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Word-processor paragraphing

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I've had occasion recently to see a couple of authors' word-processor documents, and I've noticed that some authors are using tabs and returns and spaces to format paragraphs by hand. Which leads me to suspect that there are a fair number of writers who don't know about certain really useful features of word processors; specifically, the fact that word processors can do a lot of paragraph formatting for you.

What all of the following issues have in common is that they look fine when you print out the story. So to some extent, it's silly for me to even talk about this stuff; for markets that take only paper submissions, these aren't issues. But there are two reasons you may want to consider using the word processor's paragraph-formatting features instead of doing your formatting by hand with tabs and returns and spaces, even if the format-by-hand approach looks fine when you print it out:

  • Hand-formatted text is harder for you to modify. When you let the word processor handle your paragraph formatting for you, then you can easily modify the paragraph all you like without having to worry about where the line breaks fall.
  • I gather that some print publishers, after accepting a story from you, will ask you for an electronic copy of the story to work from. (I'm not actually sure that's true, but I think it is.) And if you've done a lot of hand-formatting in your document, the publisher is going to have to undo that formatting, making more work for them.

As a general note, if you grew up using a typewriter and are still getting the hang of this "word processor" thing, you should really go buy and read The Mac Is Not a Typewriter or The PC Is Not a Typewriter (depending on whether you use Mac or Windows) as soon as possible. Both books are by Robin Williams (not the comedian); both are very short; both are chock-full of useful advice about getting the most out of a word processor.

In case you're not sure what I mean by "hand-formatting," here are some examples:

If you're used to typewriters, you may think that you have to press Return or Enter at the end of each line of text, but various things about word processors work better if you don't do that--if you only press Return or Enter at the end of a paragraph.

"But how can I do Standard Manuscript Format, with double-spaced paragraphs?" you may ask. Well, pretty much all word processors allow you to set the spacing between lines of a paragraph. Use the word processor's paragraph-formatting commands. In a word processor, pressing Return or Enter means "this is the end of a paragraph and the start of a new one."

Another example: if you want a paragraph to be indented on both sides, like for a block quote, there are various ways you could do that by hand: you could press Return/Enter a lot, or you could use tabs to get everything to line up. But instead of doing the indentation by hand, the best way to do it is to have your word processor handle it for you. To do that, select the paragraph in question and use your paragraph-formatting commands (or the "ruler" provided in most word processors) to adjust the margins of that paragraph. That way, when you type or delete or move text around, the word processor handles the line endings appropriately, just like in a normal text paragraph.

Perhaps the most common example is indentation. In standard manuscript format, you want the first line of every paragraph to be indented. Many authors, especially those used to typewriters, handle this by pressing the Tab key at the start of each paragraph. Other writers use their word processor's paragraph formatting options to set every paragraph to have an indented first line. Either of those approaches is fine, though the latter gives you more flexibility and uses the power of the word processor to better effect. (And the latter may help the publisher; for example, if you send a story to us that has tabs at the starts of lines, we have to remove all the tabs before publication anyway.) But some writers use a mix of those approaches in a single story, and I don't recommend that.

Another example, not so common in fiction, is tables. If you want several columns to line up, you could do that by using spaces, but there are all sorts of reasons that's a bad idea. You can also do it by using tabs, which is okay. But the best way to do it in most contexts is to use your word processor's table-creation system.

An advanced example of letting a word processor do the formatting work for you, in a somewhat different area, is search and replace. A lot of writers, when they need to change some formatting thing throughout a document, will go through and laboriously change every instance by hand. In some word processors, that's your only option. But in more advanced word processors--including by far the most common word processor, Microsoft Word--you can do a search-and-replace on formatting as well as on text. This is an incredibly powerful feature that not nearly enough people know about.

(But be careful when you do a replace-all. There was one edition of a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook in which they replaced all occurrences of "mage" with "wizard" but forgot to set the "match complete words only" option--so the word "image" became "iwizard" and "damage" became "dawizard".)

One more example, though this isn't so relevant to most fiction: footnotes. When I was in college, using an early version of MacWrite to write papers, I spent a lot of time hand-formatting footnotes, and moving them around in the document to make sure they were at the ends of pages, and so on. Eventually, I discovered that better word processors handle all that stuff for you, automatically putting the footnotes in the right places. Since then, footnotes have become a standard feature of word processors.

(I should note that even fairly technically oriented people may be unaware of what their software can do. Back when I first started using MacWrite, for example, I learned a lot of it by trial and error, and it never occurred to me to try some things; in particular, I didn't know that you could have more than one ruler--and thus more than one paragraph format in a document--until a friend asked me why I was reformatting a paragraph by hand.)

So if you find that you're having to do a lot of tedious formatting or reformatting of paragraphs by hand, take a minute to learn more about your word processor's formatting capabilities. You'll be happier, and it's possible your editors will be too.

For the advanced user, here's something even cooler you can do with most modern word processors: styles. You can define a paragraph format and give it a name, and then later on if you want to use the same format again, you just select that name from a menu. And then later you can change that format in one place, and it'll reformat all the paragraphs formatted that way. I highly recommend using styles, but some people find them too complicated and confusing; for most people's needs, they're not really necessary.

You may have noticed that I haven't given specific instructions on how to do any of this stuff. That's because the details vary significantly from one word processor to another. If you want to know how to do this stuff in your word processor, read the manual or help system. Or if that doesn't work for you, you can often get detailed instructions for how to do various things with various word processors by using Google.

3 Comments

.... but some word processors are becoming more like typewriters: see A Tool for Thought Declines.


Word's not getting more like a typewriter, it's just getting more obnoxious. The problem is that it's not really designed for authors any more (if it ever was), it's designed for writers of corporate memoranda. The last decent version of Word (heck, the last decent word processor, period) was version 5.1 for Mac.

I eventually gave up on version one of Apple's Pages, but one thing it does do really well is foreground the use of styles. Hopefully version two will fix some of the things that bugged me.


Here's what I want to know (and I've messed with the program in a wysiwyg kind of way to try to make it work) is how to make the Word for Mac program start up every new file in SMF: courier new, 12 point, double space instead of single space TNR.

And Jed, I was entertained by the latest SFWA email bulletin-you and me both jumping on the ED SF error in the last one.


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