More on Formatting

Pam’s post last week made me remember this post (with a few updates) I put together a couple of years ago. Hope it helps.

I’ll start out by saying I’m lazy. When I start a new project, I set up the document so that I have to make minimal formatting changes when it comes to converting it for either print or digital formats. The only real change I have to make is in line spacing. When I write, I have line spacing set at 1.5 o 2 lines. When I convert to digital that gets changed to 1.15 line and print depends on several factors but it, too, is usually around 1.15. But more on that later.

I also write in Word. No, I’m not going to get into a debate about what word processor program is best. I use Word for several reasons. First, it is the one I’m most familiar with. Second, it’s review function is, in my opinion, the best one of the major word processing programs available. Third, old Word Perfect (which rocked) does not convert well into e-books. Yes, there are issues with Word but the advantages outweigh them. But that doesn’t mean you have to use it. My only caveat is that you need to do two things with regard to any program you use. First, you have to make sure you understand the licensing you are agreeing to. Some licenses do not allow you to use the program for commercial purposes. Others restrict where you can use that file for commercial purposes (Apple). You also have to know what sort of licensing you are getting when it comes to the fonts included with the program. So read the boilerplate, even if your eyes start to glaze over.

The second issue is you have to understand that each of these programs have junk code written into them. That code can cause problems when your files are being converted into e-books. There are ways around it, ways that don’t require going old school and hand-coding the html. More on that later.

I’m not going to completely recreate my original post on formatting your document at the writing level. You can find it here. When you are getting started, here are a couple of things to remember. Don’t ever, EVER use “tab” when you start a new paragraph. Set first line indent in your paragraph formatting box. Don’t use two spaces at the end of a sentence. (It is no longer taught in keyboarding classes, so it is an indication you are not “young”. Yes, it can matter.)

Edited to add: When setting your first line indent, don’t set it to 0.5 in. That is too large. I set mine at 0.33 but do what looks best for you. Three spaces isn’t usually enough. Half an inch is too much.

Now, another general comment. Most of the online outlets require a table of contents for e-books. Don’t panic. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to manually create one. In fact, I haven’t included a “made” ToC page in a work of fiction in the last five years. Instead, I use what’s called an “Active Table of Contents”. If you use the Headings options in your word processing program, the Active Table of Contents will be automatically generated. That will satisfy Amazon and the other major players. More importantly, it means you don’t have to worry about whether you have put the ToC in the proper place in your book. (Remember, Amazon has now forbidden placement of the ToC at the back of a book because less than ethical authors were doing so to work the system of page turns in Kindle Unlimited.)

Now, for the nitty gritty of formatting. This is all general information and can be tweaked to fit what you like the best. Remember, this is initially for writing the manuscript and for digital conversion.  (Note: I tend to increase the font size on Heading 1. I haven’t done so here because some sites like Smashwords have a font size limit and I can’t remember it off the top of my head.) One other thing to consider. You want your e-book or print book to look as “professional” or “traditional” as what readers are used to. That means you have to do your homework and discover what is standard for your genre. The information below is a starting point and can — and should — be tweaked to make it look the best for your genre and length.

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 (Check to make sure first line indent has not be applied.)
  • 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 (Check to make sure first line indent has not been applied.)
  • Spacing — will correspond with what I use for the rest of the book.

Normal (used for the body of the text)

  • Font — Georgia (This is my personal preference, but you can use Times New Roman, Garamond or others. My recommendation is to check to see what other books in your genre use.)
  • Size — 12
  • Special characteristics — None
  • Alignment — left
    • First line indent of 0.3 to 0.33
  • 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. You can use other indicators but, if you use special characters, make sure you have the license to do so.
  • 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.

Something else I have been doing for some time now is not indenting the first paragraph of each new chapter. That first line is left justified. I then capitalize and italicize the first word to three words. I don’t tend to do more than that because of the varied font sized readers can select on their own. The last thing I want is to cap a long phrase or the entire line and then have it looking weird to my reader because they have increased the font size and the flow of what looked find on my screen now takes up several lines.

Edited to add: This has changed since I first wrote the post. I now do my conversions using Vellum on a MacBook Air. Vellum is a Mac-only program but there are similar programs available for PC. Because of Vellum, I don’t do anything special for the first line of a chapter or after a section break because Vellum does that formatting for me. However, if you aren’t using such a program, you do need to remember to do any special formatting you want before conversion or before uploading your DOC or DOCX file.

They key is that our e-books need to look as professional and “traditional” as anything our readers might buy. The second key we have to keep in mind is that not everyone reads our e-books on their phones or tablets. Some read on dedicated e-book readers. Despite what some of the so-called studies say, dedicated e-book readers are still popular and will continue to be as the population ages. Why? Because an e-ink screen is better for the eye. There is less reflection off the screen than there is from a tablet screen or even the printed page.

