Tuesday, November 13, 2018

How much of a pain in the ass can you be?

This post is about formatting not asshattery.

When you send your manuscript in some sort of crazy ass format as though it's a printed book
*justified right margins
*drop cap on the first sentence in a chapter

or you just don't pay attention
*two spaces between words
*interchangeable single and double quote marks.

or you don't know how to use the tools in your word processing program
*hitting return at the end of* when you think you're at the end of the line rather than letting the program do it for you.

Example: This sentence is going along nicely, and you think the end of the page
is coming up so you hit return at the end of "page", instead of waiting. That puts a return in the middle of a sentence if I change the font or the size of the font. If you let the program do it, you can adjust font/size with no problem. See below.

Example: This sentence is going along nicely, and you think the end of the page is coming up so you hit return at the end of "page", instead of waiting. If you let the program do it instead you end up with what I've written here.

 *Thank you Kate for asking the question that showed me this needed clarification.

*hitting returns to mark page breaks rather than using the "insert page break" command
*Using five spaces rather than the tab key
*Using the tab key instead of the command for "indent first line by five spaces"

I have two choices: send it back to you with a blunt "fix this" or do it myself.

Update: I should mention here that I don't care if hire someone to fix this stuff. I don't care who does it as long as it's Not Me.  If you know this kind of formatting thing is a weakness, get help. I'm not going to make you pass a test on formatting to sign you.  I'm ONLY going to read your pages.

Often times it's just easier to do it myself since it's clear you don't know how or didn't care enough to proof read. Plus, I discover these things when I'm reading your requested full, and I'd rather just read it and see what you've got.

So, sometimes I'll overlook this.
Cause I'm not stupid.

Write well enough and I (or more likely you) can  hire someone to fix this stuff.

But the kicker is write well enough.

And the hurdle for how well you have to write goes up every time I have to adjust/fix/correct anything.

The baseline hurdle is you have to write as well or better than the front list books currently on the shelf.

That means if you write crime, you have to be as good or better than Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly etc.

I don't expect you to be better than Patrick Lee. I'm not insane.
Or Lee Child.

But you've got to be playing in the big leagues to have a shot at being published.

Making stupid formatting errors raises that hurdle.
Don't set yourself an impossible leap by being careless with formatting.
If you need to, get a second set of eyes on your ms.
Make sure you know what standard formatting IS, and use it.

If you don't know, ASK.

Any questions?


DeadSpiderEye said...

Yeah is it okay if I use Bembo?

Kate said...

I might end up looking foolish here, but I have a question about:

> *hitting return at the end of sentence rather than letting the program do so

I thought I had a pretty good grasp on my Word processor, but this has me stumped. How does Word do this? And how does it know if the sentence is mid-paragraph or not?

Am I missing something?

Janet Reid said...

Kate Thank you for that question. It showed me I needed a better explanation and illustration, which are now in the post.

I'm always glad to get this kind of question. If you don't understand something, it's dollars to donuts the explanation needs work, not you.

Colin Smith said...

How much of a pain in the ass can you be?

After all this time, Janet, and you have to ask? ;)

Seriously, if you take the time to learn your software (and you don't have to be expert--just learn what you need to know), writing an outstanding novel should be the most difficult challenge. And it is. I'm rejecting ideas left, right, and center at the moment because I'm not compelled by them. And if I'm not compelled I sure as heck can't write a better-than-Michael Connelly or equal-to-Patrick Lee (nytba).


Kate said...

Thank you, Janet! That makes total sense now.

(And thankfully, I've not been doing this.)

Amy Johnson said...

Thanks, Janet. I so don't want to be one of those.

For what it's worth, back when I learned to type, two spaces were required between sentences. When the time came to switch to one space, I thought the change would be challenging, that my brain would keep wanting to do as it had been trained. Surprisingly not so. There may be some lessons in that--something for me to ponder later, perhaps. For now, back to my WIP.

Colin Smith said...

Amy: I resisted the change to one-space for a while. I saw it as another example of Microsoft's tyranny expecting the whole world to change decades of two-space-after-the-period practice because they declared a new norm. I don't know for certain if the change was because of Microsoft, but in the end I decided of all the hills worth dying on this wasn't one of them. :)

Timothy Lowe said...

