MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers: Part III: Punctuation and Special Characters

The best evidence that MS Word is not the best tool for fiction writers is in the way it handles punctuation and special characters. The program was created for office writing, and the documents it creates are meant to be printed on site in order to find homes in filing cabinets. Many features that make it terrific for an office can cause major problems for indie writer/publishers.

My Number One Recommendation: Turn It Off

Auto Correct is a boon for office drones, but it’s an annoyance (at best) and dangerous (at worse) for fiction writers. Find it under File>Options>Proofing.

Word_Styles_12Enable or Disable features as you see fit.

Click on the Auto Correct Options button and this comes up:

Word_Styles_13When I’m composing, the only auto-formatting I allow in Word is curly/smart quotes instead of straight quotes. Anything else means I’m going to end up fighting with Word and that pisses off the muse and sends her sulking into the corner. Every once in a while I need to format a Word doc for Smashwords. Then some of those auto features come in handy. See that box in the right hand image that says “Replace text as you type”? You can enable that and make it so Word inserts special characters for you. The copyright symbol, for instance, or the Euro symbol rather than a dollar sign. Be careful with this option and make sure you are using an ebook friendly font (Times New Roman, Garamond), otherwise Word could insert special characters from a subset that is not supported in ereading devices.


When I’m prepping a document for production one of the things I do is make sure the punctuation is print standard. If you want your ebook or print on demand edition to look professional, you will do the same.

Curly/Smart Quotes versus Straight Quotes

Straight quotes/apostrophes look bad and amateurish. Period. Use curly/smart quotes. If you have straight quotes in your document, you can change them to curly quotes with Find/Replace. Enable auto correct for smart quotes, then type a double quote mark in the Find field and a double quote mark in the Replace field, click Replace All and Word will change straight to curly. Do the same for apostrophes/single quotes.

Now you will run into a major headache caused by Word: Curly quotes turned in the wrong direction. To find and correct the most common offenders, here are two searches I suggest you run using the Find feature:

  • Dash/hyphen or em dash with a double quote. In the Find field search for -” or ^+”
  • Space apostrophe (insert a blank space before the apostrophe). This will find open contractions with wrong way apostrophes.


If you take only one thing away from this post, it is to NEVER use Word’s auto-hyphenation feature.

Word_Styles_14When producing an ebook, do NOT hyphenate your text. Ereading devices will render the hyphens as characters placed randomly throughout. It looks awful.

When producing a print on demand book, use Manual hyphenation. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it is tedious. Yes, it seems ridiculous to manually do something the program can do in seconds. But, Word is a slob when it comes to hyphenation and it uses weird rules. Don’t trust it.

Em and En Dashes

This isn’t a grammar guide, so you’ll have to open a style manual and study up. Em and en dashes have specific uses and are NOT interchangeable. If you want your book to look professional, use these punctuation marks correctly.

Hot keys for quick insertion:
Em dash: CTRL+ALT+ Minus (the dash/minus on the Number pad)
En dash: CTRL + Minus (the dash/minus on the Number pad)

Auto-format as you type:
Enable auto format so that a double dash — becomes an em dash
Enable auto format so a space – space becomes an en dash

Compose using a double dash (for em dash) and space – space (for en dash). When you are done and ready to format your book, do a Find/Replace All to take care of them in one shot.
Em dash: double dash in the Find field, and replace with ^+ (caret plus sign)
En dash: space – space in the Find field, and replace with ^- (caret single dash)


Ah, the ellipsis, much beloved by writers everywhere and so widely, horrendously misused. Get a style manual and bone up on proper usage. An ellipsis is a special character consisting of three dots. Not two, not four, not twelve–three. While you are composing in Word, three periods in a row will suffice. When it comes to production, three periods in a row will screw up your book (digital and print) by orphaning periods.

Now is the time..
. (oops, little orphan)

For a professional looking ebook or print on demand book you want to use either the ellipsis character or a spaced ellipsis.

Word_Styles_15I showed the characters with the Show feature both off and on so you can see the (invisible) non-breaking space characters.

