not to change the top margin at all.

That might sound counter intuitive. But you’re really only after the visual representation of a 2-inch top margin at the beginning of a logical section.

Word and similar applications put different things at the top of the page (e.g., margin, header, gutter). But what the software calls what it puts there isn’t something SBL style concerns itself with.

With that in mind, there emerges another much easier way of getting the page layout specified in the Student Supplement. And it doesn’t actually require you to manipulate what Word calls the top “margin” for the first page.

Instead, you’re already familiar with how Word lets you choose your font size in a unit called “points.” And aside from some other complexities that don’t matter for this discussion of margin size, 72 type points are equal to 1 inch.

You already have the other 1 inch down from the top of the page inside what Word calls its “margin” proper.

So, all you need is 1 more inch. And to create the visual effect of this inch, you can simply add 72 points of space before the first element on that page (e.g., paragraph, heading).3

You can add these 72 points via the paragraph formatting dialog box as shown below.

You can add this formatting to individual paragraphs. Or if you distinctively start new logical sections with the same element (e.g., a first-level heading), you can specify this additional spacing via that element’s style.

Conclusion

So when you’re setting the top margin of a main logical section in your document, you do need to change the visual margin.

But that doesn’t mean you need to go through the mess of using the margin function in Word to get the job done.

What you’re essentially looking for is the visual result on the page. And it’s much easier to get that result by simply adding whitespace before the first element on that page.


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  1. Melanie Greer Nogalski et al., Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style, Second Edition, ed. Joel M. LeMon and Brennan W. Breed, rev. ed. (Atlanta: SBL, 2015), §§2.1, 2.8. Header image provided by Etienne Girardet

  2. Nogalski et al., Student Supplement, §§2.11, 3.3–3.5. The table of contents for a longer document is, however, an exception to this rule and should have a 1-inch top margin. Nogalski et al., Student Supplement, §3.2. 

  3. You can come close to creating this additional first-page spacing by entering blank paragraphs at the top of the page. But doing so makes that spacing subject to some of the peculiarities of font and line sizing that you don’t have to worry about otherwise. 

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