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.