Making it look good

Over the last week or so, there have been several requests from readers here and on a forum many of us belong to for more information about the nuts and bolts of publishing. So, over the next few weeks, members of MGC will be doing our best to answer your questions. I got volunteered to discuss how to format your manuscript.

Let’s begin with something that will cause some of you to cringe and argue and curse. I’m not going to debate what program is best or how bad one is when compared with another. Like it or not, Microsoft Word is still the publishing industry standard. If you are submitting to an agent or a traditional publisher, or if you are hiring an editor for your indie work, you will save yourself some headaches by getting Word. The simple truth is that for all its problems, and they are legion, it still has the best “review” function of all the other word processing programs out there and it is what the trads use. There is another truth that you, as the indie author needs to worry about. If you use one word processing program and the editor you hired uses another, unless you do a “come document” and don’t merge the documents, you are going to get junk code and that can impact the conversion of your manuscript to e-book formats. This problem of junk code can also come up if you use Google Docs. It has nothing to do with what format you save your document in (although never, ever save as DOCX). It has to do with the the underlying code that is written into the program itself and how well it plays with your conversion tools.

It used to be very simple to format your work for submission. Back when self-publishing was an evil term and the only real option a writer had if they wanted to consider themselves a “professional” writer was to submit to an agent and/or a traditional publisher, you knew exactly what to do because the publishers told you. You were to use 12 point font in either Courier or Times New Roman. You set up for double spacing and a half inch first line tab. Your margins were set at one inch all the way around and your header included your title, your last name and the page number. All this went back to when everyone still wrote on typewriters. Very simple and very easy to remember and very easy to understand. Agents and editors wanted something easy to read and didn’t worry about “converting” because your manuscript went to the printers to be set up. E-books were not a major force in the market — they weren’t a force at all.

Then along came computers and, eventually, e-books and the submission guidelines remained the same. Even though e-mail was common, many publishers continued to require a physical submission of your work and would not accept electronic submission. This slowly started to change and now most all publishers and agents now want electronic submission. Even so, their submission guidelines haven’t changed much.

But that doesn’t really help the author who is considering going indie with their work. The truth of the matter is, if you follow the standard submission requirements we were all brought up with when converting to e-book format, you are going to get an odd, often sloppy looking book as a result. So, what do you need to do to have your book or short story look like it is something a “professional” put out and not something a wanna-be put together?

The first thing you have to do is decide if you work best by writing in a format that won’t be your final conversion format. If you do, then do so and don’t try to force yourself to do something different. However, if you are like me and want to cut out steps along the way, go ahead and set up the formatting for your rough draft in as close to final format version as possible.

The first step is to look at e-books — and physical books — where you appreciate the look of the “printed page”. See what characteristics they have that make them look “pro” and decide if you want to copy those characteristics into your own e-book. (We’ll discuss formatting for the printed version in another post.) Remember, the key here is that readers want their e-books to look as close to the printed page as possible. So don’t go trying to re-invent the wheel. Don’t format your work in such a way that it throws your reader out of the story.

For this, I’m going to walk you through what I do using Word. The steps will be basically the same thing using Open Office, Libre Office, Pages, etc. Some of the terminology may be a bit different but the results will be the same.

After opening a new document, I set my styles and assign them to various aspects of my document. Header 1 will be used to either name sections in the book or for chapter headings. If I have sections I will be naming using Heading 1, I will then use Heading 2 for chapter headings. Normal is for the body of the text. That’s it. At most there will be three “styles”

If you right click on any of them in the Styles ribbon, you will bring up a dialog box that includes the option to modify that particular style. After clicking on “modify”, you will bring up a new dialog box that lets you set alignment and font (including size, bold, italics, etc.). I set Heading 1, if it is for a section heading, at 16. I publish all my work using Georgia as the font. Alignment is centered. Next I click on the format button at the bottom left corner of the dialog box. That lets me access more options on not only formatting the font but also the “paragraph”.

