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…