Why You Shouldn’t Format Your Word Docs

Dungeon babyThere’s a reason my ebooks are superior–two reasons, actually–and neither has anything to do with my technical prowess (I don’t have much) or talent (anyone can do what I’m about to tell you).

Reason Number One: Pre-production, I clean the text. As soon as a document comes up in the queue, I open it and start stripping it of everything that can mess up an ebook: extraneous paragraph returns, extra spaces, and tabs. I tidy up punctuation, tag areas that require special coding, neaten italics and check for special characters that won’t translate. As a writer and editor myself, I know most of the writer tricks and have a rather lengthy list of things to look for. By the time I’m ready to start coding, the text is so clean it squeaks.

Reason Number Two: Post-production, the ebook is proofread. I don’t care who proofreads the ebook. I can do it, the writer can do it, the writer can hire the job out to someone else. I give the writer a proof copy of the ebook and a mark-up document and encourage them to be as picky as they can stand. Even if they hire me to proofread, they still get the proof copy to load on a device or their computer so they can check the formatting and layout. The point is to find mistakes before the readers do. The point is to make sure the ebook works properly.

I am shocked and appalled that every single person who produces ebooks doesn’t do the exact same thing. They don’t and I know they don’t because I read ebooks that are filled with the types of errors and hiccups that text cleaning and proofreading would have rooted out.

The trad pubs are actually worse offenders than are indies, especially when it comes to back list. I can see it with my own eyes, but it’s amusing to see a publisher admit it publicly on The Passive Voice blog:

J.A. Our experience with Kindle is that as soon as a customer complains they take down the file and send the publisher a takedown notice. It’s actually a real pain in the neck. It could be one person complained and something very minor. We get them occasionally and we fix them right away. They give the reader a credit for the download. I should add that when files are converted they generally aren’t checked page for page like a print book might normally be. We rely on the conversion house to do a good job. If we keep catching errors or getting complaints we would change vendors. We pay pretty good money for these conversions. Our books are almost all straight text so conversions aren’t generally a major issue, but books with columns or charts, or unusual layouts do cause problems and need to be checked carefully. –Steven Zacharius, CEO, Kensington Books

Emphasis mine.

Having personally cleaned up well over a million words of scanned and OCR’d text, that statement offends the shit out of me. Writers deserve better. Readers deserve better.

So what’s that got to do with formatting Word docs? Everything.

If you’re a Do-It-Yourselfer, and are formatting your own ebooks, you cannot skip these steps. (On a sidenote, my biggest gripe with Smashwords is how difficult they make it to proofread an ebook. An upload has to go through the whole publishing process before you can look at it live on a device. Depending on how fast you are at proofreading, the ebook can be live–all goofs intact–for weeks before you can fix them and go through the process again.) My suggestion for the indie formatting Word docs for Smashwords (or any other distributor who accepts Word docs) is to convert them first with a program like Calibre and proofread the results. Find and fix problems before uploading the Word doc to Smashwords.

If you’re hiring a formatter, find out first if they clean up your file pre-production. Many do not. If that’s the case, you need to do the cleaning. Some pros charge by the hour to clean up the Word doc. The more elaborately you’ve formatted your document, the longer it will take to clean it up and the more expensive it will be. (Not to mention wasting your own time on needless work.) My suggestion, if you have special requirements, arrange for a system of tags to let the formatter know what you want. I ask writers to put instructions inside square brackets, i.e. [HEADLINE, PUT IN SMALL CAPS, CENTERED, EXTRA SPACE ABOVE AND BELOW].

Find out, too, the professional’s policy on proofreading. Do you get a proof copy? Does the formatter charge extra to input changes and corrections? (I charge for actual proofreading, but I don’t charge to input changes and corrections from somebody else’s proofread.) If you are not allowed to make post-production changes to your ebook, find another service. Trust me, no matter how well edited, cleaned and formatted the file is going in, you will find something to fix while proofreading. (Gremlins!)

