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.


22 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Format Your Word Docs

  1. That statement by the Kensington CEO shows how lazy they are. I understand changing vendors when they’re not doing the job. But if you proofread the @#$#@ book in-house, you’ll not only catch those errors that will cost your company money, but you can also warn the vendor that they’re in trouble and better get their act together. You’ll solve that problem sooner, enforce discipline, and not cost your company money.

    (For another example, check out the Running Press edition of “Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer” over at Amazon. Great reviews of the content, but there are typos on nearly every page of a $50 hardcover book. I’m not talking about grammatical errors, but misspellings that could have been caught over a lunch hour.)

    That should show indy publishers that the bar for doing good work is really, really low.

    • What a suspect, too, Bill is that a lot of the big pubs are being seriously ripped off by their vendors. I can tell when some noodlehead with InDesign has produced a broken ebook with a plenty of flashy trash. Does it dazzle someone who doesn’t actually read ebooks? I bet it does. Is it overpriced? I bet it is. As amusing as it is imagining the big pubs overpaying for garbage, the tragedy is that readers are getting a bad product and writers are being hurt. I check who publishes the ebook before I buy. There are three of the Big 5 I will not buy from. Period.

    • Paul, are you ever tempted to contact the writer and let them know what you think of the craptastic job their publisher did? I’ve thought about it…

  2. Jaye, I just read a Penguin ebook and the right margin was unjustified. I found this quite distracting. Do you think this is a mistake, or a design choice?

    I should add that my books aren’t justified on the Amazon Look Inside feature, but they are on my Kindle Keyboard and Kindle Fire. Why is this?

    • Design choice, Lexi, and not a good one since it makes the book look like a manuscript.

      As for Look Inside, that’s not the ebook you’re seeing. It’s a conversion from the ebook. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know it’s NOT a true representation (they have gotten better here lately, I will give them that). As for the justification, though, nine out of ten times, if the Look Inside display is justified then I know that either the margins or line spacing will not work in the actual ebook.

  3. Totally true. Which is why I proofread on my kindle – looks way different. And no matter how many times I proof I still find errors. As in I recently found some errors in One Foot In Heaven so now I’m going to my kindle account to see if I can fix them without bugging you. Minor stuff readers don’t even notice but I notice.
    Your end product is a hundred times better than the stuff I’ve read from the major pubs.

  4. Since ebooks are displayed in what amounts to a glorified web browser, their native language is HTML. When I do formatting, I create an HTML file from the Word doc, then convert that to the ebook format (.prc or .epub). It’s an extra step, but it gives you much more control over how the book will display.

    • And for those who feel the need to use Calibre, they now have an EPUB editor. It can be useful. (Not to mention, it proves that html isn’t that scary or difficult to use.)

  5. It’s funny, but when the myths about self-publishing come up, I always hear the same two over and over: indies don’t edit and indies have ugly covers. Putting aside for a moment how utterly false these are, it’s interesting that I never hear, “Indies don’t know how to format their books.” I’m sure that someone, somewhere has said this, but it’s not one of the myths you hear over and over. Everyone knows that indies are miles ahead of the big pubs when it comes to proper formatting. And that is thanks to the wonderful work of professional formatters like you!

    • Thank you, Margaret. I have to say, I see some horrendous formatting, and hands down, the absolute worst comes from the big pubs. Both ebooks I’ve returned (and it takes a LOT to make me demand a refund) were put out by trad pubs. You’re right, I’ve yet to hear any trad pub boast about their wonderful ebook production. They’d be eaten alive.

      • To keep your beliefs about indy writers and their book covers, please don’t visit


        Perhaps it’s better to say that the myth is that “all indy book covers are terrible,” which is not true. And there are bad book covers from New York, too; they’re just bad on a higher level of competence. Lynn Viehl has talked about one of her covers in which the hero’s face was tinted a masculine shade of pink!

      • I love that site, Bill. It’s a pretty good primer for what NOT to do.

        But I gotta tell you, out of 17 covers done for my books by a major publisher, only one of them could be considered “fabulous.” The rest ranged from “meh, not bad” to “OMG, did I beat up the artist in third grade or something?”

        I don’t make blanket statements about the state of covers. There are some publishers, in some genres, who do them consistently well. That goes for indies, too. The majority of covers, across the board, range from “meh” to “serviceable.” I do know this, though. When I’m browsing on Amazon, I can no longer tell from the covers which came from trad pubs and which came from indies. When I guess, half the time I get it wrong.

        Now, the interiors on the other hand? Across the board, indies do a better job. Some of the crap put out by the bigger pubs should be against the law. There are quite a few authors I’d pay premium prices for, but not when the production is that shoddy.

  6. NEXT project I will work squeaky clean from the beginning. This one I will clean up when I finish this draft, before getting the ebooks created.

    When you work with text that was originally done in Word (2004, Mac), then ported to Scrivener while you were learning Scrivener, you get a LOT of differences in formatting.

    I’ll get to it, but I’m very conscious how much tidier it has to get for professionalism.

    Thanks for the great columns about HOW to do things.

    • You’re welcome, Alicia. I got into the habit of writing in “manuscript” mode, one style sheet, no more than two paragraph returns ever, no centering or page breaks, tagging instead of special formatting. The hardest part was getting used to the display.

      As for moving between programs, I do that a lot. I NEVER transfer documents directly from one word processing program to another. All word processing programs are based on some form of html. I’ve learned the hard way that they aren’t necessarily interchangeable and they do clash. So if I have a document in Word that needs to go to Scrivener, I copy it first into a text editor, clean out any Word “styling” then copy the raw text into Scrivener and apply their styling. I even do this between versions of Word (.doc and .docx).

      Any writer who wants to format text beyond the manuscript stage should get a good text editor and learn to use it. Think of it as the vacuum cleaner of the publishing world–no home should be without one.

  7. Pingback: My Least Favorite Part of the Publication Process? | Kay Camden

    • I couldn’t tell you, Jack. Well, I could if I had time to screw around with it, but for now, all I can say is try it and see what happens. Convert the rtf into an EPUB with Calibre then open it in the EPUB editor and see what it looks like.

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