If you don’t want to add any special characteristics to your font like Small Caps, then you can move on to the next step. However, I will open the font sub-menu and for Heading 1, click on bold italic. Next I click on Small Caps. Then click on OK to save your changes. Repeat the steps to open up the format sub-menu for the Heading 1 and click on the paragraph option to open that sub-menu. Here you want to make sure you are still set for centered alignment and that for “Special” — which is where you will set your first line indent for the body of your text — “none” is showing. Now, make sure 0 shows for all values of “indention” and “spacing”. To the right of “spacing” is “line spacing”. This is up to you. For me, single space looks too cramped for an e-book and yet 1.5 looks too wide. I usually go for 1.15 as the value there. To do this, I click on “multiple” and then insert the value I want.

Before you click “okay”, you have one more thing to do in this dialog box. You need to set your first line indent. Please, please, please, if you do nothing else, do this. Do NOT use tabs. They don’t translate into e-books and you will find yourself with one long paragraph, especially if you use single space for your line spacing. Also, don’t default to 0.5 which is where most of us were taught to set our tabs. In an e-book, that half inch looks a mile wide. I set my first line indent at 0.3. Play with it and see what you think looks best.

Now hit okay.

It looks complicated and, at first, it might seem that way. But it really isn’t and after you’ve done it a couple of times, you won’t even have to think about it. The good news is, everything I just walked you through to set up Heading 1 is basically what you have to do for the other “styles”. So, here’s the down and dirty of my formatting settings. Again, I’m not saying you have to follow what I do but it is a good place to start. From there, you can play around and see what looks good to you.

Heading 1 (for section titles or chapter titles)

  • Font — Georgia
  • Size — 14 (you can go to 16 if you want but I wouldn’t recommend going any larger. Remember that a lot of folks read on their phones and a larger font will do odd things on their screen)
  • Special characteristics — Bold Italic
  • Alignment — Centered
  • Spacing — will correspond with what I use for the rest of the book.

Heading 2 (used only if I am using Heading 1 for anything other than chapter headings)

  • Font — Georgia
  • Size — 14
  • Special characteristics — Bold
  • Alignment — Centered
  • Spacing — will correspond with what I use for the rest of the book.

Normal (used for the body of the text)

  • Font — Georgia
  • Size — 12
  • Special characteristics — None
  • Alignment — left
  • Spacing — 1.15

Here are a couple of things to remember:

  • No tabs.
  • No spacing before or after paragraphs.
  • When you have section breaks within a paragraph, use something to denote the break. I use *   *   * to do so. It is centered and, using the paragraph options dialog box, I remove the first line indent.
  • Also in the paragraph dialog box, be sure you turn off the widows and orphan option.
  • Have a “page break” at the end of each chapter. This will make your reader have to “turn the page” to begin the next chapter, thereby making your e-book more like a “real” book. To insert a page break, you can either go to “Insert” at the top of your page and then click on page break or your can simply hit CTRL and Enter at the same time.
  • When showing internal thoughts, most authors use italics. That is what the reader is used to, at least here in the States.
  • I keep my margins and paper size — at this point — at 1 inch all the way around and at 8 1/2 by 11.

Because of the fact there are so many different e-readers out there and so many different apps that let people read their e-books, you have to keep your formatting simple. What looks good on a tablet might not look good on an e-ink reader. Just because something looks good on a Kindle Fire or iPad Air mini doesn’t mean it will look good on a smartphone.What that means is, as I said, you need to keep the formatting simple. Don’t use a lot of different fonts. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel when it comes ot how your e-book looks.

There is one more thing I do that I haven’t mentioned so far when it comes to “formatting” my manuscript. I take off first line indent for the first paragraph of each chapter. I also go to small caps and either italic or bold italic (depending on what is used for the chapter heading. I don’t want them looking the same) for the first three words or the first phrase of the first sentence. My intention is to make the e-book look as close to a printed book as possible. The reason I don’t use special formatting for the first line or the first sentence is because of the different screen sizes and magnification your readers will be using. By only doing the first few words of that first line — and you have to keep it consistent — you can guarantee that the special characteristic will appear only on the first line of text — assuming the reader isn’t using extreme magnification.

Again, this is what I think works best for me. Your mileage may vary. Just keep notes of what you have tried and discarded and what you like so you can remain consistent in subsequent books. Most of all, remember that formatting serves two purposes at this stage of the game. The first is to make conversion to both print and digital easier for you. The second is make the “page” look familiar to your reader. You want them focusing on what you wrote, not on how you formatted it. That means making it look like a “real” book.