So, for you writers working in Word, one final suggestion: Post the following where you can see it while you work and keep repeating it until it sinks in:

What I see on the computer screen is NOT how how my text will look, or act, in an ebook.

How It’s Done: Work Flow in Indie Book Production

A few days ago I wrote a post assuring writers that book production is hard work, but it’s not unmanageable or even difficult. It just so happens that I am almost finished with a HUGE project and for those writers still on the fence about whether to take the plunge into self-publishing, it might prove educational to see the actual steps I took in producing a title.

(Book production is just one facet of the publishing process. There is writing the book, which I suspect most of you already know how to do. There is selling the book, which is what happens out there in the world. I’m only going to talk about the work flow of actual production.)

Step #1: Editorial

With this project, the writer had access to experienced first readers. Their impressions and comments helped him fix any inconsistencies or problems with plot or characters. Then it was time for copy editing. My turn.

TIP: Every publishing entity has an “in-house style” to cover punctuation, preferred spelling and formatting. I suggest indie writers develop their own in-house style guide. Settle on a style manual and a dictionary. It will help immensely when you deal with copy-editors and proofreaders, plus it will make your entire body of work consistent.

As a freelance copy editor, my client is the writer, not the “house.” That means every change is highlighted (even inserting a missing period) and must be approved or declined by the writer. The writer is The Boss.

TIP: If you are going to turn your manuscript into an ebook, I suggest you find an alternative to Track Changes in Word. Track Changes inserts nasty coding into the file and it’s a bear to remove.

Now the manuscript is ready for production.

Step #2: The Interior

I have a fairly specific work flow I use for any book production project. It looks like a lot of steps, but it’s actually pretty efficient. I’ll break it down for you:

  • Make a copy of the original document and open in Word (for this I use my ancient version, less garbage to deal with)
  • Tag all special formatting, tag the scene breaks (if they aren’t already) and tag any text that require special styling (poetry, letters, section heads, etc.)
  • Copy/Paste the document into a text editor.(I use Notepad++, powerful freeware that is simple to use and makes ebook formatting a breeze.)
  • Prep the text: remove extra spaces and blank lines, turn quote marks and apostrophes the right direction, deal with reserved characters, etc.
  • Make the graphical elements (in this case, chapter heads and a scene break indicator)
  • Style the text for a MOBI format. (Since I have Kindles, I usually do the MOBI format first.)
  • Load the ebook onto a Kindle and proofread.

TIP: Do not ever skip proofreading. 99% of the goofs I see in ebooks could have been caught and fixed if the publisher had proofread the ebook. If you do not own an ereading device, then download the Kindle Previewer or Calibre or Adobe Digital Editions and proofread it on your computer.

  • Compile the proofed text into a new file. (This book will be an Amazon exclusive, but if it weren’t, I would use the proofed text to make the EPUB and Smashwords formats)
  • Use the squeaky clean text to format the trade paperback. This will be printed by Createspace. You can find their requirements for the book interior here.
  • Send the pdf of the print layout to the writer for another proofread. (In this case, the writer wanted another set of eyes, so we brought in another proofreader–it’s what the trad pubs do, or are supposed to do anyway.)
  • Make corrections to the print format AND in the ebook file.

TIP: Get in the habit of making a copy of your file for every step in the process. That way if disaster happens (computer crash, power surge, forget to save, whatever) you only have to take one step back to recover your work.

  • Use the proofed text to format the hardcover version (essentially the same as the trade edition, but with some extra details)

Step #3: The Cover

This project required three versions of the cover because there are three editions: digital, trade paperback, and hardcover. I handled the ebook cover, my partner Jayne did the paperback cover, and the hardcover will be a partnership between me, the writer and the printer (it’s complicated).

TIP: Whether you hire a cover designer or do it yourself, before you make any decisions go to Joel Friedlander’s blog and study the monthly cover awards. Just by looking at the successes and failures you will absorb many of the guiding principles behind making an effective cover.

