Friday, October 12, 2012

PSA: Don't Fancy Up Your Manuscript Formatting

by R.C. Lewis

Have you been to a restaurant or fast-food place with one of those Coca-Cola Freestyle machines yet? If you haven't, here's the basic idea:

You walk up to a soda dispenser that looks about one step removed from a replicator on Star Trek, complete with touch screen. You select your basic soda choice—say, Sprite—and are taken to a submenu where you can choose a flavor of Sprite—strawberry, peach, vanilla, and so on. Then you press the button, and your soda choice comes out of the machine's singular nozzle.

Pretty fancy, and the result is apparently over one hundred drink choices from one machine. Amazing what technology can do now, right?

Technology has done a lot for us as writers as well. Think back to the days when typewriters—maybe even one that incorporated corrective tape—was as fancy as it got. Think back to the early days of word processing software. Multiple fonts at our fingertips!

Now think of all the bells and whistles that come with a word processing program today. Do you even know what half the options in your latest version do? I sure don't.

While those soda machines are great for carbonation junkies, there are times when all you want is a Coke, plain and simple, and everything else is overkill. Likewise, as slick as some software features can be, they can actually make life more complicated if you're not careful.

I can't say what every agent or every editor or every book formatter will want. How you set up your manuscript depends largely on what you're going to do with it. However, in my own formatting efforts, a few things stood out that I think might be common headache-inducers. Some stem from using advanced options too much, others from too little.

Take these tips for what they're worth, but as always, specific submission guidelines trump all.

Do not use the TAB key or SPACEBAR to indent your paragraphs. Instead, use your word processor's automatic indent feature to create a first-line indent. (0.5" seems to be the standard.) This can usually be done either using the ruler toolbar above your document, or under the Format menu.

Why bother? Whether I'm creating a layout for a print-on-demand book or formatting an eBook, I want to set the indents myself. Also, when going straight from Word document to e-reader, I've found tabs don't make it across, leaving paragraphs difficult to discern. And remember, many/most agents read manuscripts on e-readers.

Do not use any predefined Styles such as Heading 1, etc. Stick with the simplest formatting options to distinguish text: bold, italics, change the font size if you must.

Why not? This really depends on your manuscript's destination. If you're doing your own eBook formatting, disregard. Styles can be useful, and I'll assume you know what you're doing. However, if you're sending it to someone else to format, or submitting a short story to a magazine, etc., someone may have to clear ALL formatting and reapply the necessary parts (like italics) themselves in order to clear out hidden formatting codes that throw things off. And that leads to ...

Start the way you want to finish. Sure, you could write your whole story in 16-point Comic Sans, single-spaced with an extra space after each paragraph, and then go through and change it to standard manuscript format when you're ready to submit. I'm sure plenty of people do that and don't have any problems. But I don't recommend it. Type it in Times New Roman (okay, a few places like Courier, but most seem to agree with me that it's evil), 12-point, double-spaced with 1-inch margins from the get-go.

Why so fussy? Because just like that fancy soda machine, there are a lot of complicated inner workings hidden beneath the sleek exterior. You may think you changed everything, but in-between the line-break of one paragraph and the first letter of the next, there may still be a hidden formatting code. Maybe it won't cause any problems. But maybe when someone down the line has to transfer your text into a final product, that little hidden code will burst free from its invisible cage and devour all intended formatting in the story from that point on, insisting that its font is the right font or randomly bolding various sections of text, refusing the formatter's commands to adhere to the styles dictated in the final document.

Uh, yeah ... that may have happened to me recently.

I'll be honest. If you don't do these things, it's not the end of the world. Plenty of people don't, and people on the other end manage to fix it. But hey, we could all use fewer headaches, right?

Do you have any manuscript-formatting tips, tricks, or pet peeves?

R.C. Lewis teaches math by day and writes YA fiction by every other time. Her YA sci-fi novel Stitching Snow will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Summer 2014. Meanwhile, you can find her at Crossing the Helix and on Twitter (@RC_Lewis), where she may or may not be ranting about missing WordPerfect.


Stina Lindenblatt said...

I didn't know about the intents. There are times I have to manually indent, but fortunately that's not very often.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Good advice.
I don't know why I've never switched over to using the automatic indent feature (so easy, too). I guess it's the next habit to break (after I've finally broken the the one about using 1 space after sentences instead of 2!).

I've been using Scrivener, lately, and that has been doing a nice job of cleaning up some of my sloppy habits. :D

I will say, though, that I don't see the harm in typing all in one font, then doing a select all at the end and changing it to Times (unless I'm missing something there that is hidden within the formattng?)

Jean Oram said...

Oh Microsoft Word and your extraneous code. I feel your pain, RC. For example, my version just up and decided that it no longer wanted to do noncurly fonts if I used Times New Roman. Isn't that lovely?

Thanks for the heads up on the indents. Will remember to do that in the future.

R.C. Lewis said...

I admit, the indenting thing is one habit I've only recently switched, once I realized they didn't tend to translate to e-readers.

Janet, there may not be any harm. Honestly, I'm not sure how some of the strange codes get in there and cause problems. The advice to type in the intended font from the start is more of a "better safe than sorry" idea. :)

Jean, no kidding. Word is definitely sneaky with the codes, and doesn't have any good way of seeing them to clear them out.

Jemi Fraser said...

Those hidden codes are terrifying to those of us (or at least me!) with limited knowledge. Between my own works and those of my students, I've seen word processing programs do some incredibly bizarre things! Keep it simple works for me!

E.B. Black said...

I have to do the indents after I finish the manuscript. I've tried to do them automatically while I am writing, but then I press backspace in the wrong place one time and all the indents are messed up after that point for the rest of the document, so I just fix it after I'm done, when I won't be pressing backspace any longer and then I can avoid the headaches when I'm actually writing. The tedious work of deleting the indents after I'm done is actually relaxing to me.

I.J.Vern said...


Very good points.

One thing that I really hate is opening an e-pub file and have it in the middle of the e-reader as a column and leaving half the screen blank. Due to the format that the writer chose.
I really hate reading that way. I have to switch the display to landscape to extend the width, but then there is less display in length. Sometimes I quit reading the book.
It would be wise to check the format on e-readers display before publishing. And there is no need to own various e-readers. There are software programs which test that on the PC screen.

Thank you for the info :)