When it comes time for conversion for either print or digital formats, there will be some tweaks just as there will be some front and back material you will add. But, for now, this is a good place to stop. We’ll pick up on the steps to turn your manuscript into an e-book and a print book later.

(edited to correct page size — sorry, I plead coffee deprivation.)

46 thoughts on “Making it look good

  1. Excellent advice. Totally excellent.

    I can’t write that way though. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so I write with double space on so I can see what I’m writing, and change it later.

    But i wear coke bottle bifocals 😄


    1. Wayne, I understand and that’s why I said not everyone can or needs to do their draft that way. I’m lazy though and don’t like having to reformat multiple times when I can get away with just twice — once for draft and digital and then once to tweak it for print.

      1. I don’t call that lazy Amanda, I call it intelligent production management.


  2. Cedar, I don’t know whether other authors use an occasional photograph in their ebooks, but I’m wondering if at some point you might want to address that issue.

    1. Cedar and/or Sarah are the perfect ones to talk about that issue. Me, I’m the technical person. They’re the artists and who I turn to for advice on covers and other illustrations. I’ll make sure they have your request.

  3. PLEASE DON’T use this–it says my previous comment is “awaiting moderation.” If you use it, could you delete the word “Cedar” and the comma? I thought Cedar wrote the article.

  4. You do I hope intend to offer this when complete as a how to manual for new writers. In fact you and Sarah should seriously consider a series of inexpensive guides providing step by step instructions for each element of turning simple text into a finished published work.
    I’m thinking a simple cover, hand holding quill pen, title and names prominent, perhaps a numbering scheme such as 01 of 07 or such. Put up for $1.99 and let the money roll in.

  5. I will point out that while the word format is needed, the word software is not. libreoffice is free and can work with word files, including tracking changes. I’ve used it sucessfully with articles I’ve published.

    1. Agreed and I thought I pointed that out. However, if you are going to work with traditional publishers or if you are going to hire a professional editor, Word is still easier and often the preferred software because of its review function. Frankly, Word’s review function is better than the others I’ve tried using.

      1. Haven’t used Word in years, and the last version I used was 2003, so I can’t claim to know what the new Word is like but what matters is compatibility, not specific software.

        I’ve made a lot of submissions, and I’ve found the following:

        1) Do not trust Pages. While it opens Microsoft files with ease, it is crappy at reviewing changes made by Word.

        2) LibreOffice seems to work really well though. Only had one problem, and that was my own fault, was running the Bleeding Edge version, and yes, it bled. As long as you use the download it offers you when you go to there site, you should be safe.

        What I’ve been doing is writing in Pages (I like how it works), save as a .DOC when finished, import into LibreOffice, save as .ODT, then save out as .DOC to email to the editor. It may sound complicated, but it works for me. When I get documents back with change requests, I use LibreOffice to do all the work.

        So far, this is working well (fingers crossed).


  6. I just went through another editing session last night, all night, because I felt like it and was in the mood. My eyesight is failing and those terribly tiny commas, periods, opening quotes, closing quotes and extra spaces are hard to see when I’m focused on typos and wrong words.

    Then it gets worse because odd things happen when you start editing, the page format breaks, the paragraph format gets lost and when you have to convert from one file format to another, everything breaks and you have to edit again the file you just spent all night editing.

    I still don’t know if Amazon will take a Rich Text Format input file. Kindle Gen won’t. And Kindle doesn’t necessarily respect the first line indent and then suddenly the Kindle converts the first line indent to extra CR/LF between paragraphs.

    But with the help of anonymous internet strangers I think I know what is the proper use of quotes, and commas. (In some cases, maybe, although there might be some dispute over that conclusion, still.)

    Ok, so..I write with OpenOffice, save as RTF. convert to epub using Calibre then recheck everything in Sigil before sending it off to Amazon. Then download the proof file from Amazon, and try to find where the secret, hidden, embedded formatting codes are wrong. Try to correct them, and resubmit to Amazon.

    (I don’t have MS Word, the new version won’t run on this old hardware. The house needs a new roof, and I’m living on bread and powdered milk.)

