Indie Writers: Make MS Word Work for You Instead of Against You

A Quick Primer for Fiction Writers in using Microsoft Word in the Digital Age

It always saddens me a little when a writer sends me an overly formatted Word doc to turn into an ebook or print-on-demand. It’s not that I have to clean it up–I can strip and flip the messiest files in less than an hour. What bugs me is how much thought and effort the writer wasted on utterly useless manuscript styling.

Example of a Word doc that has been overstyled.

Example of a Word doc that has been overstyled.

The majority of writers I work with use Word. The vast majority have no idea how to use Word for their own benefit. I understand. I was a fiction writer for over two decades and even though I have been using computers and a variety of word processing programs since the late ’80s, it wasn’t until I started learning book production that I figured out how those programs worked. Why would I? All I needed was a printed manuscript in standard format to mail to my editor. Word processors made that easy.

Now I produce books for digital and print, and those old ways of “thinking print” make the writer’s job harder. Especially indie writer/publishers who might be doing it all alone or working with contractor editors and proofreaders and formatters.

Since it would take a full book–or volumes–to explain how word processors work, I’m going to urge you all to take what I tell you in this post and play around in your word processor. I will be talking about MS Word, but much of what I show you will apply to almost any word processor.

STUFF YOU DON’T NEED AND NEED NEVER USE AGAIN

  • Tabs
  • Page breaks
  • Headers
  • Footers
  • Page Numbers
  • More than one space for any reason
  • More than two hard returns for any reason
  • Multiple fonts
  • Text boxes
  • Justification
Example of a manuscript that uses NONE of the above.

Example of a manuscript that uses NONE of the above.

STUFF THAT MAKES WORD “WORK” FOR YOU

  • Style sheets (fiction writers can get away with using only two or three, four at the most)
  • Find/Replace
  • Save As
  • Web View
  • “Show” feature
  • Formatting tags
(Left) Basic manuscript formatting; (Right) Overly formatted manuscript.

(Left) Basic manuscript formatting; (Right) Overly formatted manuscript.

See that backward P-looking icon I’ve circled? That’s the “show” feature. Toggle it on and you can see paragraph returns, spaces, tabs and a few other formatting features. With the basic formatting on the left, all I had to do was apply one style (Normal) to the entire manuscript, then apply heading styles to the chapters and sections, and done. To style an entire manuscript takes minutes this way. The manuscript on the right is an entirely different matter. To get it looking the way I want would take hours, if not days, manually lining everything up, trying to get it to look the way I want it. Worse, I have to remember what I’ve done so I can remain consistent throughout. When I’m done, I still have to scroll endlessly through the entire document to find whatever I might need to find.

And what about what is happening behind the scenes? MS Word uses html to control all those features. If you’re printing a document, the only true concern you have is making sure your fonts print properly. If you’re turning your work into an ebook, all that hard work (and useless effort) works against you.

The html in the basic Word doc and how it displays in Firefox.

The html in the basic Word doc and how it displays in Firefox.

The overly formatted file in html and how it displays in Firefox.

The overly formatted file in html and how it displays in Firefox.

So let’s make Word work for you. The NUMBER ONE thing (print it out and blow it up to poster size and post it where you can see it while you work) is:

IT DOESN’T MATTER A RAT’S PATOOT WHAT YOUR WORKING DOCUMENT/SOURCE FILE LOOKS LIKE

(Seriously, if your Happy Place while composing fiction involves Comic Sans font, 22pts, with 2 inch margins, triple spaced, then go for it. The only time it matters what your document looks like is when you intend to print.)

STYLE SHEETS

Set them and forget them; the best tool in the MS Word

Set ’em and forget ’em; the best tool in MS Word

Every version of Word has a style sheets feature. If you’re using 2010, you’ll find them in the “Home” toolbar. Word comes with a huge variety of pre-built style sheets. You can use them as-is or modify them. You can create your own style sheets. The most useful styles for the fiction writer are: Normal, Heading 1, Heading 2.

