My Computer Doesn’t Like Your Computer: Formatting Electronic Submissions

So Writing Buddy and I met yesterday for bacon and shop talk. She had an article she was getting ready to submit and I happened to notice that she still uses two spaces after the end of every sentence. Earlier we had been talking about some of the problems I see in e-books. Some formatting errors are caused by sloppiness, some are a result of ignorance, but quite often the publisher does everything right, or tries to anyway, but the programs misinterpret the coding and errors result. The most common formatting errors I see are font size changes or extra spaces between lines. When I see those, in an otherwise nicely formatted e-book, I assume it is a coding error.

E-books aren’t the only places I see translation errors. I receive a lot of manuscripts as attachments. Quite often when I open them they look like circus advertisements on the screen. Sometimes funny things happen in e-mails, too. Strange symbols, little circles, bolding here and there at random, and occasionally giant fonts.

The problem isn’t that the originator of the document is doing anything wrong, it’s just that my computer doesn’t necessarily like your computer. Every program has its own coding. And too many programs try to be helpful. Much the way toddlers are helpful in the kitchen. Or the government.

This wasn’t a problem when everybody was submitting manuscripts to agents and editors via snail mail. You learned standard formatting, you printed a copy, and you sent it off in the mail. Whatever you put in the envelope is exactly what the agent or editor received. Electronic submissions, however, are a little trickier. What you put in the body of an e-mail or attach to an e-mail might be read on a computer or on an iPhone or an iPad or a Kindle or Nook or smart phone or aluminum foil space mirror with alien technology. Since every gadget and program has its own way of doing things, they have to interpret and translate to the best of their ability. It’s like an electronic version of Telephone.

There really isn’t anything a writer can do to make sure their electronic manuscripts are read perfectly on every gadget. But there are things you can do to make sure that even when hiccups occur, your manuscript will still be readable.

Now I’m not familiar with every word processing program on the market. I use Word. I use the Word 2000 version because newer versions are so junked up with hidden codes and “helpful” features, they are maddening to use. Word seems to be pretty much the standard, though. Any suggestions I make here should translate fairly well over to other word processors. The principles remain the same.

  • First and foremost, get out of the habit of using the Tab key. I don’t know what it is about it that encourages programs to be so “helpful,” but using the Tab key about guarantees weird formatting errors.
  • Use style sheets to format the manuscripts. Style sheets will give you consistency and a minimum of code for the computer to screw up.
  • Be aware that any manual spacing you use to make a new page (or center text or otherwise move text around on the page) gives programs permission to screw things up.
  • Never use headers for electronic submissions. This includes numbering pages. Because of the many different screen sizes, headers will appear in inconvenient places.

Hidden codes are the enemy. You want to compose your electronic submissions in such a way that it does not encourage Word to insert hidden codes in an effort to be “helpful.” The very first thing you want to do is go under Tools and select AutoCorrect. It looks like this:

What you want to do is go through the menus and disable most of the AutoCorrect features. It is pretty safe to keep some of the auto format features turned on, such as curly quotes and bold and italics. With everything else you’re probably better off keying them in by hand.

If you are working on a manuscript and have been using tabs it is very easy to strip them out. Do a search and replace with ^t in the search box and then leave the replace box empty. If you have extra spacing, either between sentences, or to rearrange text on the page, or have used hard returns to start a new page, you will need to take those out. One way is to use the search-and-replace feature. Hit the space bar twice (or the number of offending spaces) in the search box, and then put the desired number of spaces in the replace box (one or zero). To make sure you have removed all the offending spaces use the “Show” feature in the menubar. In Word it looks like the paragraph symbol. ¶ (the “show” symbols do not print) Extra spaces will show up as dots and you can manually delete them. From this point forward you will use the “insert page break” feature, and stylesheets for arranging text so it’s indented, centered or right justified or whatever you need.

Making a user-defined stylesheet is very easy. From the menu bar under Format select “Style…”:

You are going to create a user-defined style. Select “New…”

Give it a name. I used “Manuscript.” The style type will be “paragraph.” Base it on “body text.” Style for the following paragraph will be “Manuscript.” Then select “format” and from the drop down menu go to “paragraph.”

Fill in the boxes so it looks like the above. Then hit OK. Select format again and select font.

I recommend you leave the special effects and character spacing alone. Some of those don’t translate well. Times New Roman and Garamond both show up well on most readers, no matter what size the screen. If you prefer to work with a different font, put that in your style sheet. When you are ready to submit, you can select all and change the font to Times or Garamond.

Now hit apply.

Save your style sheet by selecting “organizer” from the Style box. Highlight your style, select Copy and it will show up on the right hand side. Now, when you open a new document, you can just go to Style, selected user-defined styles and your custom style sheet(s) will be there, ready to go.