    If you edit in Sigil, you are going to be editing complex HTML. Calibre has fingerprints all over the place, and you’ll be editing HTML again. OpenOffice embeds metadata, and I suspect that MS Word does also.

    Wait, did you say no spacing between paragraphs? I gotta have spacing.

    And. you have to have headings, section headings because Amazon insists on a Table of Contents (in two formats : HMTL and NCX). Your chapter headings can have sub headings)..and Kindle may or may not respect first line indent, and it changes unpredictably somewhere in the mess. . . and I hate page breaks. They move around and are impossible to find when they are in the wrong place and sometimes don’t appear until your text is being read on a Kindle device. .

    Personally, I hate ‘Chapter one’, ‘Chapter two’… and so forth. I’d rather have ‘Found the Easter Egg’, and ‘Beer for Breakfast’. or something.

    Then there is the phenomenon of hyperlinks (and footnotes) in your RTF being lost when you convert file formats back and forth.

    1. Did I mention Kindle Previewer? No, ok, get KindleGen, and Kindle Previewer free from Amazon. KindleGen will take your input file and produce a file that can be read on your Kindle device, or read in Kindle Previewer on your desktop.

    2. I’ll be doing another post next week that will cover the steps needed to convert to both ePub and Mobi. The one thing I will say now is not to use KindleGen It really doesn’t work reliably.

      1. Sigil works well, mostly. Well enough, but only takes epub format, and produces an epub format that Adobe won’t read. You can do all of your work in Sigil, and send the file(s) (Table of Contents, cover image, collection bits in a .zip file) to Amazon and get a mostly working Kindle file back. I can’t, at the moment remember exactly what problems I had with it other than breaking document format, paragraph format, and text attributes like Italics and bold..

        Sigil will generate both types of Table of Contents (HTML and NCX) and the output looks good, looks like you would expect, mostly on the Kindle Devices. And it handles images. I would work in Sigil, but anyone you might want to critic your file will want it in MSWord, probably.

        I got into trouble by having multiple versions in multiple file formats and too often found myself editing the wrong file, over and over again.

        1. I don’t want to get into a discussion about programs and conversion process and techniques here. Let’s hold it for next week’s post. However, you’ve said Sigil will not produce an ePub file that Adobe reads. You need to check your settings because ePub is an Adobe friendly format and I have never had a problem creating an ePub using Sigil where Adobe Digital Editions, their current e-book reader, is concerned. But, for the rest of it, let’s leave it until next week please.

  7. This is a real valuable article, and I wish I’d read it last year at this time. About three years ago, I learned how to use Microsoft Word 2010 the hard way, and found out, the hard way, that I could get a paragraph indent by going into the Line and Paragraph dialogue box.

    Once there, I hit the Line Spacing Options, and can set the lines to 1.15 {which is what I do}. But for love or money, that first day I couldn’t figure out how to get the paragraph indent without hitting the tab button

    Being irritated, I hit the Tabs button on the bottom of the LSO box, taking me to another page of the box. Tabs. I accidently found out that by setting the tabs I could get my paragraph indent automatically once I tabbed in the first and second paragraph. After that, Word did it for me.

    Sounds like I may have shot myself in the foot. Having six novels ready to format {and one other nearly written} worst case looks to me like I’ve got a lot of rewriting to do.

    On the other hand, by following the simple directions written in the article, I can set it to get the indents another {and easier} way.

    Thanks for a very interesting article.

    1. Highlight a tabbed area in your manuscript and then do a search a replace, replacing it with nothing. Then go back in and set your first line indents. To make sure you don’t have any artifact spacing turn on Show/Hide. Hope this helps.

      1. Thank you Amanda. I really wasn’t looking forward to rewriting 480k words. I would have done it, but this saves my butt.

        I owe you

        1. In order to make sure it’s a tab, you can click the “show/hide” button, that looks like a backwards “P” with a double vertical bar (it’s a paragraph mark), and tabs will show up as an arrow pointing to the right.

      2. Was going to tell him that, but you beat me to it. Thank God for Search and Replace.


      3. Oh, thanks. I can’t seem to easily retrain myself not to hit tab at the beginning. Why no spaces after the end of the paragraph?
        I turned off all the auto-format nonsense years ago because it just messed up my typing. Now I’m learning how to use it. (Please say I don’t have to use smart quotes. ‘Cause they can’t tell if they’re apostrophes or quotations.)

