Because It’s Not Just About Typing

Since word processors became popular, authors have had a tendency to use them mostly as glorified typewriters.  But they aren’t.  They have far greater capabilities.

As a literary agent and author coach, I frequently spend hours reformatting and cleaning up manuscripts.  In days past, this was mostly about spelling- and grammar-checking.  But now it’s nearly full-fledged typesetting.  Editors today are reading nearly every submission on a Sony Reader or Kindle or iPad and I believe they therefore have higher expectations of the works.  Gone are the days where editors were reading second-generation photocopies.  Editors want clean manuscripts free of the distraction created by formatting errors.

And for self-publishers, the formatting is even more important.  Readers buying your self-published book want clean formatting and books free of typos, but getting there is pretty hard without hours and hours of looking hard at your material.

There are three important tools in this process and authors should get familiar with them:

Search & Replace

Recently I got a manuscript from an author I’m now representing on the agency side.  He’s a successfully self-published author.  But when I opened up the file, I saw plenty of room for improvement.  The first thing I do is reveal all of the non-printing codes.  Then I start globally searching and replacing for standard errors, like space-paragraph mark and paragraph mark-space.  These can easily be fixed to be just paragraph marks.  If I want only a single space between sentences, I get rid of all the instances of two spaces.

I also prefer a true ellipsis rather than the single-character version.  So I search for that character and I replace with a non-breaking space-period-non-breaking space-period-non-breaking space-period-breaking space.  This will force the program to keep that ellipsis with the word that precedes it on the same line and force the line break to come either before that preceding word or after the ellipsis.

Em-dashes may appear as two hyphens sometimes with spaces on either side.  There should be no spaces and so I search for versions of it and replace with an actual em-dash (—) without spaces before and after.

And, of course, I look for common errors that show up throughout the manuscript.  Authors who use tabs often have tab-paragraph mark combinations on blank lines.  I turn those into just paragraph marks.  Authors also often have extra blank lines instead of a single line with a centered hashtag (#) to indicate an intended line space.  Or they use asterisks or a line or something else to indicate an intended line space.  I clean those up also.

Studying your manuscripts for patterns can lead to some quick and easy fixes using search and replace.  Remember, every character, even non-printing characters, can throw off the formatting of an eBook or even a printed book, so you don’t want them there if you don’t need them.

Styles

I confess I ignored styles for years.  I would lecture my clients to not “desktop publish” their manuscripts and to simply use basic formatting and let the typesetter handle the rest.  But let’s face it:  agents and editors today may have grown up with computers (unlike, say, me) and thus they may expect something more than plain vanilla formatting.  Thus, I may assign a style for chapter numbers, chapter names, location cues, first paragraph (not indented) and body text.  And perhaps even more.  The nice thing about styles is that once assigned you can edit one instance and apply it everywhere else that style is used.  So if you are self-publishing in printed form, you can play with different fonts and spacing easily.

Macros

I wrote my first macros in WordPerfect 4.2, I think.  Yes, DOS.  Most users have no idea what they are and would never use them, but they can be very helpful.  Macros are basically little programs that can replace repetitive tasks.  For example, for some reason the page numbers in this manuscript would restart with each section.  And nothing I did seemed to change that.  Each section header needed to be edited to get the numbering to be continuous.  I had done about a quarter of the book when I realized I could write a macro that would do it for me.  Granted, I had to click “run” on the macro about 50 times but it was alot faster than doing it manually.

The other macro I built (thanks to http://word.mvps.org/faqs/general/usingwildcards.htm) searched for paragraph marks followed by lower-case characters.  This essentially is searching for accidental returns in the middle of a line.  I didn’t think I could do it but, thanks to the Internet, I found this site that explained enough about wildcards that I realized that I could search for “^13[a-z]” and that would find them.  I still have to fix each one manually, but it’s still a huge time-saver.

WordPerfect used to have the edge over Word (well, technically it still does) because it let you not only search and replace and use macros, it let you search and replace for codes.  So changing putting the italics off code on the other side of the period throughout the manuscript was easy.  You can’t do that in Word unless you convert the document to HTML and edit the source—wait!—you can’t do that in Word anymore!  So you’d have to have an HTML editing program.  Not ideal, but still better than nothing.

So, in the end, authors need to do more than type their work.  They also have to deal with the realities of making it look professional.  Do I think you need to make it look like a book?  No.  You could write the entire thing in Courier using underline instead of italics and I don’t think it would reallyhurt you with editors or agents, but I still think you need to go through much of the same process to eliminate the extra characters or errors.  Some editors go by the Word word count.  Others use the old 250 words/per page in Courier with one-inch margins method.  And others use the character count divided by five.  In pretty much any of those formulas, extra characters will mess up the count, so better to have a clean file than not.

A.

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