5 Manuscript Formatting Mistakes that Cost You Time and Money (and What to Do Instead) - Magic Words Editorial Services
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5 Manuscript Formatting Mistakes that Cost You Time and Money (and What to Do Instead)

The first thing I do when I get a manuscript to edit is apply simple formatting changes that make editing easier and quicker. But I see a lot that need way more work than my light changes can fix, and sometimes I’ll hear from my formatter/book designer friends that they often have to charge authors for formatting mistakes they can easily clean up themselves. If you’re an indie author doing your own formatting, avoiding these mistakes will save you lots of headaches later on.

Save your dollars and your sanity! Here are five manuscript formatting mistakes that cost you time and money and what to do instead. (And read to the end for a huge tip that will make finding and fixing these mistakes a thousand times easier.)

What is a formatter?

First, in case you’ve never used one or want to in the future, let’s define who a formatter is and what they do. Also called a book designer or an interior designer, a formatter designs the layout and look of the pages of your book. They usually work in Adobe InDesign or another layout program to take your manuscript text and turn it into a proper book, with fancy chapter titles, scene breaks, ornaments, and other styling. Much like editing, book formatting is a professional skill that involves time and effort. When the raw product⁠⁠—your text—is a hot mess, or needs to be reworked due to formatting mistakes you inserted, that can mean extra time and money charged to you. Or if you’re doing it yourself, extra hours spent fixing the mess.

What does a formatter do?

A formatter will consult with you on ways to make your book appear fabulous. Here are a variety of tasks a formatter can and might complete during their work on your manuscript:

  • Identify any special formatting in the text you want to keep like bolding, italics, centering, or small caps
  • Help you choose fonts and typefaces for your text, chapter headings, section titles, etc.
  • Assist you in deciding on a trim (paper) size
  • Set the margin, header, and footer sizes that are right for the book’s look and feel
  • Add page numbers
  • Make chapter headings and subheadings look stylish

If you’re an indie author planning to do your own formatting, you’ll be the one making all these decisions. Without someone to guide you, it’s even more important to understand the potential pitfalls and mistakes that might make formatting your book much harder.

Mistake #1: Applying your own “special” formatting in Word

Word is not a formatting software. While it can do basic formatting tasks, anyone who has ever tried to place an image without breaking the entire world knows it has extreme limitations in creating a properly designed document, much less a professional-looking book. If a book designer has to spend time stripping out Word’s clown show antics from your manuscript, that’s going to cost you clown show money (i.e., a lot). 

If you mix fonts, text alignments, paragraph spacing, or apply other inconsistent Word-specific formatting throughout, your book designer will have to spend time either standardizing everything or consulting with you on “special case” circumstances. Both will require more time, which translates into higher costs.

Mistake #2: Using tabs for indentation or text alignment

Hands up: Who’s used the tab key to create a paragraph indent or center text? Don’t. Extra tabs do funny things in formatting software and will need to be stripped out completely. The tab key should be off limits for anything in your manuscript. I explain a better way to create indented paragraphs later in this post.

Mistake #3: Making extra hard or soft returns

The same goes for hitting the Enter key multiple times (a hard return) or using Shift + Enter (called a soft return) to create a new page or a scene break. (I’m so guilty of this!) Formatters prefer single hard returns, even between chapters and scenes (see the next mistake), and will have to spend time stripping out the extras.

Mistake #4: Inserting page and scene breaks

I love the page break function of Word to create a new page. But formatters don’t. As contrary as it might seem to our writer or editor brains—we like signposts, such as starting a new chapter on a new page, to help us navigate through a huge manuscript—formatters prefer having the text run continuously. They want to work directly with you to determine proper layout and placement of chapter and scene breaks, and Word’s page break function or multiple hard returns make that more difficult.

Mistake #5: Adding extra spaces

Those of us of a certain age remember the days of two spaces after a period. Sorry to say for reasons other than punctuation, those days are long gone. Single spaces only, for anything, is now standard practice in most forms of writing and especially in fiction manuscripts.

Additionally, there should be no spaces around em or en dashes, and ellipses should be formed by the ellipsis character (reach out if you want to know how to do that) rather than three spaced periods.

How to avoid formatting mistakes in the first place

Word does come with some features that will make your formatter’s (and your) life easier when they work on your manuscript and prevent these mistakes right off the bat. You can also apply a publishing standard template for manuscript formatting that will take care of a lot of these issues and give you a head start if you decide to query agents (they really like it).

Follow the Shunn method

Created by William Shun back in the dinosaur age, the Shunn method is, generally speaking, a standard industry format most publishing houses use as the foundation for their preferred manuscript styling. It lays out font, line spacing, margin size, indentation, and other formatting considerations, and is fairly easy to follow. I highly recommend all authors, indie or traditional, learn it and use it.

Use Word’s Styles feature

Word has a feature called Styles that allows you to set formatting for various parts of a document (body text, heading, etc.) and apply them to a word, paragraph, chapter, etc. with one click. You can modify existing styles or create your own. So, for example, if you want to make all your chapter titles be 16 pt., bold, and centered, you can create a style with this information, highlight a chapter title, and apply the style with a click of a button.

Use heading styles for chapters

In fact, if you use Word styles for chapter titles, it creates handy navigation in the Navigation pane that lets you click through the document chapter by chapter. (Instead of, say, making bookmarks for every. single. chapter. Oy.) Your editor will thank you for this.

Apply consistent scene break signals

If your work contains scene breaks, use a consistent symbol (usually *** or ###) to signal the break. End one scene, make one hard return (hit the Enter key), type your chosen scene break signal, make another hard return. Your formatter can now search through your document to find all the scene breaks using this symbol.

Create paragraphs with paragraph styles

Much like Word’s Style features, it also allows you to create universal styles for paragraphs. No more tab indents!

Head to your Paragraph tile/ribbon menu. Find the arrow in the corner and click it. A screen will pop up where you can choose the formatting that will apply to all of your paragraphs in the document. (For example, indentation set at First line 0.5”, line spacing double, etc.)

HUGE TIP: Use the pilcrow

Here’s a massive pro tip that will make your life much easier when trying to clean up your manuscript: use the pilcrow function to reveal all the formatting in your document.

You might have switched this on accidentally once or twice in your life and had a mini freakout at all the weird symbols and characters that appeared. Don’t worry! Here’s where to find it and how to turn it on or off.
In Word’s toolbar or ribbon, go to the Paragraph option. The pilcrow button looks like this:
Click it to turn it on. The symbols that appear in your document show you every format or style applied to your text: hard returns use the paragraph symbol (same as the pilcrow button symbol), spaces are dots, tabs are arrows, etc.
Being able to see the formatting in this way will help you find and fix the mistakes you might have inserted.
There are a lot more tips and tricks for Word that would make your formatter put you on their dream client list, but these are the basics to get you started. If you’re a Word novice and need help finding or applying any of this advice, definitely reach out and I’ll be glad to help you. If you use Google Docs or some other manuscript software to draft your book, good luck to you and maybe consider switching. Word, for all its flaws and frustrations, is still the de facto choice in publishing. For many good reasons