The writer commissioned the cover art from the artist who had done the cover art for several previous books in the same series. (Emanuel Schongut, he’s incredible). I used a freeware program called Paint.net to make the ebook cover. I went shopping for the perfect font and decided I needed two. One I purchased at fonts.com (very reasonable, less than twenty bucks) and I found one for free at dafont.com.

TIP: If you are doing your cover yourself and need art, Google “stock images” and you’ll come up with hundreds of sites that sell (or give away for free) just about any image you can envision. There are also artists who offer stock covers you can purchase and then you either hire the designer to do the typography or do it yourself.

coverThe trade paperback cover was a little trickier. Paint.net is a powerful program, but Adobe Photoshop is way more powerful and it can do some tricky tricks either I can’t do or haven’t figured out how to do. So the job was passed to Jayne. That edition will be printed through CreateSpace. You can find their cover dimensions requirements here. You’ll need to know how many pages your finished book will be and what size book you want. CreateSpace has templates you can use for the layout.

TIP: When doing an ebook, you’ll need the cover first. If the cover isn’t ready, you can make a placeholder to serve while you convert and proofread the ebook. When the cover is ready, just replace the placeholder with the real cover.

The hardcover edition cover is a little different. It’s a special limited edition and the cover will be really fancy. Essentially I’ll be making plates for the printer. Most indies won’t have to worry about this step. If you do, talk to your printer about what you need to do.

So that’s it. Is it a lot of hard work? Why, yes, indeed it is. But broken down into steps, it is quite manageable. Even with editing, proofreading and waiting for cover art, this project has only taken about a month. Instead of having to wait twelve to fifteen months for a trad publisher to dribble out editions (which I guarantee wouldn’t be better than what our team has produced, and in the case of the ebook would be worse), this book is now available for pre-order on Amazon (ebook and trade paperback) and will be released for Christmas this year.

Whether you are doing a huge production like this one or just making an ebook, the steps are pretty much the same: Editing, Interior Format, Cover. Break the big steps into smaller steps and you have a project that’s manageable.

_______________________________

If you happen to be curious as to why best-selling, multi-published writer, Lawrence Block decided to self-publish his brand new novel in his most popular series, you can read about here.

Find and Replace: Do It Once, Do It Twice

Ol' Lew has taken quite nicely to the digital age.

Ol’ Lew has taken quite nicely to the digital age.

Out of all the small jobs that make up the big job of getting a book ready for publication, proofreading is the job nobody wants. It is NO FUN.

It’s exacting, it’s painstaking, it reduces an otherwise interesting piece of writing into boring little components that must be examined individually. If your attention wanders or if you get caught up in the story (it’s harder to proofread a rousing good story than a so-so one), you can miss errors. Ideally, any project should have at least two proofreaders. This isn’t an ideal world, however, and not everybody has the funds or the qualified (and indulgent) friends to get two reads.

When I build an ebook, I either proofread it myself or send a proof copy to the writer to proofread. Sometimes we both proofread it. All in the hopes of rooting out the boo-boos and gremlins before a paying customer does.

I have, of course, learned a few tricks (of course) along the way. One of the most valuable tools in my arsenal (second only to Webster’s 9th) is the Find/Replace function. This is especially true since I have found that most writers have a tendency to repeat mistakes. One does need to be careful, though, about global FIND/REPLACE. Or you might end up with something like this:

Barnes & Noble was briefly suspected of employing an outrageous anti-Amazon marketing strategy in May after blogger Philip Howard noticed that a version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” sold by the chain store had substituted “nook” for every instance of the word “kindle” throughout the text, resulting in sentences like, “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern….” The e-book turned out to have been published by a third-party company, Superior Formatting Publishing, who issued an apology (still posted on the company’s Web home page) explaining that it had accidentally applied the “find and replace” function to the entire text when reformatting the Kindle version of the book for the Nook platform.

The stuff of a proofreader’s nightmares.

Every text handling program has its own set of rules and functions. I can’t possibly cover them all here. I suggest you play with your program’s FIND/REPLACE function and figure out what it can and cannot do. The one thing that every program has in common is that it searches for a unique string of characters. That unique string can include spaces and punctuation.

