How to Format a Book: 7 Money-Sucking Book Format Mistakes to Avoid

Self-publishing has changed everything.

Before, you were at the mercy of your publisher on how your book format looked, but today, you have control over this entire process.

In fact, you have the final say over everything in your finished manuscript is displayed. Therefore, knowing the proper book format you need is crucial. And with great power comes great responsibility.

If you’re not careful, you may end up with a sloppy and messy manuscript that an editor will refuse to work on until you tidy it up.

Or worse, your audience will slam your book with negative reviews because you published it riddled with errors.

An unprofessional looking book will not only distract readers, it will harm your brand and label you as an amateur, affecting the sales of future books as well as your current one.

book formatting

Your completed self-published book should convey professionalism in all aspects – including with its book format. In faact, if budget permits, you may consider hiring a professional formatter.

Here’s mistakes to avoid when formatting your book:

  1. Avoid hard indents
  2. Indentations vs block paragraphs
  3. Avoid double spaces after periods
  4. Be cautious with hyphens
  5. Quotes vs Apostrophes
  6. Be careful with the “enter” key
  7. Use the Style feature

NOTE: We cover everything in this blog post and much more about the writing, marketing, and publishing process in ourVIP Self-Publishing Program. Learn more by clicking here!

7 Money-Sucking Book Format Mistakes

There are over a hundred things that can go wrong with your book formatting, and if we wrote about all of them you’d be reading from sun-up till sun-down. But fear not!

From our experience, most authors make the same mistakes when with their book format.

In this article, you’re going to learn what the most common book formatting errors and how to avoid them. By avoiding these mistakes, not only will you have a professional looking manuscript, but you’ll make the process of designing your book to publish on Amazon’s Kindle or in print via CreateSpace a lot easier.

If you have a completed manuscript with botched book formatting on your hands, this article will teach you how to fix it using Microsoft Word.

(A quick note: it’s possible to do many of the fixes in Google Docs, however, Word has a more comprehensive set of features, so it’s better to use that when formatting your complete manuscript.)

#1 – Avoid Hard Indents in Your Book Format

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.

With fiction book formatting, 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 MS Word, set the Paragraph settings to automatically create indentations for the first line in each paragraph.

This simple auto fix will make creating your book format way easier. In Word 2016, on both Mac & Windows, to get to Paragraph settings, click the Paragraph dialog box launcher on the Home or Layout tab.   Then on the Indents and Spacing tab, go to the box under Special and click on First line. You can change the size of the indent using the box to the right.

If you’re wondering how big to make your indents, my advice is to 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 Find and Replace (Ctrl+H or Control+H or here’s how to find it in Word 2016 on Mac and on Windows.)
  • 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 that will make your book format much more professional-looking.

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#2 – 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 book format for modern non-fiction 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 the separation between paragraphs.

For instance, I used block paragraphs in my latest book Published., which looks like this:

how to format a nonfiction book

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.

But 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, The Savior’s Champion by full-time, self-published author Jenna Moreci of what it looks like to use indents instead of block paragraphs:

how to format a fiction book

An exception to the block paragraph for non-fiction/indents for fiction guideline: non-fiction narrativessuch 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 a 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.

So when it comes to your book format, you’ll have to do some research.

Generally, keep these three rules in mind while you write so you’ll have to do less work when it’s time for book formatting:

  • 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.
  • Two or more separate words that are used as a single word or idea. For example, action-grabbing, top-notch, or larger-than-life.
book format

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 a book formatted with punctuation errors. You want to make sure you’re using quotes and apostrophes correctly so you don’t lose credibility with your readers.

When to use quotes in your book format:

  • 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.

When to use 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.

#6 – Be Careful When Using the Enter Key

There are many times in your book you’ll want to go to a new page or to create a blank page.

This is simple right? Hit enter a few times, and presto, you’ve got a new page.

Wrong.

format a book

Using paragraph breaks, or hitting enter to create a new page can create many problems when it comes to getting your manuscript ready to publish.

For instance, you or your book designer will need to change your page size or page setup according to the book size and style you’ve chosen.