        1. I probably should have been a bit more clear about what I meant by “spaces” at the end of the paragraph. We all tend to hit the return (or enter) key at the end of a paragraph. What I was talking about was hitting enter more than once. If you are using Smashwords, their meatgrinder program will read anything more than three (maybe four) returns as a page break. Also, more than one or two returns could mean a blank screen (or page) for your reader depending on how their e-book reader/program is set up.

          The other thing I meant goes to your paragraph formatting. If you open up your paragraph dialog box, you will see in the area roughly opposite where you set your line spacing two options. One is for spacing before and the other for after. These boxes build in white space before and after paragraphs. You want both of these set to 0. Again, you want your digital page to look as much like a printed page as possible and most printed books don’t have additional white space between paragraphs.

          Hope this helps. If not, let me know and I’ll try to clarify further. (I’ll have had more coffee by then, so that will help 😉 )

          1. I bought Kris Longknife’s Bloodhound by Mike Shepherd from the KOBO bookstore. Every paragraph is on a separate page. It was a nightmare to read. That could explain the problem.

            I’m now wondering if GCU Press is Mike’s own self publishing venture, because when you search on it only books by him come up (had to search GCU Press KOBO to find even that).


  8. What Angus said- I’ve been writing stories for years on Microsoft and Libre, mostly MS Word though. Both on the standard default. Now, everything is getting close to format and final edit, How do I do that. Highlight a 130K word doc and then ? or is there another work around?

    1. If all you are doing is changing first line indents, line spacing, etc., you can do that by modifying your styles. That should make the changes document-wide. However, make sure if you do that for your “normal” style that you remove first line indent if you have section break indicators like ***

      1. In HTML+CSS, I can set paragraph indent to turn automatically off for the first paragraph after a heading or section break. That’s probably possible with MS Word too, but I’ve no idea how to get such a result.

          1. Thanks for noting that, Joel. I don’t recommend it — heck, I don’t even talk about it — for most folks because they don’t need to be mucking about with it.

  9. Why Georgia, and does it matter? wouldn’t their reader’s prefs override that? do readers even have Georgia on them?

    1. I use Georgia because I like the look of it. Readers can override it unless you lock it down, which I don’t. Also, Georgia, to me, does look better on some of the different readers.

  10. Now, i will admit to still being a bit of a “knuckle dragging nerd,” but I write in Word Perfect, convert to a .doc file (clean up the c–p MS T-rd format introduces), and import to OO. I do it that way way, for one reason. WP allows me to see the “hidden codes,” so I can remove all the useless c–p, easily. OO _might_ let me, but I don’t really have time/brain power to waste becoming “intimate” with it. (I’ve been able to cut back to half the narcotics for pain relief that I used to take, but it’s a balance.)
    I greatly appreciate the “guidelines/suggestions” from those more experienced. 🙂 I just wish that it was easier to “place” images/graphics in files, and *keep* them where I put them. WP lets me “place, and flow text around,” until I move text. MST/OO have a “way,” it’s just not readily obvious/easy. I know that somewhere, I have an explanation of how, I just have to find it. 😛
    I would happily buy a series of four to five “booklets” covering all these fundamentals. BTW, I use Kinstant formatter for my “conversion” to Kindle. I “bought in” early, so I don’t have a limit on conversions (1,000 before buying more, IIRC). All I need to do, is to figure out why there seems to be a universal problem, with “block quotes.” They all seem to have a problem with them.

    1. Turn off ‘flow’ when you use photographs. It’ll save you a lot of time. Word Perfect, LibreOffice, and Pages all handle those sorts of files the same way (my mother-in-law uses Word Perfect, I use LibreOffice and Pages).


  11. One thing I’ve noticed on the Kindle (paperwhite) is that increasing the font size sometimes increases the line spacing and sometimes does not.

    I prefer the “not”; I want a bigger font, not more whitespace.

    Since I conveniently have Word open, it seems there are point settings (At Least and Exactly have “pt” in the setting), not just fractions of a1 line settings that Multiple has.

    However, this might be a conversion artifact, not a Word setting.

    If anyone is interested, I can provide examples from authors here.

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