Common Formatting Issues in Microsoft Word: Four Easy Tips for Authors

Lynette M. Smith

Basic formatting knowledge will serve you well throughout your writing career. If you perform some types of basic formatting on your manuscript, you’ll not only prevent distractions as you focus on quality writing, but you’ll likely save money too. Here’s why.

Formatting errors and inconsistencies that remain in your manuscript will distract your copyeditor from performing high quality work while reading. A smart copyeditor scrubs (basic-formats) the manuscript before starting to read, but you’re billed for that time. Even if you tell your copyeditor to disregard the formatting, your book-layout professional will have to resolve these problems later on, and you’ll still be billed for that time.

Figure 1

Here are four common manuscript-formatting issues and how you can address them.

1. First-Line Paragraph Indents

The wrong way: Use the tab key or type a series of blank spaces.

The right way to change only one paragraph indent: Go to the Paragraph window (see Figure 1), click the down arrow, and select First line from the resulting pull-down menu. Then use the vertical arrows to select your preferred amount of indent (either the 0.5” default or something smaller, such as 0.3”, or manually type in a more precise measurement, such as 0.25”).

Figure 2

The right way to change all paragraphs that use the Normal style: Click on the Home ribbon tab. Right-click the Normal style and select Modify to open the Modify Style window (see Figure 2). Here, you can customize the font and font size, and many other options.

When you click the Format button in the lower left corner of that window, you’ll see a pull-down menu with several options; left-click on Paragraph, and the familiar Paragraph window will appear; there you can select First line indent and the amount of indent, plus change other settings, like type of Justification (left vs. full), line spacing, points of extra space below each Normal paragraph, etc. When you finish customizing the settings in the Paragraph window, click OK to return to the Modify Style window.

Once back in the Modify Style window, make sure the radio-button “Only in this document” (located just above the Format button) is selected; then click OK to close the Modify Style window.

Note: In your document later on, you can override this indent for an individual paragraph, such as the first paragraph of a chapter or the first paragraph after a hiatus in a novel. Simply click once in that paragraph, access the regular Paragraph window, and change “First line” to “None.”

Figure 3

2. Spacing between Sentences and Words and after Colons

The wrong way: Type two spaces between sentences, after colons, or anywhere else.

The right way: When you finish your final draft, go to the far right-hand side of the Home ribbon tab and click Replace (within the Editing section) to open the Find and Replace window (see Figure 3). In the “Find what” box, type two spaces (press the space bar twice). In the “Replace with” box, type one space (press the space bar once). Then click Replace All, as circled in Figure 3. Repeat as needed until no occurrences of two spaces remain. (This process also corrects the accidental typing of two spaces between a pair of words.)

Figure 4

3. Horizontal Centering of Titles

The wrong way: Use a combination of spaces and tabs to horizontally center text.

The right way: Left-click once anywhere on the line or paragraph or graphic you wish to center. Then, on the Home ribbon tab, click the icon circled in Figure 4 to center what you’ve selected.

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4. Starting a New Page

The wrong way: Press the Enter key repeatedly until the desired text is forced to the top of the next page. The problem with this technique is that, if you later insert or delete text on an earlier page, then the line of text you intended for the top of the new page with will have moved either further down the page or to the bottom of the previous page, forcing you to spend extra time making adjustments—and you’ll likely have to adjust every subsequent chapter too!

The right way: Instead of inserting all those blank lines, insert a manual page break between chapters and/or sections. Here’s how: At the end of your chapter or other major section where you want to begin a new page, strike Control-Enter to insert the manual page break. Your cursor will then be at the top of the next page, where you can type your next chapter heading and content.

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When you follow these tips, your formatting will be clean and easy to work with, you can focus better on quality writing, and you can reduce your costs for copyediting and book layout.

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Lynette M. Smith works with book authors on their manuscript copyediting and book-layout proofreading in her long-established business, All My Best Copyediting and Heartfelt Publishing (AllMyBest.com). She is also the published author of the popular 40-page handbook, 80 Common Layout Errors to Flag When Proofreading Book Interiors, as well as the award-winning comprehensive reference book, How to Write Heartfelt Letters to Treasure: For Special Occasions and Occasions Made Special. Contact Lynette through her copyediting website, publishing website, or email , and follow her on LinkedIn and Facebook.

© Lynette M. Smith 2017

One thought on “Common Formatting Issues in Microsoft Word: Four Easy Tips for Authors

  1. lindaluke

    Thank you for these tips Lynette. They seem like common sense, but I know in the past I have been guilty of these mis-steps in formatting. I learned the hard way about #4.

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