14 Manuscript-Formatting Tips for Writers and Poets
Don’t press the Publish button until you read this post.
Whether you self-publish or work with a traditional publisher, you should perform a thorough check for hidden codes that might hinder your book’s conversion.
Even if you’re not at the publishing stage, a professional-looking document will impress agents and slush readers. A haphazard mess will have them reaching for antacids.
Save yourself the embarrassment.
This article discusses a few common formatting blunders and how to fix them in Microsoft Word. If you prefer a different word processor, you can still use the information here to isolate the same problems in your software.
Before we begin, open your WIP in Word.
You’ll need to activate the function that allows you to see paragraph marks and other invisible symbols:
Navigate to the Home tab of Word and press the ¶ icon.
Tip #1: Never copy and paste from a website.
If you’ve already done this, you might be in for a bumpy ride.
And I’m not talking about legal issues if you’ve hijacked information from internet pages. You’d never do that, right?
No matter what you copy online, you could pick up weird spacing, tables, headings, undesired page breaks, non-standard colors and font sizes, tabs, highlighting, special characters, et al. These unexpected anomalies could prevent conversion to eBook format.
Tip #2: Select a standard font such as Times New Roman or Cambria.
Comic Sans MS won’t impress an agent or an editor. But if you’re self-publishing a printed children’s book, go for it.
Tip #3: Avoid tables.
Some eBook aggregators or programs won’t accept tables, or they do a sloppy conversion job. If you need a table, one option is to produce a graphic instead. It’s beyond the scope of a short article to explain the mechanics, but for guidance, you can search online for how to take a screenshot.
Tip #4: Remove non-breaking spaces.
These spaces, which require a Ctrl-Shift-Space key sequence in Word, mysteriously appear in some documents and will make them fail EPUBCheck validation.
Non-breaking spaces create sentences that look like this:
instead of this:
To replace them:
Search for [space]
Replace with [space]
Word is smart enough to replace all spaces, including non-breaking spaces, with regular ones.
Tip #5: Eliminate double returns after paragraphs.
Do you see something like the following in your manuscript?
The quick red fox.¶
Tsk, tsk. That’s what styles are for.
Search for ^p^p
Replace with ^p
If you want extra room after each paragraph, access the style you need to change and modify its spacing:
Modify -> Format -> Paragraph -> Spacing: After
Not sure how to use Word styles?
Microsoft provides how-tos for several versions of Word at the following link:
Tip #6: Delete linefeeds, and replace them with paragraph returns.
Linefeeds eliminate extra spacing between paragraphs. They’re produced with Shift-Enter, and are helpful when writing articles for blogs. This post contains a few, because they work well in WordPress. However, they don’t belong in manuscripts.
Word expects all text joined by linefeeds to be part of the same style. An added annoyance: They hinder edits to hyperlinks and bookmarks.
Search for ^l
Replace with ^p
[That’s ^ell, not ^one.]
Tip #7: Replace double spaces with single spaces.
Double spaces between words were the norm when everyone created manuscripts on typewriters. Nowadays they’re unnecessary, and they can cause spacing anomalies.
For instance, if a line break occurs in the middle of a double space, you’ll end up with a single space at the end of the first line and another single space at the beginning of the next. Given the number of double spaces that would occur in a typical manuscript, the probability of several such anomalies is close to 100%.
Search for [space][space]
Replace with [space]
Tip #8: Remove extraneous spaces at the end and beginning of paragraphs.
No matter how careful you are, these spaces appear as you write and revise. They’re easy to replace.
Search for [space]^p
Replace with ^p
Search for ^p[space]
Replace with ^p
Tip #9: Edit apostrophes that face the wrong way.
Consider this sentence:
“But I don’t trust ‘im,” he said.
Note the punctuation that replaces the missing h at the beginning of ‘im. It looks like a quotation mark.
Here’s how you would fix it. Type:
[h][i][m][cursor left x 2][‘][cursor left][backspace][cursor right x 3]
This is an excellent reason to avoid words that drop initial letters.
Instead of: ’E’s doing it again.
Try: He’s doin’ it again.
Instead of: He’s going with ’em.
Try: He’s goin’ with them.
Instead of: I’m not against ’t, honest.
Try: I’m not agin it, honest.
Plan your dialect before you write your story, and keep a file with the quirks for each person. Characters should have unique speech characteristics that enable readers to differentiate them, but the dialogue should be easy to read.
Tip #10: Replace tabs.
Search for ^t
Replace with [nothing]
Tabs don’t belong in a manuscript. Neither do multiple spaces. If you want to indent the beginning of each paragraph, set up a style for that.
Indented paragraphs function well for novels.
Block-formatted paragraphs work better for books such as cookbooks and instructional manuals, where special formatting like bulleted lists, block indents, and hanging indents often appear.
Tip #11: If you’re preparing your document for eBook conversion, find and replace these codes with [nothing]:
^b (section break)
^m (manual page break)
Tip #12: Never do this.
Do you remember the tip about double returns after paragraphs?
Here’s a practice that’s even worse: multiple presses of the Enter key to reach the top of a new page, to insert a blank page, or to set up for a section break.
In eBooks, free-flowing text, font changes by readers, and varying screen sizes will transform extra lines into a mess. You might get away with it in a paperback or hardcover edition, but a minor edit before you print could alter your paging and introduce other glitches.
Instead, on the Insert tab, select:
Pages -> Blank Page
Pages -> Page Break
Tip #13: Search and replace cautiously.
Consider the following, for example. Sometimes authors want to replace all ‘s (straight quotes) with ‘s (curly quotes). This is how they do it:
Search for ‘
Replace with ‘
However, when they do this, all words such as ’e’s, ’em, and ’t end up with apostrophes that face the wrong way.
Can you imagine the time-consuming mess you’ll have to clean up afterward?
Always, and I repeat, always double check your entire document after performing blanket search-and-replace operations. Yes, it takes time, but quality is worth the effort.
Tip #14: When all else fails …
Are you receiving obscure errors from EPUBCheck or your book aggregator’s conversion process?
If you can’t locate the problems via Word’s Find function, you might have to:
- Copy the text from your manuscript into a text file.
- Begin a new manuscript.
- Select the contents of the text file, copy, and then paste into the new manuscript. This removes all formatting.
- Start at the beginning and reformat the @#$%&! thing.
Imagine how long that will take. The painless approach would be to avoid the errors in the first place.
A program like Jutoh, which contains EPUBCheck and works well in tandem with Calibre, provides meaningful errors. Jutoh also allows direct edits, saves your project, and converts to multiple file formats.
Don’t give up if you experience formatting difficulties.
And remember: Today’s words are tomorrow’s legacy. Keep writing.
© Kathy Steinemann
Kathy Steinemann, Grandma Birdie to her grandkids, is a parrot-loving grandma involved in a passionate affair with words, especially when the words are frightening or futuristic or funny.
As a child, she scribbled prose and poetry, and won public-speaking and writing awards. As an adult, she worked as a small-town paper editor, and taught a couple of college courses. She has won or placed in multiple short fiction contests.
If you were to follow her around for a day, you might see her wince when a character on TV says “lay” instead of “lie” or when a social media post confuses “your” with “you’re.” And please don’t get her started on gratuitous apostrophes in pluralized words.
Her popular books in The Writer’s Lexicon series are touted by writers as “phenomenal,” a “secret weapon,” and “better than a thesaurus.”