There you have it. A simple format good for composing on your computer and with fewer chances of translation errors when you make an electronic submission. If you’re not familiar with style sheets, I recommend you play around with them. You won’t hurt anything. Trust me. Try different fonts, different spacing. See what happens. When you’re comfortable with a basic body text style, you can make style sheets for chapter heads and other things. Break those old habits of manual spacing and using the Tab key, and you’ll create electronic submissions that give various gadgets and programs fewer opportunities to be “helpful.” And the agents and editors you submit to will thank you for it.

If you have any tips for formatting documents that are helpful to those of us who are unfamiliar with or are just learning the wonders of HTML and CSS, I’d love to hear them.








17 thoughts on “My Computer Doesn’t Like Your Computer: Formatting Electronic Submissions

  1. I usually end up using the HTML editor for final formatting, regardless of any settings. For a while I was switching between my netbook (Linux, OpenOffice) and my desktop (Windows, Word) and even though the files were *allegedly* all RTF, when I looked at the code there were islands of straight quotes in a sea of curly quotes and other horrors. Plus, when I used my Windows laptop to edit whilst commuting by bus, I discovered Word had helpfully created a completely new style every time the bus hit a bump. Cleaning that up, for *print* submission, was a nightmare. There should be a “stop helping me, dammit!” checkbox in Word. (And a mini-game where you can destroy Clippy in many painful and humiliating ways.)

  2. Good one, Sabrina! If Clippy could die of shame, mine should have kicked the bucket years ago.

    It’s like I told WB, the real problem is that the people who create these programs are one) in competition with each other and they’re more concerned with showing each other up than they are in compatibility; and two) they aren’t writers, or at least, they aren’t fiction writers or essayists. I think 90% of the features in Word are there just because some techie thought it was cool and never asked it was actually useful.

    I’ve been learning some HTML. I’ve also learned the oh-so-fun way to strip code from a manuscript and then reformatting it. I’m also going to switch my fiction writing over to Scrivner. I HEAR it is very user friendly and geared toward electronic submissions and ebooks. We shall see.

  3. I am guilty of the two space between sentences thing. I’ve tried to get my fingers to stop typing it, but my thumb refuses to do just one.

    I could strip them out, but I’ve seen so many different instructions on how to format an electronic submission that I don’t apply any formatting until I’m ready to submit it somewhere.

    I’ve never used the style thing in word. I’ll have to give it a go. Thanks for the tips!

    • I see a lot of those electronic submission format instructions and all I can do is roll my eyes. I know what they’re to do. Make the submissions compatible with the recipient’s reading device. A lot of those instructions make things worse.

      Keep it simple. Simple is best.

      Way back in the day my editor at HQ asked me to stop using two spaces after sentences. HQ had just started using author-supplied disks and computerizing layout. The extra spaces screwed things and had to be stripped. It was a hellishly difficult habit to break. I still see submission guidelines asking for “standard” format. Heh. What the hell is standard these days?

  4. For anyone who wants to get down and dirty with HTML, Guido Henkel’s guide is great:

    You get really nice looking e-books by following his method (and experimenting with some of the effects he teaches). It takes a few days to get through all 10 parts, but it really is worth it. I knew little or no HTML, but I’m very comfortable formatting now. The first time you do it is a real pain, and you will curse and scream and want to give up. But persevere. It’s worth it, and it gets easy fast. My first e-book took me days. My second took a few hours.

    I would also recommend not emailing everyone you know and blogging about your new release the second it goes live on Amazon. Buy it yourself, check through it on your Kindle. Test all the Smashwords versions. Test the EPUB in something like Adobe Digital Editions.

    You will most likely (especially the first couple of times you format), spot a few things you want to change. Once your changes are uploaded (and tested again), THEN tell everyone.

    • I think Guido’s guide is brilliant. I used it to help a friend self-publish and even printed out a hard copy to keep on hand. He got me interested in HTML, too. When friends or readers get too frustrated with the process or are unwilling to do it themselves, I send them right over to Guido. See, I know stuff gets messed up. He knows WHY it does.

      (for instance, I don’t know why my comments didn’t accept your live link)

      Using style sheets and losing the extra spaces and Tabs will help people submitting to a traditional publisher. Anyone who is interested in self-publishing has quite a other steps to do. Like start with your book:

      So, curious minds want to know. How many tries did it take you? It took me three times to get an ebook right on Amazon and twice to get accepted by Smashwords Premium. Got it right the first time on B&N, but that’s only because I’d already pulled out all my hair with Amazon and SW. 😀

    • Thanks for the interesting post, Jaye.
      And thanks for the link, David, I will check that out.
      I too completely mucked up my first attempt at formatting my forthcoming pirate novel on Kindle, using HTML code. It took me a day or two of hard work to muck it up, too!
      But, I agree, once you’ve made those first horrendous mistakes it then gets much easier.
      I’ve uploaded the file onto my Kindle and read through it a couple of times, and I am pleased with the end result.
      Personally, I think a poorly formatted book can ruin the pleasure of reading a good story.

