Tech Tips for Clean Manuscripts

Manuscript-cleanupI’m a  soft touch when a friend or relative asks for help getting a manuscript ready for uploading to a Print-On-Demand service like CreateSpace. More than half a dozen times these requests have ended me saying, “Just send me the file and I’ll fix it, but before you start another one, you have to promise to learn a few basic skills.” Then I spend hours cleaning up formatting garbage before applying the simple tweaks that convert it to a lean, clean, beautiful piece of work.

For those who grew up in the typewriter age, it’s natural to position text with spaces, both horizontally and vertically. It’s hard to unlearn some of those old habits, but if you want to take advantage of recent developments in affordable and accessible printing technology, you’ll do yourself and your pocketbook a favor by overwriting those mental typewriter files.

The tips below will ultimately save you time and maybe money. If you pay someone to do your layout, they will charge for the time it takes to find all the places you used spaces to center a title or pressed “Enter” 23 times to make a new page. Ebooks absolutely require a  squeaky clean manuscript.

Things to avoid and why

Using spaces to center anything. This locks you into a specific font and size, and your approximated efforts will lack crispness.

Center lines by using the Center Align icon on the toolbar.

Using spaces (or tabs) to position anything. As above, this will produce variable results.

Options include using tabs (only if you are sure you won’t convert to an eBook format), altering paragraph indentation (right-click and select the paragraph option), using tables or text boxes.

Using tabs at beginning of paragraphs. This advice may sound odd indeed. It has not been an easy habit for me to break. However, as page sizes, line lengths and font settings change, you may want to change the tab setting. Although you can control the tab setting in your paragraph style, using tabs is not advised for eBook conversion, so you’ll retain flexibility if you stay away from them as much as possible.

Set the first line indentation on the Normal or Default style. More about styles below.

Double-spacing between paragraphs. This is okay in a simple, short letter or story, but controlling paragraph spacing with styles is far preferable.

Bone up on Styles.

Entering two spaces at end of sentences. This is a hold-over from typewriter days, and it’s a really hard habit to break. Problems arise when you justify text to make even margins on both sides. Software distributes the extra spacing in spaces, so a double-space can become glaringly obvious.

Routinely use Find and Replace on completed manuscripts to replace all double-spaces with single ones. Obviously this will also kill any spacing you did with multiple spaces – another reason to avoid that technique.

Things to Do and Why

Learn to use Styles. Using Styles seems cumbersome at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll have a level of control you never imagined and save way more time in final layout than you invested in setting up your styles. With Styles you can

  • change things like font size, line-spacing, or paragraph. alignment in your entire document with a single edit.
  • change chapter or section headings without affecting paragraph text and vice-versa.
  • automatically create a Table of Contents.
  • save time and money on preparation for publishing.
  • ensure consistency.

If you haven’t used Styles, do a YouTube search for your version of Word (or whatever software you use), and create your own class.

Download the Smashwords Style Book. Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, the leading free eBook conversion service, has written a book that details everything you need to know to get your manuscript squeaky clean and prepare it for eBook conversion. His tips work equally well to prepare for printing. He has generously made the book available at no cost.  You can download it as a pdf or any eBook format except Kindle from this link.

Write now: If you’ve never used Styles, open an old document, then watch a couple of YouTube videos, and play around with Styles in your document.


Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, a timely post indeed. We are slow to change old habits and rules learned, but I do agree the time has come. :)

SuziCate said...

Thanks for this...I've been sitting on two manuscripts all because the idea of formatting is overwhelming. I was going to just hand them over to hubby and let him do them, but I really need to make myself learn this.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Sherrey and Suzicate

It's really not that hard to learn. Once you get the hang of styles, you'll go wild. The Smashwords Style is the perfect introduction.

kathleen pooler said...

I'm not quite"there" yet,but it won't be long and I really need to learn this essential information. I bookmarked it for future reference. As always, I appreciate the valuable guidance. Thank you!

Sharon Lippincott said...

The good news is that straght narrative memoir is easy. For your basic manuscript you can stick with normal. Use Header 1 for chapter titles. Learn to insert section breaks between chapters. Later you may want to add one more style for the first paragraph of a chapter or after a time break within a chapter. If you use the latter, you'll need an additional paragraph style to add the extra vertical space indicating those breaks. Maybe one or two others. It doesn't matter what the styles are to begin, but if you use them as place markers to start, you can fine-tune them latter quickly and easily -- or let someone else design your layout without having to spend the time to add styles and undo "typewriter clutter."

All but Header 1 will be based on variations of Normal style, so font and spacing changes to the top level Normal style will cascade through the others.

Best wishes as you knit together that integrated draft.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this, Sharon. I am bookmarking it for future reference. I have just finished the second draft of my memoir and have been sort of dreading the formatting. I started with a basic manuscript format and have chapter headings but I haven't added any section breaks or those little things that I will need to do to get the novel in e-book format. I plan on self-publishing and I really want to do as much myself as I can. I think I shall follow you on my blog so you will always be just a 'click' away. :)

Sharon Lippincott said...


I once helped a friend change the type size from 11 pt to 12 (plus headers, etc.) in a 500 page training manual. We had only hours to do it because she was using a rented laser printer. Neither of us knew about styles yet.

As I recall, I discovered the concept of styles about the time I got to the last page. That made a believer of me!

Blessings on your project.

Unknown said...

Well I sincerely enjoyed studying it. This subject offered by you is very effective for good planning,hard work and a great team always make a spotless work..i read your article and find that you make nice point on the service..thanks
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