Know thy Wordprocessor

One upon a time, in days of yore, before the biro, being a writer was not just a matter of pulling out a pen, reaching for the vellum; and pouring out one’s loving or vitriolic thoughts onto a piece of parchment. Sadly there was no Paperchase or WH Smith where one could conveniently buy paper, pens and ink. No! Committing one’s innermost id to posterity required getting out there to make, for oneself, the paper, the ink and have one plucking and cutting the pen. That is why scriveners had apprentices: what better way to avoid all this inconvenience than to have a little bevy of underpaid interns to feed the ego, furnish someone to kick, and send chasing after geese and galls to provide the raw materials.
Today we are spoiled. Courtesy of Microsoft, Corel and others, we all now type our words on a word processor, make them look pretty, and send them off to our publisher, who takes one look at them and screams! Why? Because few of us have bothered to learn how to use our copy of Word, or WordPerfect, or Open Office or…
My problem as a publisher is that I am not printing your masterpiece on A4 paper at 12 point but on A5 at 9 or 10 point, or, if for a magazine, in columns or sidebars at 6 point in a weird colour. It is really helpful if you, the author, could make it a little easier. The extra time needed to reformat your masterpiece costs the publisher money and with small presses being under such pressure any help from the author is welcome.
It looks easy doesn’t it? You line up all the paragraphs or stanzas so they look pretty on the page and send it off. Here’s a test you can apply to your work: highlight the whole piece and change the font to something much smaller, such as 6 or 8 point. If it retains its format, then you’ve done OK and I, as your publisher, will be proud of you. If it doesn’t then you have some work to do. First off, use the display formatting characters feature to understand how you achieved this monstrous formatting. In most word processors it is the ¶ button. I have often been told that it makes the screen look messy: maybe it does; but it also shows you when you are being an idiot.
This is not the place to provide a detailed tutorial in word-processing but I offer below some hints as to what will help your publisher the most. As a poet, I too, have had my layouts mangled by anthology editors. Be aware that publishing deadlines often mean that a line by line comparison with the source document is impossible, nor is it always practicable to send the reformatted poem back to the author.
So here goes – essential advice to the wannabe publishee:

  • Turn on display formatting characters ¶
    It will show you immediately that five spaces doth not a tab make.
  • Write your masterpiece using a ‘serif’ font. (This is a serif font.) With a serif font you can see when typing if the quotation marks are the right way round. Modern fonts often use a generic ” which is the same at the start or end of a word, and if you are writing dialect you can guarantee the leading quote representing a missing first syllable WILL be the wrong way round. For dialect ’ere or numbers ’96 prefix with a ^ or~ then replace with null: the ’ is ascii 0146. Ascii characters are entered with the Alt key and numeric keypad (make sure numlock is on). Close single quote ’ is 0146. [Word offers a short cut for this: Ctrl+’,’ (Ctrl + apostrophe comma apostrophe)]. It is unlikely that even the best editor will find them all. If you want to see if you’ve got it right in your source manuscript: use a serif font.
  • Dashes and hyphens.
    Many word processors guess what you mean when you use a – (hyphen) but they don’t guess very well, especially if you are revising text. Typically space hyphen space will be turned into space en-dash space which is what you want. It may also catch space hyphen carriage return: useful when editing as you can just backspace over the carriage return and enter a space. Please do not use em-dashes  —, they are far too big, especially in some fonts. The ascii code (see previous bullet point) for en-dash – is ascii 150: On a keyboard with a numeric keypad the default short cut is Ctrl + Numlock + -.
  • Learn how to use indents and hanging indents.
    If you are writing prose and want to indent the first line I would rather you used the indent feature. Tab is best avoided as they will be edited out and in the process some other use of Tab may be damaged: do not use spaces. I can adjust the indent of the whole story in one go: spaces just give me a lot of tedious editing.
  • Always use the same technique for every paragraph or stanza.
    Nothing provokes the scream factor more than an author or poet who mixes tabs, spaces and indents to do the same thing. I have to edit the item to make the feature consistent so I can manipulate it all at once. In any anthology there will be a house style; do not try to subvert that style to stand out.
  • Learn the difference between a new line and a new paragraph.
    To a word processor a new line is just that, but a paragraph comes with a great deal of baggage and is stored on the file with hundreds of characters of formatting information. You can use a new line to shorten a line without the baggage of a paragraph: a new paragraph may trigger off an indent, or hanging indent, or bullet, or even a different line space. New line avoids all this. In a word processor ‘Enter’ creates a new paragraph, ‘Shift + Enter’ a new line.
  • Poets can end each line with either a new line or paragraph but please, for everyone’s peace of mind, end each stanza with TWO paragraphs. Mac and Linux users please note, a lot of text editors use ‘Vertical Tab’ and not ‘Carriage Return + Line Feed’ with ‘Enter’. This is a pesky nuisance as your material has to be screened and adjusted: I once spent hours trying to figure out why two poems kept corrupting each other before the new line penny dropped.
  • Prose writers should be very careful when deliberately shortening lines: firstly the formatting for a different media size will make a nonsense of the precious scheme and secondly, shortening lines with paragraph marks make the author a candidate for the firing squad. If you must, use a new line but the ‘Right indent’ is much preferred.
  • Prose writers must not end each line with a paragraph rather than let the word processor do its job. Cleaning up for publication will negate any special formatting effects. If it’s because you are using Notepad and haven’t learned how to turn on ‘Wordwrap’ then I feel truly sorry for you!
  • Poem line lengths
    Writing poems on A4 (or US Letter for that matter) can lure the writer into a false sense of security when writing long lines: when published the effective line will be about a half or less than on the source document. Poems can thus acquire unanticipated line breaks or dangling words. To set your mind at ease consider testing your poen by displaying it on A5 (with narrow margins) using an 11 point serif font. It will give you a better idea of what it will look like in a published book.
  • Poets. Fancy stanza layouts are a privilege which many think are just an affectation which should be denied you. However fancy a stanza layout you want, your publisher will try to replicate it, but, please do it all with spaces, not tabs, not indents, not anything else. The magic of proportional fonts also means the spaces are also maintained proportionally, so, if I change the point size of your poem the stanza layout will stay the same. If you use tab or indent, I can guarantee the chances of your pretty layout remaining intact are very much reduced. A proof reader may spot the incorrectly formatted tab but almost certainly will miss the erroneous indent. As a poet, I have sometimes caught a missing indent because my instincts tell me it should be there: anyone else will miss it.
  • Use New Page to force a new page.
    Your favorite Word Processor will provide a new page facility, using it ensures you get a new page in the right place regardless of the font size, margins, or paper dimensions. Hitting Enter until you reach the next page is time consuming both for you and the person who has to turn them back into a New Page. New Page is usually Ctrl+Enter.
  • Wordprocessors  do not respect the author’s choices of margin but uses the ‘default’ printer settings on the recipient’s computer setup to ‘adjust’ the page width and height – this means, if you send a wordprocessor document to a friend it WILL NOT look like the document you sent. Page breaks will be in different places hence the advisability of using ‘New Page’.

The sheer length of this list gives you a taste of the issues a compositor faces setting writing for an anthology or magazine. Just because a word-processor is so easy to use is no excuse for not learning how to use it. Every artisan is responsible for their own tools and writers cannot call themselves writers if they do not know how to use their word-processor.
©Alan Gillott, 2011, revised 2013, 2017, 2019, 2021