Formatting dos and don’ts

From Rick:

Most reputable book designers will tell you that you should not use Microsoft Word to format your print book. Professionals use Adobe InDesign (and they can afford its high price). My understanding is that this piece of software is a challenge to learn to use. Of course, once you learn it, no problem. An indie author is therefore left with some choices.

You can purchase and learn how to use InDesign. This is likely not feasible unless you plan on publishing a significant number of books in print versions such that the return on your investment in time and money is worthwhile.

A second route is to pay someone to do the formatting for you–absent a friend willing to do it for free or for non-monetary compensation. I’ve seen some services offer formatting as low as under $100 (depending on the size of the book and the amount of work involved). The prices go up from there. Most will also format e-books as well. And, yes, the formatting requirements are different for the two.

Your third option–Oh the horror of it all!–is to learn to use MS Word properly. There is another program that I’ve previously recommended called Jutoh. It’s very inexpensive (under $50) and it works very well for e-book formatting. In fact, it’s powerful enough to replace Word for your writing. The only problem is that it’s not directly Word compatible. You can import a Word file into Jutoh, but Jutoh won’t save as a Word file directly. You have to export to an ODT file, which Word can read (but sometimes not perfectly). Jutoh will help you avoid some of Word’s foibles, but I suspect most of you will prefer to stick with Word. I use Jutoh for converting to e-book formats as well as for checking my formatted files.

Now, before you think that I’m blowing smoke when I say that you can use Word to format your books, just this past weekend I was showing the Punctuation Book to a graphic designer and he asked what program I used to format it. When I said MS Word, his eyebrows raised, but he admitted that he saw no fault in anything I’d done. Certain MS Word isn’t the perfect tool, but it will do the job for the most part as long as you pay attention. If you’re doing a nonfiction book or a textbook that has diagrams and pictures, then you will need a professional design tool. Jutoh will work, though, as long as the book is not too complex.

The primary reason so many designers caution you against Word is that it can (and usually does) leave a lot of garbage in your files that you aren’t aware is in there. However, if you know what that garbage is, how to clean it out, and how to avoid most of it in the first place, then you CAN use Word. Last time, I showed you how to set up Word to help you do this.

Now, let’s get into Manuscript 101. In the rest of this post, I’m going to give you the basics of what to do and what not to do. So, here goes.

(1) Do NOT EVER use tabs or multiple spaces to format your lines of text or to align them on the page (such as for pushing the text to the right margin). This is how you had to do it on the typewriter. Don’t do it here! Word Processors work differently.

“But, Rick, how am I supposed to line things up and make them look the way I want?”

Not this way. We’ll discuss later how you do it.

(2) LEFT JUSTIFY your text (aligned on the left side but not on the right)! Do not right justify or use full justification, not when preparing your initial manuscript. Justification comes later. It’s okay to center titles, chapter headings, and scene breaks, though. We’ll take more about scene breaks in a moment.

(3) Use a standard font like Times New Roman or Courier New. Do NOT use fancy fonts in your manuscript to make it look pretty. I don’t recommend Arial or Calibri, either. I prefer Courier New for writing and editing because it’s clean and because the punctuation marks are easy to identify. In Times Roman, the commas are very tiny and easy to mistake for periods and vice versa.

“But, Rick, those are boring fonts.”

And your point is? For one thing, you can always change them later. For another, this is not your final, formatted book. This is your working document. For now, worry about producing clean writing, not about final appearance. Besides, most current e-readers have their own fonts anyway, so even if use a font of your choice, it almost certainly won’t show up that font in an e-book.

NOTE: While we’re talking about fonts, if you are going to submit your manuscript to an editor or publisher, PLEASE put the magnification to 100% and the font size to 12-point. I receive so many manuscripts where the text is blown up. This is fine to do when YOU are the only one looking at it and your eyesight is less than perfect, but put things back to normal before you give it to someone else.

(4) NEVER, EVER use returns or linefeeds to space your text down the page or to force your next chapter to the top of the next page. And don’t start chapters in the middle of a page. Use a PAGE BREAK (CTRL + ENTER, or use the INSERT menu to insert one) to start a new page.

“But, Rick, why can’t I do it that way? It looks just fine on my screen.”

Only in your current manuscript does it look fine. If you change the line spacing or the font, things will move up or down the page, and those nice chapter breaks could well end up in the middle of the page.

(5) For scene breaks, ALWAYS put in a physical marker to show the scene break. Putting three asterisks (*** or * * *) on a separate line is a fairly standard way, and you can change these later. Some writers prefer a single asterisk or a # sign or three. Those are fine as well.

“But, Rick, I see print books with just a blank line in the middle of the page for a scene break.”

That’s print books, not e-books. Print books have fixed pages. E-books do not. If you look closely at any properly formatted print book, you’ll find that if the scene break falls at the bottom or top of a page, it’s down with some physical marker because the blank line isn’t apparent there and the reader won’t know it’s there. Using just a blank line in the middle of pages is a design decision by the publisher. For indie authors, it’s easier to make them consistent with some mark.

(6) Do NOT use uncommon or weird symbols, raised numbers, or fractions in your manuscript. Some of these may be okay in e-books, but others may not show up properly. Don’t take chances.

(7) SINGLE SPACE between sentences, never double space. Why? Because any extra spaces in e-book can cause unpredictable results and some sloppily formatted books. Besides, double-spacing has been out of fashion for a long time.

(8) When it comes to line spacing on the page, you can use single, 1.5, or double line spacing for the manuscript. I recommend double because it’s easier on the eyes and allows you to see better what you’re doing. Remember, you’re just creating at this point, so keep things simple–and clean. Formatting and fancy stuff come later, after it’s written and edited and in final form.

(9) Which should you use at the beginning of paragraphs: tabs or first-line indents? What you must NEVER do is indent with spaces. NEVER! Many prefer to use tabs. I used to, but I don’t use them anymore, and I strongly recommend you not use them either. Use first line indent. Why? Well, can’t use tabs in e-books. They will be ignored and your paragraphs probably won’t be indented, leaving a messy, amateurish result. And if you use tabs, you’ll just have to remove them later anyway, so why not do it properly from the start? Likewise, tabs (and initial spaces) will be ignored in online documents, such as blogs. In fact, to indent things online in a blog takes extra work and special formatting commands.

(10) Use a SINGLE return/linefeed between paragraphs.

“But, Rick, I want more spacing between my paragraphs.” This isn’t the way to do it. We’ll learn about Styles later. The only time you should use an extra line between paragraphs is if you’re posting online and where this format looks better and you can’t readily indent. It’s also okay to add an extra return after a chapter, but no more than two returns total. You can cause problems otherwise.

In the manuscript, keep things simple unless you want to give yourself headaches. If you’re paying someone to do the formatting and design, you’ll want to pay more for extra time required to clean up your messes. This is fine if you own a money tree.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent needlessly formatting and reformatting {Punctuation For Fiction Writers when, had I known what I know now, I could have used those wasted hours on more productive endeavors.

NOTE: I encounter a number of manuscripts that use a mix of first-line indents and tabs. Cleaning those up can be a nightmare when the manuscripts are long ones.

I’m sure I’ve left something out in all this. If I have, I’ll point it out in a future installment.

Meanwhile, for those who want to get ahead of the game, here’s a super article to help you do just that.

J W MANUS: ADVICE ON WORKING WITH WORD

–Rick