Every author wants their book to be formatted correctly, and that’s a good thing. But if everybody is formatting, while nobody is styling, that’s a problem, and by styling I mean MS Word styles.
I get files from authors all the time. I get the files while the book’s being edited, and I use those to make estimates and do design samples.
After editing is finished, I get the final files to import into the page layout to create the set of first proofs that go back to the author and editor, and which are also used for pre-publication publicity, gathering testimonials, and so on.
But before we ever get to those proofs, we have to deal with the author’s files. To understand what’s going on here, consider what most people go through to write a book.
Books Take a Long Time to Write
The average self-published book probably takes 2 to 3 years to write and produce, and I’m confining myself to nonfiction here. You novelists are a special crowd.
During this 2 to 3 years the author will have created the book in pieces, at different times. She may have cut and pasted notes from a lecture she gave last year, or used text from a report written for a conference. Maybe the author has an archive of newsletters, other manuscripts that never got published, and research material from the web.
Gradually the word processing file holding this floating mixture of content starts to get bloated. Various reviewers, editors, and book coaches leave their markup corrections and comments behind in the manuscript. Changes are tracked from version to version.
On top of this comes the real problem: the authors who strive to make their manuscripts look as good as possible do so by formatting, adding pictures, squaring everything up.
Unfortunately, like most people, they do local formatting. That’s when you grab your mouse, highlight a word, phrase, or paragraph, and style it by choosing fonts, sizes, alignments, colors, and other variables to achieve a particular look.
Then they format the next subhead or chapter title, then the next, each time highlighting and picking options.
Of course, authors do this to make their manuscript look good.
But that’s not the ultimate goal, which is to create a good-looking, readable, and industry-standard book for publication, and to keep it perfectly consistent.
Sometimes the Solution IS the Problem
But let’s face it, very few people ever master the complex array of features in a program like Microsoft Word. In fact, I think that the sheer scope of the program discourages people from learning the most basic features that would make their jobs a lot easier. Faced with the mass of features and abilities in this mammoth program, a lot of people simply ignore it all and use Microsoft Word like an electronic typewriter.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But preparing manuscripts for formatting is a whole different matter. The files have to go through a thorough scrubbing to get rid of all the formatting the authors have done and to make sure they import properly into our page layout software.
The other day an author told me they had spent 6 hours fixing up the sentence spacing in their book file. Imagine how I felt when I could have fixed all the spaces in about a minute with a series of search-and-replace operations right inside Word, using its power to do the heavy lifting.
Another author spent days formatting his manuscript with numerous graphics, laboriously creating picture frames, captions, borders, shading, the whole works. Just as methodically, your book designer or formatter will strip the file bare of all the bits and pieces to assemble the parts needed for the layout.
But here’s the real problem. While all these writers are busy making their manuscripts look beautiful with different fonts, alignments, sizes, picture boxes and text boxes, they are missing the one feature of modern word processors that could really save them—and your designer—a huge amount of time: Styles.
MS Word Styles Are Worth Learning
Simply put, a style in Word is a whole set of formatting instructions that you can save and use again and again. Not only that, but if you assign styles to elements of your text, you can change all of them at once by simply changing the style definition.
For instance, say I have a style named “Subhead” and I’ve defined it as 12 point Times Roman Bold, centered on the page, and with some space around it.
Now I’ve decided I’d rather have Helvetica instead of Times Roman. All I have to do is change the style’s definition, and all the subheads—maybe hundreds of them in a long book—with this style tag assigned to them will instantly change to Helvetica. That’s putting the power of computing to work, right?
Not only that, but using MS Word styles will ensure that your book is consistent, that you didn’t mistakenly format some heads as 11 point and others as 12 point, which is very easy to do if you’re doing everything manually.
And if your document uses styles rather than local formatting, it makes the job of importing your file into layout software faster and much, much more reliable. For instance, Adobe InDesign’s intelligent importer can spot and manipulate these style assignments, putting the layout of your book on a fast track. It’s amazing how much faster a book can be laid out, ready for first page proofs, when the Word files are styled.
Be Consistent with MS Word Styles
Alas, I have bad news. It’s very rare to get a manuscript file from an author with styles assigned consistently throughout the file. Sometimes I’ll get one from an editor, but even that’s rare.
If authors understood how much time they could save themselves—forget centering all those picture boxes, it’s a waste of time—I’m sure they would take the ten minutes or so to learn how to use styles.
So do yourself and your book designer a favor: start styling your file with Word. You’ll be glad you did.
Takeaway: One of the most powerful—and most neglected—formatting tools in Microsoft Word is styles. Learn to use styles to save lots of time in manuscript production.
(Note: For a quick tutorial on using MS Word styles, see this post by Carla King.)
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