So the author wants to self-publish. Great! How can an editor help the author (or the author help herself) to get the manuscript ready for print and ebook?

The standard manuscript format doesn’t really apply here. It’s not a bad starting point, of course; most book designers are used to starting with manuscripts that conform at least visually to some form of a standard manuscript format.

Photo by James Bold on Unsplash
Photo by James Bold on Unsplash.

But there’s more to be done before the manuscript is ready for book design.

Clean and consistent

Aside from the editing work, which among other things includes cleaning up the text, the imperative in prepping the manuscript for publishing, whether it will be later designed with professional tools or you’re trying to fake it directly in Word (ugh), is consistency.

And that means using Word Styles.

Automated processes in format conversions can err when evaluating whether A is the same as B.  That means we have to make sure A means A, B means B, and so on. Styles are Word’s built-in toolset to ensure all intended semantic structure (and resulting formatting intentions) survive the process.

Here are some primary steps to help you prepare a clean and consistent Word manuscript for publication.

  1. Clean the text of all double spaces, tabs, extra line returns, hard line breaks within sentences (to make something fit), discretionary hyphens, trailing whitespaces, empty paragraphs, etc.
  2. Make all ellipses consistent, using either the ellipsis glyph or three periods.
    • For print, either can work, depending on the font and end result you want.
    • For ebook, go with the glyph for semantic reasons.
    • Be sure to check spacing for those cases where there’s other punctuation involved.
  3. Set all the body text with the same Paragraph Style. That means ALL the body text.
    • The Style can define the font, but make sure the paragraph Style isn’t combined with a Character style, because it overcomplicates what’s needed and can lead to unexpected results. (More on Character Styles below.)
    • If you’re using Word’s default template, the Normal Style should be fine.
    • Change how the Style looks by modifying the Style itself—for books, that means under the Style’s paragraph settings, set Indentation > Special to First line and Spacing Before and After to 0.
  4. Define a new Paragraph Style for the chapter opening paragraph so you can target chapter openings with special design.
    • Give the Style a human-understandable name such as Normal Open or something so you can easily find it and identify it as your custom Style (because Word has a zillion of their own). My own preference is to use the body text Style’s name plus “open” so they’re listed next to each other in the Styles Pane.
    • In this new Style’s Properties settings, make sure the Style type is set to Paragraph only, and set Style based on to the body text Style from step 1. This way if you change something in the body text Style, it will change in this opening Style, too, unless you’ve overridden it here.
    • Remove the Style setting for a first-line indent, if you like. The important thing is that this Style is applied to the opening paragraph for each chapter.
    • Note: Word is generally awful with dropcaps. Don’t bother if the manuscript will be going to a book designer. Just tell the designer to create the dropcaps there.
  5. Define a continuation paragraph Style, naming it something like Normal contd.
    • Remove the first-line indent from the Style’s Paragraph setttings.
    • Apply this Style to paragraphs where you don’t want the first-line indent, such as continuing a paragraph after a blockquote or intra-chapter break.
  6. Define one Style for chapter titles and apply it to each chapter.
  7. Define Styles for each level of heading used, or use Word’s default headings Styles.
    • Apply them diligently on all headings.
    • Hierarchy is important, so be sure to mark them correctly.
  8. Define a Paragraph Style for blockquotes. Apply it to all blockquotes in the manuscript.
  9. Define a Character Style for italicized words.
    • Replace all directly formatted italics with the Style.
    • If you want to do right by the ebook and accessibility, create separate styles for emphasizing a word vs indicating a foreign word vs interior thought vs a title of a work—even if visually they all are treated with italics. See this article for a bit more about the semantic differences between these. For more, look at how the HTML is defined semantically. (Ebooks are built in HTML, so these details can matter.) This article by Oli Studholme gets into it more, and the comments are worth reading, too.
  10. Define a Character Style for bolded words and do the same as you did for italics.
    • And yes, there are nuances here, too. See the links above.
  11. Continue this process for each different element you have in the manuscript—bullet lists, breakout quotes, tables, image captions, you name it. If the formatting itself is tricky, don’t worry about it. The important thing is to apply the Style so that element is defined with semantic meaning.
  12. If you’re sending this off to a book designer, don’t worry about the running headers and pagination. That won’t carry over. Those elements are handled separately within InDesign and are stripped out altogether in ebooks.

When you’re done, everything in the manuscript should be defined by a Style. Send off the manuscript too the book designer.

If you must publish directly from Word

Personally, I think if you’re going to try to format and publish directly from Word, you might need some extra help such as a pinch of cruelty-free eye of newt, a lock of hair from a promising swimmer, clicking your heels together three times, and vaping a pungent clove flavor to ease the bitterness of the bile in the throat.

Microsoft Word is not a layout tool. Formatting in Word is like baking a cake in the mixing bowl. Yes, the bowl may be rated to sustain the oven temperature, but it’s not quite a cake pan, and your “cake” may not come out looking as you intended. Yes, you can apply all kinds of formatting in Word, but the application can’t address all the things a book designer attends to using a more appropriate tool like InDesign.

That said, if you or the client must go that way, at least configure the body text Style to NOT add extra space between paragraphs—an amateurish blunder I see in so many self-published books—and for print, choose a professional font, not Times New Roman. Consider Calluna or Georgia font. Avoid fonts with thinner strokes; they can work fine in offset printing, but sometimes can come out faint in print-on-demand, which uses different technology.

Print-on-demand printers tend to have better results with fonts on the heavier side. Some common, Garamond, has thinner strokes that can end up faint on the page if the machine is running light that day) and be sure there are no text colors set in any of the Styles. Keep it simple. Automated processes struggle with evaluating whether A is the same as B. For ebook, font choice won’t matter and colors are OK, but know that your Styles will define markup and styling applied to the text.

As for publishing directly from Word to ebook (uploading the .doc or .docx file to KDP, Smashwords’ Meatgrinder, etc.), I can offer no advice beyond the steps above because I have no experience at it. I preconvert the manuscript to ebook format and manually clean up the resulting (usually horrific) markup. A universal truth, though, is that the more you leave things to an automated conversion without testing and inspecting and correcting afterwards, the more you should expect unexpected results.

I hope this rundown is helpful. What do you think?

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