Using paragraph breaks will create extra space where none is needed and will change the page layouts of your book, making your book look ugly.

If you’re wondering why after you change your paper size, your chapter headings are no longer at the top of the page, but halfway down, it was because of your liberal use of paragraph breaks.

Instead, use the page break function.

This instantly creates a new page, and it remains a new page even when you’ve changed the page size, page layout, or added more content above. On Microsoft Word, this can be done by pressing Ctrl+Enter (Windows) or Cmd+Enter (Mac).

You can also find it in the ribbon in Word. Google Docs also has this feature. In Word 2016 go to Insert > Page Break In Google Docs go to Insert > Break > Page Break

#7 – Use the Styles Feature Instead of Formatting Yourself

Stop formatting your chapter titles yourself. Many writers indicate a title or subtitle by simply changing the font size and changing the font from the default font (ah, Times New Roman, how we miss you) and thinking their job is done.

This makes navigating and formatting your book a pain.

What you want to do is use MS Word’s “Styles” feature. Google Docs also has this feature. In Word 2016, you can find the Styles section under the Home tab on both Mac & Windows.

In Google Docs the styles section can be found by clicking the box between the zoom level and the font type.

When creating a new chapter, highlight the chapter heading, and then make it a header by applying the relevant style. If it’s the main heading make it “Heading 1”, if it’s a subtitle make it “Heading 2”, etc.

This has the added benefit of allowing you to easily automatically create a table of contents page, or to navigate through your 30,000-word manuscript with Word’s navigation pane, while also making your book format look professional.

You Need a Proper Book Format

Without question you want your book to stand out because of its invaluable content, stunning tone of voice, and laser targeted towards your audience.

However, don’t let your book formatting or grammatical errors get in the way of your book’s success. If you’ve written your book, and are ready to get it published, follow the guide you just read to make sure your manuscript isn’t full of errors.

For tips on how to format your book for Kindle, it’s best to follow Amazon’s comprehensive guide on the matter. It will help you design your title page on a different first page, your copyright page, trimming to the correct paper size, and the million other things you need to do to get your book ready for print.

Chandler Bolt

Chandler is the host of the Self Publishing School podcast & the author of 6 bestselling books including his most recent book titled “Published.”. He’s also the founder & CEO of Self-Publishing School, the #1 online resource for writing your first book. Self Publishing School made the INC 5000 in 2018 (#2,699) as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the US. Through his books, podcast, training videos, and Self-Publishing School, he’s helped thousands of people on their journey to writing their first book.

Comments From The Community


30 thoughts on “How to Format a Book: 7 Money-Sucking Book Format Mistakes to Avoid”

  • Chris Pierce says:

    Thank you Chandler. I was just having a mini panic attack because of the double spaces between sentences. Never thought of the find replace. What a life saver! I got my book back from the editor and all she said needed corrections were the formatting. But, the tough changes are formatting for me.

  • Paula Radell says:

    A great reminder. The double space after a period is my downfall. But I’m working in Scrivener and I don’t know how to fix it there. I’ve got the paragraphs preset, but before I convert it in Scrivener I’ll have to get that sorted. *bangs head on desk*

  • Bill McCarthy says:

    Thanks Chandler, sometimes the proofreading can be the hardest part. When I first saw your heading, I thought you might be talking about formatting for e-books. I’m at a point with two novels where I am working toward publishing first as e-books. Any advice there?

    • eBooks are the reason for the rule change fro “tabs” to “first-line indents.” The ereader software usually ignores tabs. if you’re just printing hardcopy, you can keep using tabs.

  • Otakara Klettke says:

    Thanks Chandler! I’m guilty of hard indents. I’m being deep into self editing now and your information came just in time!

  • I make mine with the space bar and the enter key, but I’m going to try this out just to make sure there are no extra spaces.

    Something that I see often in Wattpad books is that sentences will have exta spaces in them. That’s another mistake to eatch out for.

  • Stephanie A. Jones says:

    Chandler, thanks for this; will follow up on it. But right now, what is the ^ key in ^t for finding the tabs stand for? Is that “shift” or “alt” or “control” or fn” etc., on a Mac? Thanks!