  • Normal: apply to the body of your text. Set your paragraph indents, line spacing, and font. Never worry about spacing, margins and indents again.
  • Heading 1 & 2: apply to titles, chapter heads or sections. Bonus: Word will automatically list your headings in the navigation window. No more scrolling through a long document to find a specific chapter or section. Another Bonus: Ebook conversion programs recognize heading styles. Some, like Calibre, will automatically build a table of contents for you based on headings 1 & 2.

Additional styles fiction writers might find useful:

  • Emphasis: Remember, styles apply to paragraphs. “Emphasis” is italics. If your entire paragraph is italicized, use “emphasis”.
  • Strong: “Strong” is bold.
  • Custom style–“Center”: Instead of clicking on the icon for centering, create a style sheet. Makes life easy.
  • Poetry: For poetry, quotes, lyrics, anything you want with different margins and font style.

FIND/REPLACE

This is the most useful and the most underused tool in MS Word. You can use it to not only find words, you can find special characters, styles, highlighting, and special formatting (such as italics or bold).

Click on the dropdown menus and you can look for anything that appears.

Click on the dropdown menus and you can look for anything that appears.

A few useful search terms:

  • ^& (caret ampersand): Stands for a string of text. Say I want to tag my italics. I would leave the Find box blank, but ask it to search for italics. In the Replace box I’d type -STARTI-^&-ENDI-, do a Replace All and Word will wrap all my italicized text in tags.
  • ^p : Hard return. You can search for them or insert them
  • ^l  (caret lower case L): Soft return (shift enter)
  • ^t : Tab. Working on a document in which you or someone else used tabs and want to kill them all? Type ^t in the Find box, leave the Replace box blank, and do a Replace all. Done.
  • * (asterisk): A string of text. Use as a ‘wild card’ when you’re restoring your special formatting. Say I want to restore my italics. In the Find box type -STARTI-*-ENDI-, click the ‘wild card’ box, and leave the Replace box blank but ask it to replace text with italics. Do a Replace All and all your tagged text is italicized. Then use Find/Replace to get rid of the tags.

SAVE AS

When I’m working on a project, I might have four, five, ten versions of a file. If I’m making major formatting changes, I NEVER EVER mess with my source file. Let’s say I want a printed version. I do a Save As to make a new version that is named Print_Docname_date. Then I apply headers/footers, page numbers, page breaks and modify my styles to make it suitable for printing. My original source file remains unchanged and ready to use. Using Save As is the best habit you can get into while you’re working. (And it’s not like you’re having to save your work to floppy disks–your computer has lots of space. Use it!)

WEB VIEW

Basicformat4Forsake print view and get used to web view while you work. This view is flexible (flow text) and enables you to easily display multiple screens and compare text while you work. You can adjust the width of your screen, too, and not lose chunks of text or reduce the image size in order to see everything.

FORMATTING TAGS

Because I use a variety of programs, and I dislike intensely losing formatting such as italics or trying to remember where I want a block of offset text, I tag my formatting. Now, because Word is html-based, you do NOT want to use html tags in your text. It’s okay if you’re outputting a file to a text editor, but if you’re going to a program that is html-based such as Scrivener or InDesign, or if you intend to bring the text back (you’re ‘nuking’ it, according to Smashword’s style guide), then those html tags are going to seriously mess things up.

My tags are arbitrary. I’ve come up with them because they are unique and easy to search for; they don’t show up in text (normally). Feel free to use mine if you want or come up with something that makes sense to you to use. IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: Special formatting such as italics or bolding require OPEN and CLOSE tags.

  • Italics: -STARTI- (open) -ENDI- (close)
  • Bold: -STARTB- -ENDB-
  • Underline: -STARTU- -ENDU-
  • For any special formatting such as headlines, poetry, etc: -SPECIAL- (this tag is a note to myself)
  • Placing Images: -IMAGE-
  • Scenebreaks or deliberate blank lines: ##

That’s it. Simple, no? This is MS Word in the digital age, a writing tool you can make work for you instead of against you.

 

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