Every new author does this. Why?

When I take on a new client–whether this writer has previously published, or is green–I can count upon one thing.

No, it’s not an emotional quirk, like fear, touchiness, defensiveness, resistance to change.

It’s not a need to educate about The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford, adverbs, show over tell, or other common writing issues.

It is not a need to impress the urgency of marketing.

It is so much more basic. It involves two keystrokes that are by custom invisible: the space and the hard return, and their misuse and abuse.

I get mss full of stuff that has been aligned on pages by just hitting Enter however many times. In some of those mss, the writer has also gaily aggregated five spaces at the start of each para, or more when the writer wanted to center something on a line. This is all stuff I end up fixing. Yes, I charge more for it, and no, I am not eager to find it nor to make the money fixing it, because it’s so avoidable. I would rather help my client tell his or her story, not clean up the client’s inability to grasp the word processor’s basics.

And no, this is not becoming a computer nerd. This is learning how to use the modern equivalent of your typewriter: the word processor, the writer’s primary tool of expressions. The writer who thinks s/he is too good, too artistique, too airy to learn to use the tool is like the painter who refuses to use the right lighting, or an auto mechanic with a wrench aversion, or a banker who won’t buy a suit. Doing it wrong doesn’t add to your charm and mystique.

Let us define. The single space is not an emptiness. It is a character. A character is one of the discrete letters, numbers, or symbols that make up the full set of little pictures one may cause to appear in one’s word processing software, blog platform, whatever. The space has a defined width in each typeface. (A font is not a typeface; a font is a combination of typeface and size, measured in points, of which 72 equal one inch high. Arial is a typeface. Arial 12 is a font.) Thus, when one hits the space bar, it is not the clever placement of a void. It is the placement of a symbol normally invisible to the reader. It can be underlined, for example, or struckthrough, and one will see it.

The hard return, or Enter, or paragraph break, is what you get when you hit the wide key at right of the keyboard that now goes by the name “Enter,” usually with an arrow symbol going down and to the left. Elders like myself, who took typing in high school, remember its origins: on the manual typewriter, it was a manual handle one had to pull after typing each line, called the “carriage return” because it returned the roller carriage to the left margin and rolled the roller one line downward. Then we got electric typewriters, and the carriage return became a key to the right of the home row. Then we got computers, and Return gave way to Enter.

Somewhere early in the computing age, Return/Enter became the key of choice for “make a selected thing happen.” Happily, word processing brought word wrap with it, which gave us the “soft return.” When you type to the end of a line, without hitting Enter, and the text begins a new line, the software has automatically inserted a soft return. And if you change your margins later, the soft returns will shift. To know how beautiful this is, one perhaps must have had to type all his college papers on an electric typewriter (three drafts per paper).

When you hit Enter in a word processor, you achieve precisely what we used to call a carriage return. When you hit it on a line that contains nothing, you begin a new line, leaving a line that has no characters other than a paragraph break. Yes, a paragraph break is a character, as surely as the e with an accent aigu (é) or octothorpe (#) or lower case p. When you hit the space bar, you type the character known as a space.

Also worth knowing: the software doesn’t see a page of text as a rectangle. That is just how the software presents it to the user. To the word processing software, everything you write is a straight line leading out toward infinity. We who used to use Word Perfect’s Reveal Codes function came to a very good understanding of this, as do HTML developers. To explain, let me write a sample para containing features, bearing in mind that this platform will not let me insert some mistakes (such as extra spaces or loose tab stops):

One may not normally underline text for emphasis, and bold is also bad form. Italics are correct, but are seductively easy to overuse. If I find

more than roughly one use of italics per chapter, it’s too many.