    • “Control.” Learned that on a PC, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same for Macs. (Learned that back in making batch programs in DOS. ^Z is what you hit to say “I’m done with the program, exit the DOS editor.”)

  • Peter Rogers says:

    I would add, don’t use the return key to add spare lines under chapter headings, because you’ll never get it the same across the whole book. Instead, set each heading as a ‘heading’ to differentiate it from the body text and use the ‘space after’ setting in the format menu to apply to all headings.

  • I’m slightly confused. I found the paragraph settings, but when I adjusted the indent, it moved the entire paragraph. I can’t find a way to just indent the first line. What am I missing here?

    • You’re looking at “paragraph indent” and not selecting an option called “first line indent.” If you’re using a simple word processor like Jarte or WordPad, rather than a “full-feature” processor like Word or OpenOffice, you may not have the option to first-line indent.

  • Thanks especially for explaining hard indents and no double spaces after periods. Knowing the reasons behind the changes from the old school methods helps to make great sense of these two topics.

    • Usually, you only want left-justified. While true desktop publishers (that can tweak spacing between letters as well as words) can do a good job with full justification, common word processors can only adjust the spacing between words, which creates unattractive “rivers” in the text when using full justification.

  • I hate the “first-line indent.” It seems that no matter how deep I set the indent, the tabs look right and the indents don’t. Not only did I grow up in the “Don’t use spaces, use tabs!” era of pre-web desktop publishing, but I often write “seeds” in a simple word processor (that doesn’t support first-line indent) and cut-and-paste them to a full-feature word processor when they’ve fully “sprouted” and I’ve decided where they fit in the book.

    And BTW, the “one space after a period” rule depends on the font you’re using, not whether you’re using a computer or not. If you’re using a non-proportional (monospace) font like Courier or Lucida, you still need to be double-spacing, even if you’re on a computer.

  • Alaskan Wanderer says:

    I find your suggestions quite useful, so if I seem to ‘flame’ one item, it is from personal experience, not from my thinking I am right and you are wrong. That item is the single space/double space issue. Having been in programming and computers for more than forty years, when this issue popped up a number of years ago, I did a little research and found an interesting alternative explanation. Talking to a number of editors and reading books produced by conventional publishers I see far more double spaces than single. Looking at self published books and books published by ‘purely electronic’ publishers, I see far more single than double spaces. So I looked at the timing on this issue. When did it start to happen? It seems single spacing, after discussions with other computer programmers, comes from the need to economize on space. Texting on phones and email appear to be the first places it occurred. It was and in most cases still is an automated feature written into the programming to drop the ‘extraneous’ spaces. After further discussions with English teachers, the young ones say it does not matter. The older, ‘hard core’ English teachers will still mark you wrong if you don’t double space. The long and short of it is simple… I prefer the look of a double space. It is visually neater. It is my preferred way of structuring sentences. And, amusingly, this posting program is likely programmed to remove any double spaces…. for economy reasons.

  • Patches Rips says:

    I long ago stopped using tab to indent paragraphs and broke myself of the double-spacing between sentences habit back when YouTube had that 500-character comment limit. But lately, even in fiction writing, I’ve gotten away from indenting paragraphs altogether and depend now on paragraph spacing as my signal that a new paragraph’s beginning. Increasingly, text set like that looks cramped and claustrophobic to me. As well, I tend to write long stretches where characters interact one-to-one in dialog, and after a certain number of such lines, the indentation tends to become “the new normal” of the left margin… then BANG, suddenly, there’s this half-centimetre jerk back to the left. If everything is always flush left, that never happens. The text has breathing room and there’s an implied space to pause and reflect between the paragraphs that I’m really beginning to value. It also gives me the ability to insert brief pieces of poetry, separated from the main body by the paragraph spacing, but kept tight by using hard returns.

    So much of what we do and read nowadays is online, where this has long been the standard, that I think it’s just natural people will transfer over to it in text. It does use marginally more paper, but it gives my stories an airier, more open feel, and I’ll be surprised if, 20 or 30 years from now, indented fiction doesn’t look pinched and old-fashioned to people who, let’s face it, see the world written in flush-left block text.

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