But that means we have to keep in mind that some of the fancy font work we can do for print or for files read on a tablet can’t be done for an e-ink reader. So, if you want that fancy first letter in a chapter, you need to consider doing it as an image instead of font. Why? Because it won’t translate properly to e-ink and your reader can be left with something that looks not only odd but might not even appear. Of course, the downside to using an image is that Amazon charges a transmission fee and the more images you have in a file, the larger the file size and the more that transmission fee will be. So, you find other ways to make the first line to “special”. That’s why I cap and italicize the first few words. I can get fancier with the print version.

If you do all this while writing, you have set yourself up for a very easy road to conversion for your e-book. Better yet, you have very little you will have to change for your print version. Most of those changes will be global search and replace, a few minutes at best.

I’ll do more on the publishing process next week. Until then, ask any questions you might have, either about today’s post or about what you’d like me to cover next week.



  1. I’m in a writing group with several traditional editors. I’m hearing that, ebook and print, paragraphs shoujld be Justified.

    Your opinion?

    1. I have to justify my paragraphs to whom? My editor? Um, my justification is: that’s how the story wanted to be told!

      More seriously, are you talking about left justification vs.right or center? Left justification is the accepted standard in genre fiction everywhere that reads from left to right. In fact, this comment is left-justified. It’s easier to read that way, unless you’re doing something with very little text, like a fancy menu, where you can get away with center justification.

      Unless you’re doing poetry. Poetry uses justification like any other convention; as a tool it can play with in order to achieve the effect it wants. On the other hand, in the world of ebooks with their reflowable text, formatting anything to consistently show on any screen size in a fixed format (unless you make it a PDF or an image) is a headache for the ages.

      And with that said, if you mean justify as in adjusting your spacing to avoid widows and orphans – bits of a paragraph or sentence hanging out oddly at the end or on the next line/page? No, you don’t want to try to manually justify your non-poetry text. Because if you adjust spacing for a kindle screen, it’s going to look all out of whack on a kindle app on a smartphone. Or on a monitor. Save worrying about kerning, widows, and orphans for print, and just roll with paragraph beginning and ending and the program will sort it out for ebooks.

      1. Justified as in Word, even right and left margins. Supposedly, even margins is easier to read, especially for those with vision issues or who use screen readers.

        1. Don’t justify. Most e-book readers and apps will automatically apply justification. But, if you force it by formatting the justification in, you take away the ability of a reader to choose not to have justified text in their e-books.

          As for print, yeah, most traditionally published print books are justified. But, again, when you are writing, don’t worry about it. For one thing, Word’s full justification sucks. You will need to go in and adjust the kerneling, etc. by hand to make it look right. I have a post somewhere in our archives about formatting for print that I’ll brush off and update.

          Here’s something else to consider. Not knocking the editors but most in the traditional side of it don’t know much about the tech we use to format and convert our books. So don’t worry about a lot of that sort of thing until you are ready to start converting for publication. Also–and this is important–if you are submitting to a traditional publisher, they will have their own format requirements on submissions and I can’t think of one that required justified text (caveat here: I haven’t tried the traditional route in years so this may have changed). In fact, most want minimal formatting because their “house” has its own rules about formatting that will be applied after edits.

    1. Mark, pretty much all of it. You’ll set chapter headers a bit differently. The same with section divisions, iirc. The good news is, there are some excellent Youtube videos on how to use Scrivener.

      Word of warning, especially if you have the Mac version, there are a lot of ways to go down the rabbit hole of distraction with Scrivener. If you can avoid it and learn to use all those distractions to your benefit, it is an awesome program.

      1. Amanda, Scrivener has decided to sell both versions in a bundle, So I have the Mac version. Now I just need to get a Mac. 🙂 I’m using the Windows version. Prolly for the best, ‘coz I can jump in a rabbithole for a song.

        1. I have both. I tend to ignore the Windows version. The Mac version seems more intuitive for some reason and the videos they have to explain the program are more often based on the Mac version than the PC.

  2. Personally I tend to write in weird fonts and set the color, and then clean it up for publication. Life is full of tradeoffs.

  3. I like Word 10 for initial formatting, then convert to PDF and use Adobe Acrobat Pro to make the final file for print through LSI/Ingram Spark. My late business partner in the Teeny Publishing Bidness liked Word Perfect – but the latest iteration of Word incorporated all the elements to make a perfectly acceptable print file.
    I’ve looked into some of the specialty layout programs … but honestly, I can make Word work for me, and turn out a perfectly acceptable and readable product.

  4. so what is the Vellum alternative for those of us that think that Apple should kiss their buttocks?

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