You Say Documents, I Say Source Files

A manuscript formatted for print, complete with header.

I’ve been creating manuscripts for well over twenty years. I can rattle off the formatting in my sleep. Double-spaced, one inch margins, header with page number top left corner, drop to middle of page to start a new chapter, blah blah blah. It’s a manuscript. A document to be printed and stacked and tucked in a box or an envelope and put in the mail. Who does that anymore? Oh sure, some agents and editors still insist on hard copies, but they’re in the minority and growing rarer by the day. Even though most agencies and publishers have gone digital, even though more and more writers are finding markets online and many are self-publishing either ebooks or POD, old habits die hard. Writers are still producing documents when they should be producing source files.

Whatever do you mean, Jaye?

Many writers, especially those who’ve been around a while, treat word processors like typewriters. We want to see on the screen what we want to appear on paper. Word processors are very accommodating that way. Most aren’t WYSIWIG, but pretty close. If we center text on the screen, it centers in the printout. If there are 24 lines on the screen, 24 lines print on the page. The printer doesn’t care if we indent lines with tabs, first line hanging or hit the space bar five or six times. It prints as an indent. If all you ever intend to do is create printed documents, then you can quit reading now. If you intend to submit electronically or create an ebook or a POD book or make pdf files, then listen up. It is time to break the document/manuscript habit.

You see, a clean source file can be copied indefinitely and used to create printed manuscripts, digital files for electronic submissions, ebooks, pdfs and POD books. With a clean source file an agent or editor can read your submission on a computer, smart phone, iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Nook, tablet or whatever else they might happen to have and your work will be readable. With a clean source file you can easily make a copy to create a professional looking printed document for that guy still living in 1973. And with a copy of that same file you can format an ebook that will convert cleanly for Smashwords, Amazon, Nook or whatever–or send it to a professional formatter who can turn it around in a matter of hours. Then you make another copy and format that for a slick pdf to send to reviewers. And you can snag a template off CreateSpace or Lulu and load it with your nice clean file and create a POD book. All the while that source file is sitting on your computer, nice and clean, and ready to be turned into whatever you happen to need next.

A Clean, Plain Jane, No Frills Source File, Created in MS Word

There is nothing difficult about creating source files. They are straight text files, nothing more. The difficult part is getting out of the mindset of seeing it as a printed document living on your screen. I know, I know, old habits die hard and writers, especially fiction writers, get a bit freaked out by the lack of page numbers, headers, page breaks and centered chapter heads. Trust me, get into the new habit of creating source files and it could save you from rejections (I wonder how many agents and editors have rejected submissions out of hand just because they couldn’t read the text on their iPhone or it turned into gobbledegook on their computer screen and rather than walk the writer through how to set up a file, they just said to hell with it); it can save you from the frustration of having Amazon or Smashwords reject your ebook (you followed their instructions!) or worse, getting it through the conversion process only to discover your ebook is live, but horribly corrupted; and it can save you money if you hire someone to format your ebooks or your POD book and they have don’t have to charge extra to clean the junk out of your file.

To create a clean source file:

  • Turn off all Auto-Correct/Auto-format functions in your word processor (especially if you use MS Word). Turn off widow and orphan control.
  • Set up a simple style sheet to take care of the font, line-spacing, and indents. Apply it to every source file before you begin a new project and use it religiously.
  • No extra spaces between sentences or at the ends of paragraphs.
  • No extra paragraph returns (if you have a scene break, indicate it with the pound sign or three asterisks). Do not use paragraph returns to drop your chapter heads to the middle of the page or to create a page break.
  • No page breaks–of any kind.
  • No centering text–not chapter heads, titles, poetry, nothing (easy way to track chapter breaks, use all caps CHAPTER ONE or bolding)
  • No special characters. Use “typewriter” characters such as two dashes to indicate an em dash and a slash mark for fractions. Avoid super- and subscript characters. If your text contains foreign characters, Anglicize the spelling and track the usages so the special characters can be inserted when the file is formatted for whatever purpose.
  • Even in Word, italics, bolding and underlining don’t seem to screw up a source file. Those are safe.

I’ve had people tell me, “But I need page breaks or nobody will know how many pages there are!” Nobody will be able to tell anyway unless you intend to print out the file on 8.5 x 11 20# bond. And then I’ve been told the writer knows how they want the document to look, so it’s okay. Trouble is, they know how it looks on their screen and how it looks coming out of their printer. They do not know how it looks on an iPad or iPhone or Android or Nook or Kindle or an agent’s Mac (you use a PC) or vice versa. Trouble is, every bit of formatting they do adds code to their file and that code can be misinterpreted or corrupted by another device. If you hire someone to create an ebook, they will look at your wonderful page arrangements, and tack on extra charges to the estimate because the first thing they have to do is get rid of everything you’ve done.

