5 Basic formatting mistakes

DSCN5742When you’re submitting a manuscript to publishing professionals, you want to avoid written work that screams, “Amateur!”

While editors may be able to plow past glaring errors and see the potential of your epic story, why create roadblocks? You may think your manuscript looks fine, but someone in the industry can spot amateur mistakes at a glance.

Formatting is the foundation that supports the content of your submission. This reminds me of the birdbath my husband’s father made decades ago. Constructed of concrete, rocks, and a tire rim, it’s heavy. Far too weighty to sit directly on the dirt of my flower bed. It may look okay from one side, but a different angle clearly displays its actual tilt. It needs a solid foundation.


In much the same way, your view of  your work may differ from the perspective of an industry professional. Before reading a word, an editor can spot basic formatting mistakes that identify the writer as an amateur. Give your work a solid foundation to avoid an initial off-kilter impression.

This post addresses five basic formatting errors to avoid: not double spacing, extra spacing, double spaces, emphasis formatting, and fancy fonts. Those first three sound spacey, don’t they? And a couple of them may sound like double speak, but they’re not. Trust me.

Not double spacing

Manuscripts ought to be double-spaced. It’s true that some kinds of work or parts of submissions may be single-spaced. For example, my magazine editor prefers that I single-space my article and paste it into the body of an email message. Also, a synopsis or query letter in a book proposal could be single-spaced. But the line spacing for all manuscripts should be formatted as double.

To do this in my version of Word, I go to Format on the main menu, pull down Paragraphs, and click on the Indents and Spacing tab. Then I chose Double under the Line spacing option. If you have another software or newer version of Word (which is very likely), you can do a quick online search to find directions or a tutorial.

As an aside, always check for a publisher’s guidelines and follow them. Why cause an editor to shake her head and think, “Didn’t this writer read our submission guidelines?”

Extra spacing (first line indent thrown in for FREE!)

While you’re formatting your document for double-spaced text, take a moment to check for extra spacing between paragraphs. You don’t want six, twelve, or more points of extra space either before or after each paragraph. In my version of Word, I can make this choice directly beside Line spacing. Find the Before and After boxes under Spacing and click on the up or down arrow until you reach zero. This will avoid unsightly extra spacing between paragraphs in your manuscript.

Before you leave that Indents and Spacing box, look under Indentation and choose a First Line indent of .5 inches. If you’re already back in the document, you can format this with the indentation indicators on the left side of the ruler. They look like two triangles touching each other above a tiny bar. Move only the top triangle to the right a half inch.

Many amateur writers indent the first line of each paragraph by hitting the tab button. This isn’t something a publishing professional will immediately see, unless they happen to highlight hidden markings. But should you be so fortunate to secure a contract, the copy editor will not appreciate having to reformat all those tabs. And don’t you want to be your copy editor’s friend?

Double spaces

This formatting issue may seem to contradict the first one I listed, but I’m now referring to spaces between sentences rather than spaces between lines. Given my age, I totally get this problem. I well recall my high school typing instructor’s command to insert two spaces after each period that ends a sentence. What surprises me is how often younger writers do this.

Here’s the deal: computers are smarter than typewriters. They automatically format the correct amount of space between sentences. When you press the space bar twice, you format a wide space that looks weird. Period. Space. Then type the next sentence.

If you’ve hit the space bar twice throughout an entire manuscript and now want to change all those extra-wide spaces between sentences, it’s an easy fix. Use the Edit menu to Find and Replace every instance of two spaces with one space. Bam! Done. Works slick.

Emphasis formatting

You want to emphasize a word or a phrase, so you underline it, right? Wrong. In these technology-driven days, underlining indicates a hyperlink. Don’t confuse your reader or frustrate an editor by underlining anything that isn’t a hyperlink.

Perhaps you should bold words you want to emphasis? No. While style guidelines vary, editors seem to frown on bold formatting. The best thing is to write in a way that clearly shows the emphasis. But if you simply must highlight a word or phrase, use italics.

Italics also are sometimes used for thoughts inserted into first-person or deep point-of-view narratives. But it’s a good idea to use italics sparingly.

And exclamation points? Almost every editor advocates avoiding them. Some go so far as to say (perhaps tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not totally sure) to use only one per manuscript! (I know, sometimes you simply HAVE to use one.) Oh, and that ALL CAPS thing? You know it conveys shouting and is considered rude, right?

If you can find style guidelines telling you how to use bold and italics for a particular publisher, go with them. Otherwise, use special formatting sparingly. Bottom line? Write for emphasis, don’t format for it.

Fancy fonts

Editors don’t like fancy fonts. Unusual fonts make text difficult to read and distract from the content. You don’t want to distract an editor from your scintillating story, do you? Stick with tried and true fonts like Times New Roman (still the most frequent one I see listed on guidelines) or Arial.

I’ll admit I sometimes use Verdana or Tahoma or Trebuchet, depending on the editor or organization. If you’re self-publishing a book, you’ll want to use something other than the old standbys. You should do some research to see what fonts are recommended for the type of book you’re publishing and what fonts to avoid. For most submissions, however, I recommend sticking with plain Jane fonts.