      • A poorly formatted book can very much ruin reading pleasure. The reality is, every ereader and device has its own way of doing things. It is up to the person formatting the books to do their utmost best to make files that ereaders and devices can interpret with a minimum of errors. It’s a pain and and I understand why a lot of people do not want to mess with it. Which is why there are some smart folks out there who are doing a good job for a reasonable price. The smart self-pubber makes the decision: Do I want to learn to do this right, or do I hire somebody to do it right for me?

  5. I’m going to weigh in here because, as you know, Jaye, this is all still very fresh and bleeding for me. Both Kindle and Smashwords accepted my submission on the first attempt and I thought I was good to go. But it wasn’t until *a certain someone* pointed out that it actually had indenting formatting issues that I realized I’d gotten it 96% right but with Kindle making up most of a self-pubbed author’s sales. I wanted to aim for 100%. So I spent a few days trying–and failing–to correct that error until I was so cross-eyed that I decided to get Guido to produce a professional ebook for me (which he did, in less than 24 hours.) When I have some headspace, I plan to work my way through his 10-step program and teach myself how to do it myself. That’s the best part of self pubbing – you can make any changes, and all the changes, you like, as often as you want. The curve ball in this scenario, though, is learning how to do it.

    • I’m glad Guido did a good job for you, Martin. Getting it right (even if incompatibility issues stack the odds against perfection) is very important. Our books deserve it and our readers deserve it, too.

      Anyway, hair grows back. Heh.

      • You’re right about getting it right because our readers deserve the best version we can offer. Unfortunately you’re not right about the hair growing back. It does. Damn it…

  6. I used Guido’s guide, too. It took me a week to format a short story this way, but that’s because I’m anal about understanding everything before trying it. Plus I used cute graphics, so I had a little extra to figure out. But it came out almost perfectly the first time. Any tweaks were not due to formatting problems. Haven’t loaded it to Smashwords yet.

    It took me 3 days to format my novel using Guido’s guide. I ran into some odd issues that won’t be a problem in future manuscripts because I can set things up ahead of time, as Jaye suggests. (I’m still waiting for Smashwords to approve, but no automatic red flags were raised when I loaded the manuscript.)

    I’m anxiously waiting to hear how well Scrivner translates into ebooks. I don’t mind dumping into Textmate and then into Callibre, but it would be nice to have a clean document from the start.

    • I haven’t started with Scrivner yet, Marie. I want to finish *ahem* my current WIP first and then start fresh. Once I get it and start using it, I will keep everyone apprised of anything I learn. All the press say the program is the self-publishers dream.

  7. Speaking as the guilty, two-spaces-after-end-punctuation WB, I say thank you, Jaye.
    I am still partial to Courier–easier on my eyes than Times New Roman–but with your help and inspiration I am now stumbling along, converting mss. into Word.
    Even hard-copy mss.
    You convinced me. Thanks again.

    • They will drag us kicking and screaming into the computer age, Marylin. We don’t have to like it (and some of it I hate, hate, hate!), but progress moves forward with or without us.

      You’re welcome. I don’t know how your Mac works, but I suspect that if you are most comfortable composing in Apple Works, there is actually a way for you to have the best of both worlds. It’ll take few extra steps (but hey, we’re writers! Without our quirks, we are nothing. Nothing! *sorry, manic moment*) but if those steps help with your writing, then why mess with a good thing?

      Set up a style sheet in Word.
      Do your composing any way you like in AppleWorks, even if it means tabs and double-spaces.
      When your manuscript is done the way you want–writing wise–strip out the tabs and extra spaces with search-and-replace. You can search for italics, too. Every place you’ve used italics tag it with “ii”.
      Then do a copy/paste into a your notepad (which is basically an HTML reader). That will produce a document with all the coding stripped out of it.
      Copy and paste from the notepad into Word and apply the style sheet.
      Do a search for the “ii” tags and re-italicize.
      Do a search and replace for the quote marks and apostrophes to make sure they are all curled the right way (put ” in the search and ” in the replace and the computer will turn them all the right direction)
      Block your ellipses (to prevent feral periods) with search and replace. … in the search box and … in the replace box. Word will then treat the ellipses as a block.
      Use search-and-replace to turn double dashes em dashes.

      It sounds like a lot, but it takes about ten minutes and produces a fresh manuscript without a bunch of extra codes for other readers to screw up.

  8. Pingback: Formatting Errors in Ebooks | J W Manus

  9. Pingback: In the Formatting Wars, How Writers Can Win | J W Manus

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