Well, here we are…almost a week into NaNoWriMo…and I have zero words on my NaNo novel. At this point, it’s a NO novel.
But it’s for a good reason. I’ve been getting The Lords of Askalon all ready to go to press. Formatting, my friends, formatting. And that’s our topic for today. I’ll lay out some general rules of thumb for print formatting today, and then I’ll run through a checklist for reviewing your print proof later in the week. Then we’re on to ebook formatting and proofing. We’re working on something extra special for the ebook formatting tutorial…stay tuned for that! 🙂
So let’s get on with today’s topic. And I will strive throughout to use the generic terms “book” or “manuscript” instead of “story” or “novel” because formatting applies to any written work — fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.
Reading (even if it’s on an e-reader) is a visual process. Our goal is not only to produce a work that is riveting and inspiring (engaging the imagination), but also one that will delight the reader’s eyes. Formatting your manuscript may seem like the most brainless part of putting your project together, but it’s essential for a number of reasons:
- Poor formatting makes you look like a total amateur and discourages readers from buying and reading your work.
- Poor formatting distracts from your manuscript by drawing constant attention to itself
- Depending on the type of project, formatting can actually contribute to the meaning of the work. This is especially true for poetry, but font choices can add visual reinforcement to your book’s identity.
Your work represents a lot of hard work, and you should respect it and yourself. When you dress for a date or an interview, you try to look your best (I hope). First impressions, as they say, are everything. I was a judge again this year for a self-published book contest, and formatting is one of the very first things I look at when I open my box of submissions. Some manuscripts were incredibly professional: beautiful paper quality, excellent font choices, perfect margins and spacing and text layout. I couldn’t wait to dig into those. Then there were the Others. One manuscript looked like the author had printed it out on a dot matrix printer. (If you don’t remember what a dot matrix printer churns out, go look at this example.) It was double-spaced and used courier font…it looked like a rough draft or a school project, not a professional piece of writing. (Sadly, the writing was no better than the formatting.)
Here’s the point: the manuscripts that looked professionally put together made me want to read them. The Others? Not so much. And I certainly wouldn’t shell out $9.95+ for a print book with
hideous unprofessional formatting.
Sometimes, bad formatting is like cheap cologne. It’s not immediately, shockingly apparent. It smells okay in the bottle. But God forbid you actually spritz some on before you head out the door. The more time passes, the more bothersome the smell becomes. No one notices your new bag or your incredible smile. They just smell that cheap cologne. Annoyingly imperfect formatting is exactly like this. It limps along for a while, but grows increasingly irritating to the reader, who eventually tosses the book aside. She loses her grip on the story because all she can think is, “Why are there so many spaces between paragraphs? Why is that margin so huge? Why are the chapter headings in a different place each time?”
Here are a few easy steps you can take to avoid the cheap cologne effect of poor formatting:
1. Choose an appropriate trim size. Take a look at some of your favorite books in your genre. Most trade fiction books, for example, are not 8.25″x11″. 5.25″x8″ or 6″x9″ are much more common choices. If you’re writing a cookbook or a nonfiction book, a larger trim size might be appropriate. Children’s books are something else again. Look at what’s out there, find a professional example, and imitate! No shame in that!
2. Follow the template or formatting instructions provided by your chosen press. CreateSpace, for example, has downloadable templates that are already proportioned to your chosen trim size – taking all the guesswork out of margin sizing, header organization, and the like. You’re not cheating if you use a template. You’re saving yourself a lot of pain and tears, trust me.
3. Choose an appropriate text and title font.
- Consider the type of book you’re writing. If it’s trade fiction or nonfiction, you’ll want a clear, neutral font for your text. Palatino Linotype, Times New Roman, Book Antiqua, Garamond, Georgia, Bookman Old Style are all possibilities here (though this isn’t an exhaustive list).
- If you’re writing a children’s book, you could choose a font that’s a bit more whimsical, but remember that if your font is too crazy, young readers (your primary audience) will have a hard time with it.
- Courier is fine for a screenplay. It is not fine for a novel.
- Your title/heading fonts can be a bit more fun, and should reflect the book’s subject and genre. A calligraphic script, for instance, might work well for a romance or historical fiction work. Remember the cardinal rule of moderation: running totally wild with font choices marks the book as amateurish.
- Don’t choose too many fonts. If you want to choose more than one font, one for the text and one for chapter headings/page numbers/headers should do you just fine.
4. Single space your work. Use a hanging indent (not a tab) to set off your paragraphs — don’t add an extra space between them.
5. Be consistent. Fonts, margin sizes, indents, headers, page numbers…all these should be exactly the same throughout.
6. Don’t box in your text with borders. This might sound like a no-brainer, but I have seen manuscripts where this is done. It’s highly irritating and distracting. If you want to mark your chapters with a symbol or a glyph that has significance to the story, that’s fine – just make sure it’s proportional to the text.
7. Justify your text. Be sure to set your word processor to break words across lines so that you don’t have weird spacing. Also make sure to select widow/orphan control so that you don’t have straggling bits of lines on an otherwise blank page.
Ensuring proper formatting before you send your manuscript off to press will save you a lot of time and trouble in the next step: reviewing your proof. Remember, you are working for visual simplicity and clarity. Make it beautiful – your work deserves it!