Again, if you’re submitting something to a specific magazine or publisher, check the website for guidelines. Then follow them to the letter. Why risk annoying an editor because you didn’t take time to read and follow published guidelines?

To recap, these are five glaring formatting errors:

  1. Not double-spacing between lines
  2. Extra spacing between paragraphs
  3. Double spaces between sentences
  4. Formatting for emphasis
  5. Fancy fonts

An editor may look past these formatting mistakes and actually read the submission before judging the writer’s ability. But why detract from your writing with poor formatting? Why not lay a level foundation to support your stellar writing?

Kids (and adults), don’t try this at home!

This year, I’ve been working in my flower bed. I placed a stone foundation under that heavy birdbath. The picture of the process gives you a glimpse of the difficulty involved. Although I tried to do it myself, I had to accept assistance in order to accomplish my goal.

Laying a basic formatting foundation isn’t nearly as difficult as placing the birdbath on a stone. But I hope this post will help you avoid appearing inexperienced. Taking time to format your work according to industry standards will help your manuscript croon, “Professional.”


Self-publishing: making arrangements

Display at the Bullock Texas State History Museum
Display at the Bullock Texas State History Museum

Sometimes making arrangements for a trip can be frustrating. Aunt Martha only receives visitors between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning. But that’s exactly when the presentation you really want to see at the museum is showing. Trying to make arrangements so all the details fall into place may make you wonder if the trip is worth it.

A self-publishing journey’s most potential for frustration arises from formatting, in my opinion (that’s IMO in critique lingo). Before you upload your manuscript (that’s MS in publishing lingo), you’ll want to have it as accurately formatted as possible to prevent the even more frustrating process of trying to fix glitches and errors once it’s on the website.

Authors often complain about the horrors of the self-publishing experience, and most of those complaints are related to formatting struggles. Be prepared to do a little research in order to figure out how to do what you want to do. Then resolve to adopt a patient Mr. Rogers attitude of taking your time to do it right.

An earlier post gave some tips and links about picking fonts, and I recommended determining page size early on. But you must prepare everything about your MS so that it looks exactly like you want the pages to appear in your book. That means figuring out front matter and chapter setup.

The items in the front of the book include a copyright page disclaimer, title page, book dedication, table of contents, and anything else you want to appear before your first chapter.

Here’s the question you must answer: How will these pages be numbered? Some of them shouldn’t be numbered at all. Sometimes you see those cute little lower case Roman numerals on front matter pages, but never on a title page. How can you number these pages differently from the rest of the MS?

And then you must consider the chapters themselves. You need to ask: How do I want each page to appear? You’ve seen those snazzy headers (or footers) in books, perhaps the book title on the left page and the chapter title or the author’s name on the right.

If you want to format page numbers and headers differently for different parts of the MS, you’ll have to set it up in sections. I’d always inserted page breaks for new chapters, but a much better method is to insert a section break. This allows you to format sections differently, separating the front matter from the chapters and each chapter from the next.

This page contains many links with helpful information about working in sections. For my older version of Word, I inserted section page breaks and formatted even pages with book title headers and odd pages with chapter title headers. But I spent hours trying to figure out how to format each section separately (even after I’d indicated “this section only”), until I finally found the extremely helpful Legal Office Guru website with online tutorials.  That dear sweet lady (bless her heart) kindly explained how to break the link between sections by deactivating “Link to Previous” so that the “Same as Previous” no longer appeared in the upper right corner of the header. What an eye opener!

Maybe you already know all about that. I didn’t, and it had frustrated me to the point I posted a Facebook status about being amazed if I still had all my hair by the time this book was formatted. After that, Facebook kept showing me ads for women’s hair loss products.

Speaking of hair, here’s another formatting tidbit that could save you a lot of research time. Know that tiny space appearing between a single quotation mark and a double one? It’s thinner than a regular space and is called a hair space. And I had no clue how to format it. An extensive online search finally yielded the answer. For my ancient version of Word, it’s ALT + 8202. Maybe knowing that will save you some precious time. You’re welcome.

Your formatting nemesis may be chapter title pages (no page numbers on those!), or margins (you’ll want wider margins on the inside edges where your pages are bound) or something entirely different. CreateSpace provides templates that may save you some of these formatting headaches.

Like a temperamental two-year-old, I wanted to do it myself. But my frustrating first experience led me to save that finally-formatted MS as a new document and plug in the text for my second novel. No way was I going to put myself through that section-formatting meat grinder again!

I can’t tell you exactly how to format your document, partly because I don’t remember it all myself, but mostly because your situation and the knowledge you bring to bear on it differs from mine.

But I sure wish someone had explained that “Link to Previous” thing to me earlier. It would have been like someone saying, “But the show time has changed. It doesn’t actually start until 11:30, so you’ve got plenty of time to chat with Aunt Martha before heading over to the museum.”