There are some F/R searches I do as a matter of course. The first is for extra spaces. Extra spaces are the bane of ebooks. They all need to be rooted out. I run searches for double spaces between sentences within paragraphs, and for extra spaces at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs. I also run searches for extra paragraph returns.

The second routine search I do is for backward quote marks and apostrophes. MS Word, especially, has a bad habit of turning quote marks the wrong way, especially when the quote marks are connected to em or en dashes or at the beginning of truncated words. Here the basic rules of grammar are useful. For instance, the left double quote belongs at the beginning of a quoted passage. I will search for a space right double quote or a paragraph return or new line right double quote. I run the opposite search for wrong-way right double quotes by looking for left double quotes at the end of sentences.

Another routine search is for proper names and place names. When I proofread I make a list of preferred spellings. Flying fingers or attention lapses trip up writers. Sometimes the misspellings look right and are easily missed. Take my name for instance. “Jay” looks right, but I spell it “Jaye.” I’ll do a search for “Jay” and “Jay’s” to catch any instances where the “e” was dropped.

The same thing goes for preferred spellings. A word such as “judgment” is also correctly spelled as “judgement.” It doesn’t matter to me what the writer prefers–consistency is my fallback. If the writer prefers the former, I will do a search for the latter and change any instances I find.

I’ve worked on quite a few backlist books that have been scanned and run through OCR. Do enough of them and you start recognizing common OCR errors. For instance, misreading the letter “e” as a “c”. Spell check will catch the most egregious errors, but if the text is supposed to be “eat” and the OCR reads it as “cat” then spell check is useless. It doesn’t take much time to run a search for the word “cat” to make sure each usage is what the writer intended. Another common problem with scanned books is that typesetters often use hyphens and en dashes to space text on a line. Finding those is a bear, but F/R is a big help in rooting out the many permutations that end up as errors in an ebook.

I can’t possibly cover every F/R trick. If you, while you are proofreading your own work, get into the habit of assuming you have a tendency to repeat certain errors, you can use F/R to help you create a cleaner ebook. If you find a goof, run a quick search to see if you repeated it elsewhere.

Check List of Common Errors That Can Be Found with FIND/REPLACE:

  • Extra Spaces
  • Extra Paragraph Returns
  • Proper Names
  • Place Names
  • Quote Marks (single and double)
  • Hyphenated Words
  • Preferred Spellings
  • Italicized Foreign Words (yes or no, but be consistent)
  • Em and en dashes, and hyphens

One More Time (Nooooo!) The Final Proofread

I don’t know if I’m alone in this (doubt it) but I always reach a point in the process where if I have to look at a piece of writing ONE MORE TIME I will either a) take a blowtorch to my eyeballs; or b) curl up in a fetal ball and whimper. If I’m forced, if I have no choice, I tackle the job with all the enthusiasm of a sleep-deprived 4-year-old on an airplane. There is much whining involved.

I am, of course, talking about the final proofread. The “galley” proof stage. The book is written, edited, formatted and converted into an ebook. And it must be read one more time before it released into the wild.

I make a distinction between “pre-production” and “post-production” proofreading. Pre-production proofing is more akin to line editing. Purists, indeed, will call it line-editing, but whatever you call it, it’s the step after copy-editing and right before production. It involves style sheets, questions, research and a whole lot of nit-picking. I wrote about that process here.

Post-production proofreading is much simpler. The assumption is that the writing has been edited, fact-checked, and the style is consistent throughout. What you’re looking for is mistakes. Goofs. Gremlins. You’re also looking at the actual format and deciding if it needs tweaked. Trust me, folks, there will be mistakes, goofs and gremlins to find—some (horrors!) will have been introduced during formatting. If you don’t find them at this stage, readers will.