"...if you write crime, you have to be as good or better than Dennis Lehane."

A crystal-clear way to think about publishing - competition. I love a good challenge.

Sigh. Back to work!

Sherry Howard said...

I have a question. In formatting, I learned to manually erase the indent on the first paragraph of each chapter. This seems contradictory to the rest of this? Is that a big deal, or no? Thanks!

Colin Smith said...

Sherry: I'm going to venture an answer based on my reading. Hopefully if I'm wrong, Janet will set us both straight. Indent all paragraphs, even beginning of chapter paras. At the query submission stage it's all about making sure the agent enjoys your story and isn't distracted by messy or odd formatting. Also, the closer to correct your formatting is, the less work the agent will need to do when submitting to publishers. Deleting beginning-of-chapter indents seems to me more work than is necessary, and may not be necessary at all.

That's my take fwiw.

Amy Johnson said...

Colin: I resisted for a while, too. Yet another lesson ... :)

Craig F said...

Back in the dawn of the word processor era, you could bring up the formatting queue. It was amazing how much extraneous crud got clogged up in what looked like it was well constructed.

Then, as is true now, email didn't really get along with document formats. The safest thing you could do was to minimize the things email could grab a-hold of and garble.

I still hit return for paragraph breaks, though I know that the tab at the beginning of a sentence is the way the program prefers it. Some habits.

Anonymous said...

I *just* learned about page break commands after writing for ... 8 years? I also did not know up until a few years ago that agents didn't want you to justify your margins. It drives me nuts having it unjustified when I'm drafting so I just have to remember to change it before submitting. Another thing I just saw in a CP's manuscript, she's new to writing--format your dashes correctly (which I'm not really bothering to do in this comment form because I'm used to Word autocorrecting.)

I also had a question about new chapters/scenes being indented or not. I've had people say indent, others say, don't indent. My latest MS went to agents without indents. Before I continue querying I'd love some clarification!

Also had conflicting feedback on where the chapters should start on the page--top of the page? Middle of the page like a book? Should Chapter One be in a bigger font? Bah.

Stacy said...

I still hit return for paragraph breaks, though I know that the tab at the beginning of a sentence is the way the program prefers it. Some habits.

I'm confused about what this means. I hit "return" at the end of each paragraph. Are we not supposed to hit any returns at all?

I don't use "tab" for new paragraphs--I just have my ruler set up so that the beginning of each paragraph is indented half an inch from the right side of the left margin.

Elissa M said...

Well, I use Scrivener. It's been a little bit of a learning curve because it doesn't really do the formatting until you tell it. You "compile" your work for the program you're going to send it in--Word, epub, whatever. You tell it the formatting at that time, page breaks, chapter breaks, etc.

Though the "compile" confuses me a little, the actual working environment is 1000x better than any program I've used.

Amy Johnson said...

Ditto what Stacy said. Really hoping to learn the answer to that.

Probably not as big of a deal, but I'd also like to get this right in my manuscript: I center chapter headings by switching from align left to center, but before typing in my chapter heading, I hit backspace so the chapter heading will be truly centered on the page. (Without hitting backspace, the centering starts from .5" from the left--because that is how I've formatted the first line--rather than centering starting from all the way to the left.) Should I stop hitting backspace to get rid of the auto-indent? Thanks for any help.

Janet Reid said...

The best way to format a ms is the way that will survive font type and size changes. For example you Tab to start a new paragraph rather than spaces so that the indent is always .5 inches. Spaces in Courier and TNR are different sizes.

It's easier to use commands beause I can change the command if I need to rather than finding 1,403,201 instances of something.

The Noise In Space said...

I don't even know what commands are in Word. Guess I've got some research to do tonight.

Casey Karp said...

Colin, and others: I still do two spaces after a sentence because I find it more readable, especially when printed out. I figure if my agent (once I snare one of the wily beasts) says "NO!" and slaps my wrists with a ruler, I'll add "Search and replace two spaces with one space" to my final manuscript cleanup routine. For the record, that currently includes changing from single-space to double-space and cleaning up all those extraneous returns that sneak in before the end-of-chapter page break.