To make an ellipsis character:

Hot key: CTRL+ALT+. (period)
Auto format: Refer to the above image showing auto format options. Enable the “Replace text as you type” option to replace three periods in a row with an ellipsis.

To make a spaced ellipsis:

Hot key: .(period) CTRL+Shift+space .(period) CTRL+Shift+space .(period)
Find/Replace: (During composition use three periods) In the Find field type three periods … and in the Replace field type .(period)^s.(period)^s.(period)


If you are creating a document for your personal use, to print on your printer, this isn’t a concern. Just about everything you see on the screen will show up on the printed page. When you’re producing a book, either in print or digital, however, special characters can create big problems.

What is a special character?
Anything you can’t type directly on your computer keyboard.

In the Insert tool bar, click on Symbols.

Word_Styles_16For those of you who hire out your formatting, using obscure symbols or characters can cause big problems.It’s also a big problem when restoring text from scanned pages converted into a Word doc with OCR (Word can be very creative with interpretation). Ereading devices are selective about the characters they will render. The older the device, the fewer characters it will accept. My suggestion to you is, if you want/need obscure characters or symbols in your ebook, send a note to your formatter.

Dear Formatter: In chapter 7 I have several emoticons (smiley face and frowny face) I would like turned into symbols if possible.

Sometimes it is possible, sometimes substitutes must be made. Doing it this way is better than inserting a character that will not render and the formatter missing it and the ebook ends up displaying an “I do not know what this means” symbol (an X’d rectangle with a question mark in it).

For those of you creating ebooks with Word, stick to only those characters and symbols you find in “normal text”, Latin-A extended and Latin-B extended. Most of those are safe. To test if they will render, use the Kindle Previewer and look at the text in the DX device. If it shows up there, it’s good.

For those of you creating print on demand books with Word, you have a slightly different problem. You must ensure that your fonts (or at least, the font characters) are embedded. Go to File>Options>Save.

Word_Styles_17Word comes loaded with dozens or hundreds of fonts. Not all of them are embeddable. When you save the file as a pdf, the receiving program will try to find substitutes for any characters it cannot reproduce in your desired font. This can be a disaster. It can also make getting your book through the Createspace review process a major pain in the patoot.

For more information from Createspace:

For more information about embeddable fonts:

MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers
Part I: Styles
Part II: Scene Breaks, Page Breaks, and Sections
Upcoming: Part IV: Find/Replace and SpellCheck


MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers: Part II: Scene Breaks, Page Breaks and Sections

From a production point of view, white space in a Word doc can be a problem. It can confuse you or your hired formatter. It can cause goofs in your ebooks, not to mention making extra work for yourself.

I have some simple solutions for you.


Did you mean to hit Enter twice, or is that a scene break? How much time do you spend centering or using the space bar to align asterisks? How often do you forget to add the asterisks, or sometimes use one and other times five? How hard do you make it on yourself (or others) to find scene breaks when your book is in production?

Make it easy. I use a double pound sign (hashtags, for you young’uns).

Word_Styles_4Type them in and drive on. The double pound signs are unique (be very rare to find them within the text) and thus, searchable. When it comes time to produce the ebook or layout a print on demand edition, all I have to do is search for the double pound signs, do a Replace All and scene breaks are taken care of. (By the way, I turned on the Show feature in the sample so you can see the hard returns.)

If using Word to format your ebook or pod book, you can replace the ## with your scene break indicator of choice and style them all in one operation. Here is how:

Create a new style and call it Break or Scene Break. Here is a simple set up.

Word_Styles_5Open the Find/Replace box and do this:

Word_Styles_6Do a Replace All.

Word_Styles_7If you are sending your book to someone else for formatting, tell the formatter that you used ## for your scene breaks and let them know how you’d like them handled.

NOTE: The ## is arbitrary, which I use because it’s easy and unique. You can use any tag that makes sense to you, even typing in SCENE BREAK. As long as it is an easily searchable string, you’re golden.


