Editorial Maverick: don’t format it

One key aspect of transforming a manuscript (ms) into a book is formatting, sometimes called typesetting (I’m sure the term will be with us long after the last ink-stained hands have fallen still and cold). This is how it goes from Word format to something you can print as a book. It can mean inserting photos, cute drop caps (the extra large letter to begin a chapter), graphics for segment breaks (say, a cattle brand for a book on ranching life), and all that other prettying up. A basic version can be had by self-publishing through CreateSpace or something like it; if you want it fancier, you hire a formatter or figure it out yourself. Formatters are generally expert in Word and understand how the conversion tools work, knowledge only a few people need.

Whatever you do, please do not book-format your ms as you go.

For one thing, writers do not automatically know how to use Word’s features correctly. I say Word because I don’t work on G-word docs; I’d sooner work on a plain text file (which I’ll bring into Word anyway so I can use change tracking and commenting). If the ms is in G-word, well, I’ll work on it when it’s sent to me as a .docx file. What it means is that people wanting to line things up, make them all nice, will impose all sorts of oddness on the ms. Not knowing how to indent, they’ll just use tabs, or worse yet, hit the space bar five times. Not knowing how to insert a hard page break, they’ll just bang hard returns (the Enter key) until they’re at the top of the next page. These are problems because the editing process shoves everything around. It is almost certain to mess them up; lines might be inserted, margins changed, and so on.

The little graphics and other cutesiness (which I call it at this stage, because it belongs in the formatting stage; here it’s just clutter) are as bad. They make editing harder. If that isn’t enough to discourage novice authors, let’s try money. Anything that makes editing harder also makes it more expensive. So here’s the core of it: Why would you put in extra work that you will certainly pay to have undone, and on top of that, have to do it all again later? This does not make sense.

Here’s the proper order of Good Actions. First, write. If you’re going to indent paras, indent them using Word’s Indent feature; if you’re going to break pages at chapter end, just use Word’s hard page break (Ctrl-Enter). To break chapters into segments, just stick in a simple placeholder, for example three asterisks separated by spaces. Whatever you do, focus on writing, not cosmetics. Get the text as good as you can make it. Self-edit until it wrenches your soul…then let your editor go to work. You can use italics at this point, but don’t make typeface changes. Use something straightforward, typically Times Roman or Calibri or Arial. Left margin justified, right margin ragged. Leave placeholder markers for graphics to go in later, if you’re going to put in charts or photos or whatnot.

Many seem to feel that the decision whether to single space, one-and-a-half space, or double space is a Momentous Choice. Nah, not here. Your editor can undo it in five seconds, as long as it takes to Select All and go into the Line Spacing. What I usually do is edit with single spaces or 1.5, but what matters is what I use if I do a print review. I might edit it in single, then review and red-pen a copy in double. Costs me a little more in paper and ms heft, gives me more room for editing marks and insertions. At the end, I can convert it back to the way the au sent it to me.

If you’re going to try for traditional publishing, also called trad-pub (, then I don’t really understand the logic, but I will support you as you) then prepare to send queries and submissions to people who might or might not show an interest. If that’s the plan, then either follow the publisher’s submission specs or go with the industry standards.

If you are going it alone, then we’re probably still doing this together. When you have finalized the content, by whatever handing back and forth of the football you and your editor have determined should occur, then it’s time for formatting. Formatting creates galleys–probably final images of what will be published if the proofreading doesn’t find any errors. Any formatting mistakes, typos, alignment issues, and so on can be caught and fixed at this point.

Here’s another reason for this. The hardest part, for most people, is just getting it all down on e-paper. For some people it takes a decade or even two. However long it takes, the last thing you want to do as you attempt to express your thoughts or tell your story is to run around making little cutenesses. It makes the writing harder, and if there’s one thing writers don’t need it is to make writing harder.

Have you ever had someone look at you and tell you that you just unraveled months of frustration that drove them to sleepless nights, vodka, and feelings of deep inadequacy and hopelessness? People whose work is to help people get that experience. It is a special one.

If what you write has flaws and you can’t figure them out, That’s Why You Have An Editor. Step back fifteen yards from scrimmage and punt. Tell your editor the parts you don’t like, where you’d like special attention and input. Sure, you can self-edit, and in most cases you should do some of that before you send it off to a pro. But if your self-editing is bogging you down, your work is harder than it needs to be. The reason you have an editor is to help you get the text into suitable syntax, flowing well, reading consistently, and making sense. Get those benefits. Let your editor help. Get what you’re paying for.

Believe me, your editor wants it that way.


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