It takes some conscious thought to break old manuscript habits. You can get used to it. Just keep repeating: Source File, Source File, Source File…


In the Formatting Wars, How Writers Can Win

In my post earlier this week I talked about standardizing ebook formats. My friend, Jonathan Allen, did a pretty good job of explaining why there are so many platforms and proprietary formats for ereaders. Today he continued the explanation as to why it probably is going to take quite a while before we have ONE format and universal ereaders. Even though I now have a better understanding about how the situation turned into a mess and what it will take to untangle it, I don’t hold out much hope the situation is going to resolve itself anytime soon.

As a writer and ebook producer, this is not particularly heartening. I guess I hoped that if I turned my energies toward learning HTML, all my stress would magically disappear. Now I know that is not true. And it is stressful. I just finished a big project. (It turned out great, by the way, I am very proud of it–you can look at it here) The night before I had nightmares about the book being all messed up. After uploading it yesterday to Amazon, while it was in review, I tossed and turned and fretted all night that the book would be all messed up. Today I uploaded it to Smashwords and my stomach is clenched up with worry that I accidentally did something that will mess up the book.

All it takes is one little bit of wayward code that I can’t even see and weird crap could show up on some unsuspecting reader’s device.

Ay yi yi.

All is not lost. While the computer wizards are hashing it out, there is one thing we writers can do to make sure our ebooks don’t become casualties of the formatting wars.

Clean source files.

I bet 80% of the writers who read this post use a version of MS Word. As much as Word frustrates me because it’s so darned helpful, I love the way it produces documents. Therein lies the problem. To produce those gorgeous documents, Word uses a lot of codes, hidden and unhidden. In a printed document, it doesn’t matter how much junk is hidden in the file. Most printers have no beef with MS Word. In most cases, whatever you tell Word to print, it will gladly do so. Ebook files, however, are not documents. Much of that lovely formatting–tabs and extra paragraph returns and centering and font changes and special characters and headers and footers and page numbers and footnotes–will be interpreted by other programs as junk that needs to be fixed. Or some program, somewhere, might throw up its hands in despair and fill a screen with gobbledegook.

Writers who intend to publish their writing as ebooks–whether they do the formatting and conversions themselves, or hire someone else to do it–need to get out of the “document” mindset. What they need to start doing is thinking of the composition–the novel, short story, article, whatever–as a “source file.” Start thinking of formatting as a completely separate process. You compose a source file, then you use a copy of it to create a printed document, a pdf, an ebook or whatever else you require. There is no special formatting in a source file.


The suggestions that follow are for Word users, but no matter what word processor you’re using, you can adapt to suit your needs.

  1. No tabs. Ever. Never ever use the tab key in a source file. Not even one for good luck. No tabs!
  2. No extra spaces. Not between sentences, not after paragraphs, not at the top of the page, not to indent a passage, not to set off text. No extra paragraph returns either.
  3. No page breaks. But, but, Jaye, what about between chapters? No. Not even one.
  4. No headers. No footers. No page numbers.
  5. Turn off Auto-Correct and Auto-Format. You are safe with leaving on italics, bolding and underlining, but everything else, turn it off. Even curly quotes can cause a problem, so turn them off, too.
  6. Use “typewriter” special characters. Two hyphens for an em dash. Three connected periods for an ellipses. (c), TM, (R) instead of the special symbols. Do not insert subscript and superscript characters. If you have words requiring umlauts, accents or whatever, keep track of them. They can be made right during formatting.
  7. No bullets or ordered lists or outlines.
  8. Set up a Source File style sheet. (I give instructions for how to set up style sheets in Word here) Make it simple, bare bones, with a font you like to work in. Use it religiously.

Source files are plain as milk and not particularly pretty. What they should be is clean. Make a copy of your source file to create a printed document with headers, footers, special characters, centering, specified page breaks, and whatever you desire. Make a copy of the source file to format your ebooks according to different platform requirements. If you outsource the work, include a set of instructions to the formatter as to how you want your book laid out, along with a list of special characters, symbols and any special formatting you desire.

That’s how we keep our heads during the format wars, Writers. Clean source files. Make those standard and we can endure the wait until the powers-that-be, whoever they are, get their act together and stop making things difficult for the rest of us.