There are many benefits to self-publishing your book versus a traditional publishing deal. One aspect in favor of self-publishing is the control you have over all aspects of your finished manuscript—including book formatting.
However, one downfall of the self-published author is a messy manuscript. The book formatting process is a crucial part of your readers’ experience. An unprofessional looking book layout will both distract readers—and make you look like an amateur. You want your completed self-published book to convey professionalism in all aspects.
The 5 Most Common Book Formatting Errors
In this article, you’re going to learn what the most common book formatting errors are and how to avoid them. If you have a completed manuscript with botched formatting on your hands, this article will teach you how to fix it using Microsoft Word.
1. Just Say “No!” to Hard Indents
A hard indent is when paragraph indentations are created by manual use of the keyboard’s Tab key. Many of us learned how to type using the Tab key to create an indent at the start of each paragraph, so this can be a tough habit to break. When it comes to book formatting, use of the Tab key is a no-no, because it results in an indent that’s far larger than you need.
When it comes to writing fiction, you want to have just a small indent at the start of each paragraph. If your book is non-fiction, generally speaking, you want to use block paragraphs rather than indents, unless your book is a memoir or historical fiction. (More on that in tip #2.)
If your book is fiction, you may be wondering how to create paragraphs without the Tab key. The fix is simple: In Microsoft Word, set the Paragraph settings to automatically create indentations for the first line in each paragraph. This simple auto fix will make your book formatting process way easier.
If you’re wondering how big to make your indents, my advice is pull your favorite book off the shelf, open it up, and take a peek. How big are the paragraph indents? Experiment with making yours larger or smaller, printing out the page, and comparing them to the book in your hand.
But what if your 535-page tome has already been drafted, using the dreaded Tab key for each and every paragraph? No need to set fire to your laptop! Here’s what to do to clean it up:
- Use the Find and Replace
- Enter ^t in the Find (This will help you find every “Tab” in the document.)
- Leave the Replace field blank.
- Hit Replace All.
Going forward, set your Paragraph settings so that you don’t have to remove hard indents again. Presto! You now have a much prettier, easier-to-convert document through the magic of technology.
2. Choose Carefully: Indentation vs. Block Paragraphs
Works of non-fiction today typically don’t use indentation, except for some notable exceptions we will discuss momentarily. Rather, a popular format for modern non-fiction books is the block paragraph.
What’s a block paragraph? A block paragraph doesn’t have indentation on the opening line, but instead uses a horizontal line of white space beneath each paragraph. This helps to delineate separation between paragraphs.
For instance, I used block paragraphs in my latest book Published., which looks like this:
The reasoning behind whether you should use indentation vs. block paragraphs is this: in works where one thought should flow smoothly into the next, such as in a novel, paragraph indentations are used with no line spacing between paragraphs. In books where complicated information is being consumed, having a single line space between paragraphs aids the brain in processing one piece of information before moving on to the next.
Here is an example from a fiction novel of what it looks like to use indents instead of block paragraphs:
An exception to the block paragraph for non-fiction / indents for fiction guideline: non-fiction narrative, such as a memoir or historical fiction, should use the same indent style described above in tip #1.
In non-fiction works where some information should flow, and other sections require more brain power to comprehend, some authors decide to mix formatting types and use indentation where appropriate and block paragraphs where useful. But in general, to avoid confusing the reader and to make your book look uniform, clean, and as if you didn’t make a book formatting error, it’s best to choose one style or the other and stick with it throughout your book.
However, if you insist on getting crazy and mixing it up, knowing how and when to use block paragraphs versus when to indent results in a more professional manuscript.
3. Avoid Double Spaces After Periods
Here’s the truth: Two spaces after a period is wrong. Period. (Ha!)
Just as with the good old-fashioned Tab key indent, two spaces after a period may have been the norm back when you were learning to type. This is because with typewriters, characters were all the same width, so the two-space rule allowed for greater readability. With modern computer fonts, the characters all fit closer together in proportional fashion, thereby eradicating the need for that one additional space.
Most major style guides—including the Chicago Manual of Style, which is used by traditional publishers—now formally recognize the more modern single-space rule. From an aesthetics angle, one space looks neater, which your readers’ eyes will appreciate.
Before you convert your manuscript, change all double spaces to single spaces. The result will be a better formatted, stylistically correct book. You’re going to use that super handy “Find and Replace” function again:
- Enter two spaces in the Find (This will help you find every double space in the document.)
- Enter a single space into the Replace field.
- Hit Replace All.
Voila! Like magic.
4. Be Cautious With Hyphens
Improper hyphenation is a common error that may be harder to stay on top of because the rules of hyphenation differ depending on the grammatical situation. Generally, keep these three rules in mind while you write to stay on top of your hyphens:
- Two or more words that, together, function as an adjective are joined with a hyphen. For example, dark-pink skirt or two-way street.
- Two words or more that form a number are joined with a hyphen. For example, twenty-one.
- Compound words, which are two words that are joined together to make a single word, do not require a hyphen. For example, toothbrush or starfish.
When in doubt, look it up! For a more detailed treatment of the hyphen, here is an important source to consider: Elements of Style.
5. Know When to Use Quotes vs. an Apostrophe
Few things scream “new writer” like punctuation errors. You want to make sure you’re using quotes and apostrophes correctly so you don’t lose credibility with your readers. Here are a few quick rules of thumb:
Use of Quotes
- When you’re quoting someone, use quotes! This means either a person is speaking—like in fiction—or you are borrowing material verbatim from another source, like in non-fiction.
- Use of quotes is rarely needed for common expressions.
- Ironic terms can be set off in quotes.
- Overuse of quotes can get annoying, so be judicious in their application.
Use of Apostrophes
- Use an apostrophe for possessive form (except the word its). For example: The cat’s toys are blue.
- Use an apostrophe for contractions, such as it is. For example: The cat’s playing with its toys. It’s a happy cat.
- Avoid using an apostrophe for plural forms. For example: Five cats ran past her.
Again, the rules can be complicated such as when to use an apostrophe when dealing with an acronym, so when in doubt, look it up.
Of course you want your book to stand out because of its invaluable content and amazing writing. Don’t let book formatting or grammar errors hamper your book’s success. You have all the tools you need to produce a flawless manuscript, so take the time to review your book—and hire an editor—to make sure your book formatting is perfectly professional.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March of 2016 and has been updated for accuracy.