Here is how software is seeing that para, described in colloquial plain English rather than computerese, with hidden stuff in blue:

[Word wrap is turned on, so insert soft returns at the ends of lines] One may not normally [turn on underlining]underline[now stop underlining] text for emphasis, and [begin boldface]bold[shut off boldface] is also bad form. [turn on italics]Italics[shut off italics] are correct, but are seductively easy to overuse. If I find[para break in stupid place for demonstration purposes] more than roughly one use of italics per chapter, it’s too many.[para break in sane place]

Does that make more sense now? This is why, when I italicize something, I shut off the italics before I insert the next space. Have you ever meant to type after something that was in italics, and the stupid word processor thought you still wanted to be in italics? That’s because the writer, like nearly every writer, committed the error of hitting the space bar before turning the italics off. This way, if I put my cursor before the space, I’m still in italics. If I put it after the space, I’m out of italics, and won’t have to go back and repair it.

Just as there are soft returns, there are soft page breaks. If you want to force a page break, the software permits this. A forced page break is also called a hard page break.

Now, when we want to align text on a page, word processors give us tools for that. If we want to center our title on a title page, we don’t have to hit Enter a bunch of times until our centering meets the eyeball test. We just change the vertical alignment for that page from ‘Top’ to ‘Center,’ and it will align automatically. And since we did it that way, we do not need another dozen or so carriage returns in order to reach p.1. After our title, we can insert a hard page break (in Word it’s done with Ctrl-Enter). That is what we should do any time we want the software to begin a new page, most commonly at the end of a chapter. (As opposed to the lamentable yet common practice of just hammering the Enter key, inserting para breaks until one reaches the top of a new page.) Aligning it horizontally is even easier: there are buttons at the top for it. The spaces are cluttery garbage.

And when we want to move text a distance from the left margin–most notably, to begin a paragraph–that is what a tab stop is for. In the typing days, we had a little guide we had to drag to the right spot, then a key to set a tab stop. When we began a new para, having carriage returned our way back to the left margin, we would hit Tab to jump forward (indent) five spaces. This is also called indentation, but Word has confused the issue–and not for a bad reason. One may want to indent just the first line of each para, or one may want to indent an entire para (quoted material, for example), and the software needs to satisfy both feature needs.

So. If you’re a writer, and anything I am teaching you here is new to you, your word processor use is at the amateur level and needs to grow. And that’s okay. That’s why I wrote this, so I wouldn’t have to teach grade school stuff. Now that you understand how this all came to be, and why it works the way it does, please learn:

Space bar: between words. The standard is now one space after all punctuation, not two, no matter what Mrs. Nitpickering taught you in high school typing class. However: Tab (or indent or horizontal alignment): position text relative to left margin, right margin, both, or center.

Enter: to force the end of a paragraph. However: soft return will happen automatically when you are using word wrap (the normal default) and needs no attention.

Hard page break (Ctrl-Enter): to force the end of a page. You can display the para symbol (¶) to see these. However: soft page break will happen automatically when you hit the end of a page.

Know what is the first thing I do when I begin to edit a ms? I look at how the author aligned the title on the title page. If the author merrily spacebarred the title to a center position, I realize that my client doesn’t understand even the basics of how the software works, and I prepare to fix that. If the author blissfully aligned it vertically by just banging Enter a bunch of times, same conclusion. I will have to fix not only the writer’s English, but the basic misunderstanding of the tools, like a carpenter noting that someone did a lot of cross-cutting using the rip fence.

Then I do a global search for instances of two consecutive spaces, replacing each instance with one space. The older the client, the more instances there will be. Then I repeat the S&R, and again, until it finds no instances of two consecutive spaces, since there is nearly never a need for that. All those spaces the author merrily used to align his or her title (completely unnecessary at this point to begin with, but they all do it)? All gone. All those five-space fake indents? Reduced to single spaces.

There being no search criteria I can use to eliminate a single leading space at the start of each para, I’ll have to fix those manually. Every single one. Every para in the whole book, cursor to the start, hit Delete.

As I go, I will eliminate all instances of more than two consecutive hard returns. A good way to spot them is to push the button that displays para breaks. I’m okay with one hard return to end the para, then one to space between paras (though ideally I would do a little growing of my own, and use the software feature that will automatically insert extra space between paras, which I confess that I do not, but at least I’m a little ashamed of it). Any more than two is nearly never desirable.