I was pondering the other day—how many goofs are acceptable in a book? This after reading a book that was so chock-full of errors I wondered if the editor/proofreader was even familiar with the English language or had ever opened a dictionary. A mass-market paperback put out by a Big 6 publisher. Appalling. Definitely a crime against literacy. I came to the conclusion that five errors per 100,000 words meets my standard of a properly produced book. Print or digital. That’s a damned high standard, but I have bookcases full of books that have met that standard, so it’s achievable.

So, whether you have formatted your ebook yourself or you’ve hired someone, it’s essential that you proof the copy in its final form. That means converting the file into an ebook and proofing the ebook on an ereading device. If you do not have an ereading device, you can do this process on your computer with a program like MobiPocket Reader or Calibre.

The most difficult part of this kind of proofreading is actually reading. When you read, your mind has a tendency to fill in the blanks and skim over goofs. Proofreading involves going through the text word by word, comma by period, quote mark by quote mark.

Some tips:

  • Mix it up. Go through the text backward. Or proof the chapters out of order.
  • Change the screen. Enlarging or shrinking the font, adjusting the line spacing, or even changing the screen color (if your device allows it) can serve as a reminder NOT to read the story and focus instead on the minutia.
  • Use a marker. When I proof printed manuscript I use a metal ruler. That is not a good idea on an ereader. I do have a six inch plastic ring sizer though, which is perfect. You probably don’t have a plastic ring sizer, but you can use a plastic bookmark or a strip of cardboard. Anything that forces you to look at just one line of text.
  • Read aloud, including punctuation. It sounds ridiculous—Open quote How dare you tell me what to do question mark closed quote—but it works.
  • Take your time. The temptation might be to rush the job and get it over with, but this final proofread is important. It is necessary. You owe to your writing and to your readers to do the best job you can.

What about you, dear readers? Any tips or tricks for doing a good job on the final proofread?

Since When Do Readers Care About Editing?

Actually, readers have always cared about editing. A well-edited, typo free book is a pleasure to read, and an error-riddled book is not. The real question is, why are readers talking about it now? I’ve never read a book that was 100% error free. Even my beloved old Webster’s 9th has a typo.

It’s not because of self-published books. The books on my Kindle right now are about a 50/50 mix of trad published and self-published. Overall, the self-published books tend to be better produced. When established writers reissue their back lists and are working off scanned conversions or unedited source files, their error rates are about the same as for indie writers starting fresh. Traditional publishers are the worst offenders when it comes to being sloppy.

The only thing new is that readers are actually talking about the editing. I’ve published 17 novels and a bunch of other stuff. I’ve had readers point out errors with my research, but never typos or formatting errors, and trust me, my fair share of those appear in my printed books. Since I’ve put out three ebooks, I’ve had helpful readers point out typos. I’ve always been a freakishly picky reader. Just one of my many quirks. These are normal readers contacting me.

What in the world is going on?

Over on The Passive Voice blog, PG posted an excerpt from an article about the Kindle as “the new medium.” The article by John Dvorak is interesting. The discussion going on in the comments is even more interesting, and that’s where it hit me:

I read differently on a Kindle.
Other readers are reading differently, too.

Last week I tried an experiment. I know I’m fussier when I read on a Kindle, so I used it to proofread a manuscript. Turned out it was just as effective as proofing printed copy and it was easier on my eyes and it went faster.

The Kindle offers a distraction free reading experience.

Think about it. With a printed book all the design elements work to enhance (or if poorly done, detract from) the reading experience. Even the size of the book affects how the book is read. When reading on a computer or even a tablet, the lighting, the colors, the bells and whistles, the knowledge that one is just a click away from a game or a website or a chat with friends are distractions. On the Kindle, with its grey-scale screen, uniform typography, and simple layout, nothing stands between the reader and the words.

I’d been looking at the Kindle’s simplicity as a problem. Now I wonder if it is a strength to exploit and actually enhance the reading experience. It’s something I’m working on.

In the meantime, what does this mean for writers and publishers? It means we need to get on the ball and step up our game. We don’t have fancy papers or layouts or shiny things to hide the goofs. Readers are noticing. Some are complaining–and they should. We owe readers the best product we are capable of producing. What they are buying is the total package–writing, editing, production–and the total package needs to be worth the price they pay and the time they take to read.