As for chapter headings, I make use of Word's style feature. My main body text is set to left justify, indent first line of paragraph, but the Chapter Head style is centered and no indentation. That solves Amy's "must backspace" problem.

Styles are confusing, but they sure make life easier once you figure them out!

Adele said...

When we write by hand, our letters are automatically spaced appropriately. When we started using typewriters, that spacing was no longer possible. Putting two spaces at the end of a typewritten sentence made it easier for readers to see that a new sentence had started. We all got used to it. About 80 years later we created digital printing, which automatically inserts appropriate spacing, but two spaces is now the norm and a lot of people don't want to go back. It'll take time.

But - Colin? - it's not Microsoft's fault.

Colin Smith said...

Adele: I'm not sure where I got it into my head back in the mid-90s that MS was responsible for the change to single space after a period. I'm sure I didn't make it up, but it could have been urban myth. In any case, single-space is the way of things now, which works well for Twitter. :)

Old Joke: How many Microsoft employees does it take to change a lightbulb? None. They just make darkness the new standard. ;)

Janet Reid said...

I should also be clear that I don't care if YOU or someone else (someone you hire, your spouse, your kid, your feline overlord) formats the ms, as long as it arrives Readable at the Reef.

Amy Johnson said...

Thanks, Casey. That should work just right.

KDJames said...

For anyone confused about MSWord's "style" feature (formatting), this resource is invaluable (not gonna do a hot link to AMZ, as I'm not sure that's cool with Janet, even though it's a FREE guide, so copy and paste):


Yes, it's meant for people wanting to self-pub with Smashwords, but it's the best guide I've ever read about how to use Word's formatting features. Clear and concise, there are even screenshots of some steps. I swear, the way MS writes their instructions it's like they don't want you to know how to use their software. As someone said above, I'd been using Word for decades and never knew some of this stuff. So helpful.

John Davis Frain said...

Dollars to donuts cracks me up. There was a time that would have meant long odds. But based on my last trek into Dunkin', I think the phrase now a) reverses (Donuts to dollars) and b) represents about even odds.

On an unrelated note, when you get the to Reef late and read all these comments at once, your head starts to feel like Mt. St. Helen's. Watch out, family, I'm about to blow! Blame Microsoft!

Also, I have to write something better than Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island? That's like telling a young hockey player he has to skate better than Wayne Gretzky. Just quit now! Save yourself the heartache!

Okay, okay, back to editing. I've learned to welcome heartache.

JEN Garrett said...

My question is: is Google docs still messing with people's carefully tabbed paragraphs, or did they finally fix that?

I heard awhile ago about writers who worked in Google docs (access anywhere!), and then downloaded them to MS Word, and lo and behold every blasted paragraph of their 300-some-odd page novel was five-spaced instead of tabbed. Arrg! I hope Google got a clue on that one. If not, check it before you hit send Writers.

David said...

Hey Janet: That blog where I originally posted this went belly up. In case you're interested, I moved it to my personal blog. Here's a link:


I don't know if you remember, but you tweeted the original out a while back.

roadkills-r-us said...

Casey beat me to the punch, but let me go a step farther.
If you aren't using styles for everything, start a fake document (or a new one, at least), and start playing with them. There are a lot of preset styles, but you can change those (at least in LibreOffice, which I like *much* better than Word, but I assume in Word as well), and you can add your own.
Find or create a style for everything- standard paragraph, quotations, chapter heads, etc. Have your way with them. Pick a font you like and apply it to the default paragraph style; all the others will inherit it unless they have something else forcibly set. If what you like isn't what agents want, just change the default style and apply it before producing the version you will send out.

And if you can at all afford it, get an editor involved before sending your ms. A good editor will catch the stuff Janet mentioned, but also lots of spelling and grammar issues. If you know people who will do it for free, great, but it's worth running a few chapters by a pro, to see if the freebies and you have caught everything.

Joseph S. said...

I'm not sure where I got the idea, but I was under the impression the paragraph indent should be three spaces, not five. I thought WORD default was wrong so I changed it. And had to individually change the indent the times it reverted to five spaces. A Big Pain. Now you tell me I went to a lot of trouble for nothing, and in fact may have to change it back. Ugh.

P.S. - It does looks nicer with three space indents.