Sunday, 28 April 2013

Eight basic formatting tips

I’m not going to go into hardcore details about page numbering and headers/footers, etc, because basically I’m no good at that kind of technical stuff. Recently I’ve seen a few manuscripts and looked at some books on Amazon and a few things have jumped out. These are also things I found out the hard way. As always, this blog is written from personal experience so that you won’t have to suffer the same pitfalls that I did.

1. Justify your text. It’s not a school report. Make it look like a book.

2. Never underline titles or chapter headings. It’s just not necessary, and again, there’s that school report thing. Be careful about using bold either - although I use it very occasionally for things like the Table of Contents header. Don’t use it in-text unless it’s for something specific like a letter that the character is reading.

3. Only use one space between sentences. This is mostly for paperbacks because when you upload to Amazon it defaults to one space anyway, but in paperbacks those spaces will suddenly appear huge when the text justifies. Trust me, I know.

4. Don’t use tab or spacebar to make indents. They might look fine in Word but some programs will screw around with them when you upload. Again, I’m speaking from personal experience. Set an indent of 1.5 or 2 spaces, no more. Don't go any bigger because while it’ll look fine in Word, if you view it on something small like an iPhone your indents will be halfway across the page.

5. Make sure there are no extra spaces at the end of the last sentence in a paragraph. Turn on your Word “show symbols” button to check. One space might be enough to carry over to the next line and then you’ve got what looks like a scene break in the middle of your narrative. Remember, it might look okay in Word but there are dozens of different e-readers out there in many different sizes and your book will look different on all of them.

6. Use a hash symbol / star / “and” symbol to indicate scene breaks. You don’t have to do this - this is my personal choice, but it’s cover in case of number 5 happening. Scene breaks are therefore easily identifiable. However …

7. … don’t put a hash symbol / star / “and” symbol at the end of a chapter. I originally did this in Tube Riders and I had random pages with just the hash tag at the top because it had carried over on to a new page. It’s not going to kill anyone but it looks kind of stupid.

8. Keep your fonts small for titles and chapter headings. Having 36-size font for your title might look awesome in Word but it’ll look rubbish on a little e-reader when it doesn’t fit on one page. You need no more than 14-size for titles, while keep your text at 10 - 12. Remember, you can adjust the size on an e-reader so keep the sizes on your original document close together so that people with poor eyesight don’t have your title spanning fourteen different pages.

Remember, simple is best. If you can afford a fancy formatter to make it look awesome, that’s great, but trying to make it look fancy yourself with lots of interesting fonts and huge-sized titles is just asking for trouble. Been there, done that, learned the hard way. Now I’m passing on my failings to you so you can avoid them.

If you want more information, go to Smashwords and check out the free style guide. A lot of writers whine about Smashwords for whatever reason but that guide really helped me pull my socks up, and even if you're not going to use the site itself there is a lot of useful information there about how to get your formatting right.

Chris Ward
29th April 2013