If you get an email from a reader who points out typos (or a reviewer complains) just wipe that pouty look off your face, say thank you and fix the problem. We can do that with ebooks. It doesn’t take long at all. If the book in question has been released by a trad publisher, writers, you need to complain. Or better yet, dig up an email address so the reader can complain directly to the person who can and should do something about it.

UPDATE: William shared a link: the People Formerly Known As The Audience. Well worth reading.

It’s All About Style: Proofreading

I’ve been doing quite a few proofreading jobs here lately (I tell everyone I dislike proofing because, you know, it’s not cool and only the nerdy kids get stuck with the job, but I actually enjoy it–it makes my inner nitpicker happy. So fine, I’m a word nerd, shaddup already). I’ve asked a few writers if they have style sheets for me to use. I’ve been getting blank stares in response. I finally realize “style sheet” sounds high falutin’ and fancy pantsy.

Let’s call it a “Cheat Sheet” instead.

Despite using computers for writing since the 1980s, I’m still very much a pen and paper kind of gal. Which accounts for much of the mess on my desk (watch for a future post on how Scrivener is finally breaking me of the paper habit). For my cheat sheets, I use a sheet of drawing paper (or two, depending), divvy it up into eight blocks and label the blocks alphabetically–A-B-C; D-E-F… and so on. Then, when I run across a proper name, a place name, preferred spellings, and other details easy to misspell or overlook, I jot them down in the appropriate block. That way, as I go through a manuscript, all I have to do is glance at the cheat sheet to make sure the usage is consistent.

That, my friends, is what it boils down to: consistency.

When I proofread, I’m looking for goofs and typos and missing or misplaced punctuation. I’m also looking for consistency. For instance, preferred spellings. Some words have two or more accepted spellings. The word “gray,” for example, which can also be spelled “grey.” It doesn’t matter which spelling you, the writer, choose to use. What matters is that the spelling remains the same throughout the manuscript. I also note how the writer uses capitalization. While a contemporary story might stick with standard capitalization, a fantasy novel or speculative fiction might use unusual constructs. I jot those down on the cheat sheet. The same thing goes for italics. I can usually get a very good feel for the writer’s style after only a few pages–always uses italics for direct thoughts (for instance), or only uses them in dialogue to emphasize speech, or italicizes foreign words in dialogue, but not in narrative. Once I see the pattern, I make a note of it, so I can check for consistency throughout.

Timelines are also useful. If your story is like the TV show, “24” and depends on split-second timing, or if dates are very important to the plot, a timeline can help the proofreader help you. You meant to write “one week ago,” but a brain fart made you write, “one month ago.” With a timeline, the proofreader can note the inconsistency and ask you about it.

So, indies, you’ll have better results working with a proofreader if you provide a cheat sheet. The process will go faster and be much more efficient. It’s easy to whip up a chart in a spread sheet, or type up an alphabetical list. If you’re using unusual spellings or constructions, make a note.

Your preference in grammatical style is also a good thing for the proofreader to know. My fall back on questions of usage and style is my old Webster’s 9th, which is basic and standard. It is, however, over thirty years old and grammar styles do change. So it’s not so much a matter of correct or incorrect if you use serial commas or not, or which style of possessive you use, or if you spell out numbers or use numerals. The key is always consistency. If you follow a particular style manual or a style guide on the internet, let the proofreader know. That way when they have a grammar question, the proofreader can reference your source.

A little note about unusual styles and grammar usages. As an indie who doesn’t have to conform to a publisher’s in-house style, you are free to experiment. Try to keep the readers in mind while you do so. It’s all well and good to try something nobody has tried before. Who knows? If it works, maybe others will emulate you. If your unusual construction or “creative” use of punctuation confuses or frustrates readers, then the experiment is a failure. A good copy editor or proofreader will point that out and you’d be wise to listen.