I don’t use page breaks when I’m composing in Word. It’s unnecessary and just makes extra space I have to scroll through. I use a tag:


That’s two equal signs. I use it because it forms a unique search string. So the text ends up looking something like this:

Copyright Information
Table of Contents
Chapter One
Chapter Two
And so on
Chapter One

My little tag comes in handy while I’m formatting, too, since it allows me to use it as a search term to plug in page breaks and styles. If you want to print your document or you’re formatting an ebook or pod edition, there are two easy ways to insert page breaks.

Number 1: Find and Replace

Word_Styles_8If you want to retain the tag, use ^m== in the Replace field.(You can delete the tags later) Do a Replace All and you have page breaks.

NOTE: ^m is Word’s code for Manual Page Break. You can find other codes in the Special menu you see in the Find/Replace box. Those codes can be used in either the Find or the Replace fields.

Number 2 is to use your Heading 1 style. Modify Heading 1 the way I showed you in Part I. In the modify paragraph box, Line and Page Breaks, check the Page Break Before box. Now Word will insert a page break before every instance of the Heading 1 style.

Word_Styles_9To insert a manual page break in Word. You can use the hot key: CTRL+Enter. Or go to the Insert tool bar. Click on the icon for Page Break.


Sections are a nice feature in Word. They allow you to treat different parts of a large document with different styles, page numbering and first page treatments (no headers or footers on the first page, for instance). For composition, most print documents, or ebooks, you don’t need sections. If you are laying out a print on demand book, sections will save you many headaches and much frustration. The Section Breaks command (with its options for Odd and Even breaks and Next page or Continuous) is found in the Page Layout tool bar.


As noted before, white space can be a problem in Word. Sometimes you want a blank line–to set off a poem or letter, for instance–but it’s not a scene break. What I do is tag the blank line with a single pound sign/hashtag. It looks like this:

Here is my story moving along.
The only problem with
Kittens is that
Kittens grow up to be cats!
And the story continues on (with apologies to Mr. Nash)…

My little tag (which is entirely arbitrary, by the way, you can use anything you like, even type in BLANK LINE if it suits you) is a search term and I also use it to indicate that a section requires special formatting. If you use my single pound sign, remember it is NOT necessarily a unique search string. I make it unique with this string in the Find field ^p#^p. That tells Word to only consider a pound sign if there is a paragraph return before and after it.

There you go, learn a few Word features and use my tips, and white space will never trip you up again.

Part I: Styles
Next Post: Part III: Punctuation and Special Characters

MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers: Part I: Styles

Let us ponder MS Word. It’s ubiquitous. Until recently, just about every PC came pre-loaded with it. Writers use it because it’s there. In the course of cleaning thousands of documents generated in Word, I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of writers have zero idea about how to actually use the program. This is not a slam. Up until I began formatting ebooks, I had no idea how it worked either. I typed my stories and my printer puked out the pages, and that was that. Back in those days, it didn’t matter much. I had a standard manuscript format to follow, one my editors demanded, and once the manuscript was in my publisher’s hands, it was completely out of mine.

What I never thought about, and you probably don’t either, is that MS Word has evolved from a word processor into a quasi-publishing program. Its purpose is to create office documents: memos, contracts, forms, etc. Stuff that is printed for office use. As a tool for writers, especially fiction writers, it’s over-powered and way too complicated. For writer/publishers it’s horrendous. But, it’s what most people use and they aren’t going on a hunt for something different because it takes time to learn a new program and they’d rather be writing.

Indie writer/publishers, pay attention. If you don’t learn how to use Word properly, it’s either going to a) Drive you insane; b) Drive your hired production people insane; c) Create a less than professional end product; d) All of the Above.

I get enough questions via email about how to fix some problem or another created in Word, that I think this primer is necessary. Since Word is such a complex program, I’m doing it as a series. I’m not, however, writing a manual. (90% of Word’s features aren’t something you will ever need, so I’m not bothering with those.) Every feature I cover will pertain to you.


Styles in Word are the most useful feature of all. Learning to use them and then actually using them consistently will save you headaches, frustration and hours of useless, mind-numbing work. If you hire out book production, professional formatters will have no trouble with your text. If you do it yourself, styles will eliminate the majority of problems before you even begin.

NOTE: I am demonstrating using Word 2010, and its menus are different than other versions, but all the principles are exactly the same.

