Does Your Manuscript Have a Formatting Problem?

I’ve run into the same problem in eight out of the ten last books I edited. It’s not something structural or a problem with language use, it’s a formatting and layout issue with how Word is used. By far the most common error I run into when copy editing is tabs used to indent each paragraph.

It’s easy to see why people indent with tabs. Many writers learned to type on typewriters, where tabs were used for exactly this purpose. And there are still teachers who tell students to use tabs this way (my oldest daughter’s ninth-grade English teacher insists on them!) so the confusion persists.

But why is using tabs to indent or center text bad? Doesn’t it all look the same in the end?

The answer is no, not when you’re working with a word processor and a digital document.

Word (and other word processors) create a document on the screen that you can see and interact with, and it looks like the kind of document you’d get from a typewriter. It prints the way it looks on the screen; what you see is what you get. But that’s a facade; the document is actually being created as a strong of code, a collection of computerized symbols that tell the screen how to represent the writing. Tabs and spaces aren’t visible on the screen (unless you have paragraph marks turned on) but they each still require a piece of code in the document to hold their place.

The problem comes when taking a Word document and putting it through layout in order to publish a book. When a Word document is exported to a different format for layout, the conversion process recognizes the code that indicates spaces and tabs and automatically collapses them. Then the software programs that publish or open books (such as .epub) recognize this and try to compensate by stretching them out again. But the end result can be messy—very messy. The way the code gets rendered in an ebook can be completely different than how it looked in Word, and the formatting problems caused by extra spaces can’t be easily removed. Adding unnecessary invisible marks like spaces, returns, and tabs can mess up your entire document, and trying to go back and fix it after a conversion is a nightmare.

So how can authors (and editors) work with Word to help their manuscript transition properly? Recognizing that your document is digital means removing any formatting that’s done using invisible characters. This includes extra spaces after periods, spaces or tabs to indent paragraphs, or returns to create a line or chapter break.

You can safely indent or center text using the right tools in Word. Centering text is easy: simply highlight it and click the “center” button in the Home tab. Telling the software to start a new page, for example at the end of each chapter, is easy too: Just click on “page break” in the Insert tab.

You can set an automatic indent for each paragraph by highlighting the document (use “select all” in the Home tab), opening the paragraph box in Home, and entering a measurement in the indentation section. But that’s a lot of work! It’s easier to select the text you want to apply indents to (again “select all”) and just drag the slider at the top of the page to where you want indents to appear. If you don’t see a slider, go to View and check the box next to “ruler.” You’ll see a shape that looks like a tiny hourglass at the left side of the ruler: you can drag the top triangle, bottom triangle, or both to change how your work is indented. It’s far easier than manually typing tabs in every time and it sets your document up to convert safely.

What do you do if your document is already written and full of tabs and spaces? Find and delete them, then apply the correct formatting as explained above. You can do this manually, if you like. If the thought of deleting every one of those tabs is overwhelming, you can use Word’s find and replace tool to do it for you.

In the Home tab in Word, look all the way to the right, and click on “replace.” A box will pop up, and you can use this tool to enter any text you want to replace with something else in the entire document (A very useful tool, by the way, if for example you change a character’s name, or forget halfway through that you were using kilometers instead of miles.) In the top “find” box, type ^t to seek out all tabs. If you leave the replace box empty, this will delete any tabs in the document.

It’s much harder to replace indents made manually with spaces, but you can use the same tool to help. In the find box type ^p [space] without the brackets, just carrot, p, space. That will identify or remove a space at the beginning of every paragraph. If you know you always indent with, say, four spaces, type ^p space space space space.

It’s never easy to get used to a new way of doing things, especially if you’ve always typed your documents using tabs and spaces to move text around. But being aware of the problems those characters can cause in formatting will save you an enormous headache if you will be self-publishing, and your copy editor will thank you.

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