Why Proper Formatting Is Important -a guest blog by Joyce Reynolds-Ward

We’ve all read the different essays from editors about editing, right? All of that good stuff about slashing excessive adjectives and adverbs, eliminating said-bookisms (definition: going out of your way to use any other dialogue tag besides “said”), cutting prepositional phrases and the like, correct?

All of that is good information to have. But I want to harp on something else about editing that isn’t discussed as often as another big issue.

Formatting.

Formatting is one of those processes that can make your editor either love you or hate you. And if you work with an editor who charges by the hour—i.e., actual time spent working on your manuscript—a clean format saves you a lot of money. Even if you work with an editor who charges a flat fee, clean formatting means that your editor has more time to focus on actual wordage rather than fixing a messy manuscript so that they can get around to working on the words rather than the formatting.

You get a better deal for the money spent on an editor if you spend a little bit of time formatting your manuscripts correctly. Period.

Some of this is simply common sense. A clean manuscript causes less eyestrain for the editor. It’s easier for anyone doing the layout in a production program if the manuscript fits standard formatting protocols. Copyediting and proofreading go much more smoothly.

Most of all, a properly formatted manuscript demonstrates that you are a professional. Period.

Style Guides

So let’s get started. What sort of formatting setups am I talking about?

First of all, if you aren’t familiar with the basics, please go to this site—https://www.shunn.net/format/

Also keep in mind that all of my references are for Word. Again, that’s a professional standard. I understand that others prefer other programs, but in the long run, your documents end up in Word when editors and publishers are working with them. Your formatting needs to be compatible with Word.

The Shunn formatting style is widely accepted by all publishers. Use it, especially for margins and typeface (that means no Calibri! Use Times New Roman at the minimum. I prefer Palatino but others like Garamond, Helvetia, or Bookman Old Style. Essentially, you want to use a serif font that is readable. I personally do not care for Courier or Courier New, but that’s because I no longer find them to be that readable).

I want to emphasize something that Shunn mentions in that first page, which is start with a blank document. Some editors recommend Styles. I’m not fond of using Styles, because it adds extra codes to your document, which can cause problems when someone starts formatting for publication. Plain old blank document works just fine.

Getting Started

Another thing—you’ll see a little symbol that looks like this ¶ on the ribbon at the top of your document. Click it on, and you will see all of the formatting codes that Word wants to show you. This is helpful for figuring out some issues, and allows you to see when you’ve inadvertently hit the space bar multiple times (or your hyperreactive touch pad or keyboard does that for you), or other issues. More on that later.

Set your margins. Then format your paragraphs. That means, in Word, that you go to Format>Paragraphs. Set your line spacing to double spacing and your first line indent to 0.5, with no extra spacing between paragraphs. This means that all you need to do to start a paragraph is hit return.

Spacing

DO NOT USE YOUR TAB BUTTON FOR PARAGRAPH INDENTATION. That just causes more problems for whoever is laying out the manuscript for publication. Don’t hit the space bar five times, either. Again, that causes more issues.

Single space between sentences. Yes, yes, I know that double spacing used to be the standard and for some people it doesn’t look right. However, that era is long gone, even for those of us who started out writing on manual typewriters. Don’t do it. Otherwise, your dear editor or formatter will at the minimum need to do a find-and-replace to eliminate those extra spaces—and that double spacing between sentences can add quite a few pages to your manuscript, especially at novel length. If an editor is quoting you a flat fee based on manuscript pages, single spacing between sentences can save you a little bit of money.

One of my editors automatically deletes any spaces between a period and a hard return, because that space can cause issues in some formatting programs. I haven’t noticed that issue in particular when working with my formatting program (Vellum), but I understand that this is a problem with some programs.

Justification

Always use left justification (the default) unless you are doing something in particular with a small section, or centering a title. Right-side ragged edge is not an issue when drafting and editing, as modern formatting programs automatically convert left-justified Word documents to full-justified documents.

Page Breaks

If you use scene break dividers instead of an extra space (I recommend the dividers, but some people don’t like them), show them with a #. Some people use asterisks, or multiple #s. I’ve found that formatting programs understand # just fine, and will put a prettier scene break divider in nicely when # appears between paragraphs. Some presses have different standards—<<<>>> for one, or ~0~ for another, but # also works just fine.

Text: Formatting a novel in Word.Image: two pages of my novel Secrets of the Sorcery War formatted in word, with author name and title headers, page numbers right bottom corner, indented paragraphs, chapter heading and art and a chapter heading.

Spelling and Grammar Check

Do not completely trust your spellchecker or grammar checker in Word. I have discovered numerous mistakes in Word alone, including indicators of extra commas, word substitutions that don’t make sense (such as “cheap” when I was describing a bird’s “cheep”—my most recent gripe). One of my greatest rants is the misuse of “free reign” for “free rein.” Word will tell you to use “reign” instead of “rein,” and it is WRONG. The idiom refers to giving a horse more rein when you are riding or driving it—i.e., telling the horse to set its own pace and direction. That is what the idiom means. Period. “Free reign” is meaningless in that context. But Word also makes mistakes when it comes to the proper use of “its” versus “it’s”; “lets” versus “let’s”. Be aware.

If you don’t trust your spelling and grammar understanding, use other checkers besides Word. Also, don’t trust that it will identify all of your misspellings and typos. If the mistake looks like a real word but doesn’t make sense in context, then Word may not flag it for you.

When you are cutting and pasting across documents, or if you are working on different devices (especially switching between a tablet and desktop or laptop) be aware that Word will insert a superscript “o” irregularly in those sections. Those have to be edited out by hand, as far as I know. Some people may be macro wizards who know how to do it otherwise. It’s a pain but there’s no way around it. If everything else is clean, then editing those “o” appearances isn’t that big a deal.

Version Control (during edits)

This leads into the related but short topic of version control when working with editors or beta readers. I do not recommend working within the document that you get back from an editor or beta reader. My suggestion is that you designate one version as your final document, and do all editing within that document without cutting and pasting. Why? Because that introduces other formatting into your document, including those dratted superscript “o”s.

I learned this lesson the hard way when working with a British editor. Working in the document I got back instead of my own designated final document ended up with that person’s formatting instead of my own—including British English spell check and usages. Designating that separate final document also lets you work with multiple other versions. I do like keeping earlier versions around when drafting, because sometimes I end up cutting things that I wanted to keep in the long run.

Concluding Remarks

Basically, the lesson here is to spend a little bit of time learning how to set up your formatting options, at least as much as you can do with your device. Apps on mobile devices such as tablets and phones can be more restrictive for formatting setups than laptops or desktops. It’s probably a good idea to indicate to your editor or beta reader that you may have been doing this work in an app on a mobile device, because then they know what to look for in fixing it.

Play with your formatting and understand it. Your editor will thank you—and you may save yourself a little bit of money in the long run.

Joyce in ski gear, including goggles and helmet at the snow, pine tree background.

About the Author -Joyce Reynolds-Ward

Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a speculative fiction writer who splits her time between Enterprise and Portland, Oregon. Her books include THE MARTINIERE MULTIVERSE series (Amazon, Kobo, Apple, B&N), THE MARTINIERE LEGACY series, KLONE’S STRONGHOLD, THE NETWALK SEQUENCE series and GODDESS’S HONOR series. Joyce has edited two anthologies, Pulling Up Stakes (2018), and Whimsical Beasts (2019).

Besides writing, Joyce enjoys reading, quilting, horses, skiing, and outdoor activities. She has been a member of Soroptimist International of Wallowa County since 2017.

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