Word_Styles_1The Style menu is found on the Home menu screen. Pictured here is a work in progress. It requires only two (TWO!) styles. Normal and Heading 1, which are both built-in styles in Word. For composition purposes, especially with fiction writers, I recommend you stick to those two styles. You’re composing. You don’t need to worry about margins, headers, tabs, centering, page breaks, etc. If you aren’t going to print the document for any purpose than your own, none of that matters. Trust me.

The sample is set up for MY composition comfort, the layout that floats my boat. You may prefer a different font or line spacing. To modify a style to suit you, right-click on the style you want to change and choose Modify.

Word_Styles_2This will open the main style modification menu. In the lower left corner is a box that says Format. Click on that and you will open boxes that allow you to change the font and paragraph styles. The above sample shows my paragraph set up. To prevent future production problems, I suggest:

  • Alignment: Left
  • Outline Level: Body Text
  • Indent: (right and left): 0
  • Special (paragraph indent): 0.3″ if you like it narrow; 0.5″ if you like it wide
  • Line-Spacing: Your preference, single, 1.5, or double
  • Under Line and Page Breaks: Unclick ALL the boxes

You can modify your font the same way. Select Font from the Format menu and choose your font and font size.

NOTE: Choose a font that you can stand to look at and work in for however long it takes you to write your story. BUT, big warning here. Fonts in Word are designed to work in print. If you’re going to produce an ebook, and if you are using special characters (umlauts, breve and grave marks, ornaments, etc.) some character subsets will NOT translate. Times New Roman is the safest. Garamond and Courier are also pretty reliable.

So you set up your body text style as Normal, what happens? You type. When you hit Enter for a new paragraph, the cursor is at the proper indent (no need to use the Tab key or hit the space bar.). Your document will look the same throughout. If you decide to modify the layout, Word will update the entire document to match the new style.


Heading 1 is a built-in style. If you use it

  • Word will create a navigation guide for you. (You can do levels using Heading 2, Heading 3, Heading 4, etc., but for most fiction projects, that’s just silly.)
  • You can bop around your manuscript easily. You can tell at a glance where you are.
  • You can use the search function to find your chapter or section starts.
  • When you give the document to an editor, proofreader or formatter, Heading 1 makes it perfectly clear where your chapters begin even if you don’t use page breaks or title your chapters with “Chapter”.
  • If you are formatting a Word doc for Smashwords, Heading 1 alerts the Meatgrinder and enables it to build the internal ToC.
  • It makes building a Table of Contents easy.

To demonstrate how easy styles can be, I just spent a few minutes manipulating styles. The left document is my working document: Normal and Heading 1. In the middle is the same document styled for Smashwords. I modified Normal and Heading 1, then added a new style called “First” (you can make custom styles) to remove the indent from the first paragraph. On the right is a document I can save as a pdf to use for an advance reading copy. (I would, of course, adjust the margins, hyphenate the text, and add headers and page numbers, but that is another post).

Word_Styles_3Minutes. No hassle, no fuss, no bother.

Some tips for Styles:

  • Print and Digital are two completely different things. Use Save As to make a working copy any time you decide to style for a new format.
  • For ebooks, never use a justified style (in Word). Justifying your text can cause Word to insert “lock” commands that render user preference controls useless in the ebook.
  • Don’t use the centering command in the tool bar. Create a style for centering. That way you’ll never have to remember to remove the paragraph indents.
  • If for some reason, you prefer working in block paragraphs, use your style to insert space between paragraphs, NOT extra hard returns. Take a look at the image for modifying paragraphs. See the Spacing Before and After? Select “6” in the Before box and that will automatically insert a space between your paragraphs. “3” will you give you a half-space.
  • Remember, for printing purposes, What You See is pretty much What You Get. That is not true when formatting ebooks. If you are formatting an ebook in Word, set your view to Web Layout so you are not distracted by “pages” and margins. Adjust the window to make it smaller and larger, and you will see what I mean. Trust the styles to take care of your paragraphs, and don’t try to micro-manage spacing.

There you go. Styles. They’ll make your life easier and your books more professional.

Next post: Scene Breaks, Page Breaks and Sections