I will also have to spend a lot of time unjunking the way the client did things like italics. If you want to add any kind of formatting (bold, italic, underline, strikethrough) that overlays the given typeface, do not include the leading and trailing spaces in the italicized area.

Here I am doing it right.

Here I am doing it_wrong.*

If means that if I want to insert a word after “it,” that word will be italicized as well. I will have to switch the feature off, and nullify underlining on the space preceding my new word. If I had done it correctly, as in the first example, I could simply begin my new word after the space following “it,” and my text would not be in italics. But what if I want to be in italics? I can just begin inserting text before the space, starting of course with a new space. Solved. That is why formatting continence matters, and one should not include leading or trailing spaces in formatting. Yet writers don’t know (or don’t care).

*Actually, the blog platform made it worse. It did not display the underlining of the trailing space, as Word does. It didn’t even show me the problem so that I might correct it. I had to cheat by typing an _ (underbar) in place of the space. How it looks here is designed to mock up what Word will do naturally.

And because writers blithely include the following space in their formatting, they make–and are charged full price for–a lot of extra work.

In the ideal reality, pride would demand a basic grasp of the software’s concepts. If that is not enough of a motivator, then perhaps money will do the trick. When clients garbage up a ms in these ways, I must and do charge them more, and not with any joy. If clients want to save a little money, there’s the path.

And if you have been making these mistakes, either with me or with another editor, it is okay. It really is okay. Push comes to shove, I can fix these forever. I would rather have a great ms to edit, yet junked up with loose spaces and flagrant hard returns, than a crummy ms done with fine technical acumen. I am not mad at you (can’t speak for other editors). But if you want to make me happy at you, you can start doing it right, so that I can start charging you a little less–and so that we can focus on big kid stuff like how best to develop your characters and present your ideas, and so that I can stop focusing on trivia that must be addressed yet represents mainly avoidable busywork.


6 thoughts on “Every new author does this. Why?”

  1. I thought I was doing so well! I even tried to stop using two spaces following the punctuation at the end of a sentence, but fell off the wagon. After all, it can’t be too important, right? Damn you J.K., it looks like it is back on the wagon for me. (This comment has had all extra spaces removed! Hopefully.)


    1. Randy, I can just imagine a ms from you. It would include the word “onespaceonly” between every word, just to show your strict compliance with the letter of the law. It would be very interesting to be your editor. By the way, this blog platform at least comes with its own law enforcement. If I try to insert extra space, it flashes a popup that says “tough luck, noob.” (Okay, not really. But it does fix them.)


      1. Once again you foolishly tempt the universe. I have thought of sending you some of my writings (or more accurately, various letters of the alphabet arranged in a semi-coherent fashion) as an educational experience and self-improvement exercise for myself. The small of part of me that is still merciful has always stayed my hand…


      2. Heh. It’s okay. I knew the risks. If you want to send me a short story, I’ll look at it and offer an inexpert opinion. (The expert opinions cost kidneys.)


  2. Sadly, some of these things are hard-coded into the minds of authors, writers and general people who grew up before the massive explosion of popular computing.

    I do find myself using a double space after a period, because at the time I was learning it was “the rule you abide by, or your grade suffers.”

    After reading this, I don’t think it would be so hard for me to use a search and replace before submitting a ms to an editor. When I’ve done proofing and editing for authors I know, they want a second set of eyes they trust to catch errors they overlooked, and I often catch some they appreciare. But I only make their final editor’s job easier. I edit and proof for them for love of the art, not for compensation. Though I do sometimes get a first edition of the book and even sometimes before the official publication date.


    1. As I see it, Scott, the global SAR is pretty straightforward. However, if they have just spacebarred out in order to indent, or to center text, they can probably guess that a global replace of two spaces with one will jack their other stuff around. Your friends are lucky to have you–every set of discerning eyes on the ms is likely to be to the good. Thanks for your thoughts!


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