Covering a little bit of previously-explored territory, let’s talk about formatting and the tools you have available to you to make sure that once your short story or novel leaves your computer and attempts to make its way in the world of agents, editors, and readers, you’re doing your best to make that manuscript free of bugs. For us, “bugs” mean little formatting issues you might not even be able to see but that might be a big deal later.

First, I’ll refer you back to a previous post on Manuscript Format and a PDF that shows how this looks in real life.

Then let’s keep in mind that there can be a big difference between how you write and how the story is eventually presented. I used to write everything in that standard manuscript format, worrying a little at least as I went along how the thing looked and was I following the proper format, and so on. But since then I’ve realized that I write more, and write better, if I ignore all that stuff—and I mean all that stuff—while I’m actually writing. As I wrote about in the post First Things First, everything that follows here is about what to do with that text after you’ve poured your heart and soul into it, and only after you feel that the story itself is you putting your best foot forward. Then go and do just a little cleaning up, a little formatting, to make sure your story is as readable and editable as possible.

What I mean by “editable” . . .

Love it or hate it—and for what it’s worth, I both love it and hate it pretty much simultaneously everyday—you just have to have Microsoft Word.

I know, and I’m sorry, but you do.

That doesn’t mean you have to write in Word. If you love Scrivener—and I keep hearing from people who swear by it—use that. Maybe you had a different experience of Storyist than I did. Hell, you can just write in TextEdit. Or Google Docs, or longhand, or dictate into a cell phone app, or however you choose to get the story out of your imagination and into the form of a collection of words.

You can write however you choose, but eventually that has to be contained in a .doc or .docx file (they’re the same thing, really). And here’s why:

You can write using whatever tool you want, but your editor is going to be using Word.


Because love it or hate it it’s the only word processor out there that has the full set of tools editors need to do their jobs well. Storyist can’t track changes, Google Docs would very much prefer not to—I’m not sure which if any of the others will allow you to see invisible characters.

And if you’re not sure what I mean by invisible characters, and you have Word, look in Preferences/View and find the collection of check boxes under “Nonprinting characters” and click on “All.” Now you’ll see a little blue paragraph mark at the end of a line every time you hit return, or a little right-angle arrow if you hit shift-return. The latter is a manual line break and is evil. This Servant of the Dark Beast of Central Hades must never be allowed to show its face. But without those invisibles turned on, you won’t know that bug is there until it tragically blows up your typesetting much later.

You will also be able to see tiny little dots between every word. That’s a space. If you can’t see two little dots you might not be able to tell that you accidently introduced two spaces until your typesetter begins to plan your death.

Here’s a trick I use at the beginning of every edit because too many authors don’t do this at the end of theirs:

  1. Search for two spaces and replace with one. Hit Replace All. Then do it again. Zero results? No? Do it again. Keep doing this until there is never more than one space ever anywhere in anything you ever write ever.
  2. Ever. I mean it. It’s like having two bullet points for the same . . . wait . . .
  3. Next, search for manual line breaks and replace them with paragraph marks.
  4. Next, search for a space then a paragraph mark and replace it with just a paragraph mark.

I know all this sounds like crazy detail that couldn’t possibly matter, and while you’re writing, it absolutely does not—never interrupt your “flow” over a space or a paragraph mark—but at the end of your edit this stuff actually does matter.

Again, I can write with a pencil and a sheet of paper, but I require Word to edit. That means if you want me—or any other professional editor—to edit your manuscript, it needs to be in that form, and you need to be able to see those changes, those invisibles, embedded comments, and so on. If you demand your editor work in Google Docs, that editor might reluctantly agree, and will do his or her best with the tools at hand, but now you’re making a conscious decision to get a crappy edit because you’re taking away your editor’s tool set. Don’t do that.

Look, I am not a paid spokesperson for Microsoft. For instance, who was it who decided the default font for anything ever should be either Calibri or Cambria? Whoever that was should be hunted down, tried, and imprisoned for crimes against humanity. These crap fonts fail on all levels. They’re no good as ornamental fonts, and Cambria is a tragic disaster for body text. Why? Times New Roman works—it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. It’s the only font you ever need to use ever.

Word’s grammar check is so hilariously awful I don’t understand why it’s even there. I can’t imagine what a mess anything run through that filter must end up looking like. For the love of all that’s holy, never go anywhere near that train wreck.

That out of my system, back to why you need this software—it’s because your editor needs it.

Your editor is trying to help you make your book as good as it can be, and he or she is also trying to help your typesetter not have to go through the tortures of the damned stripping out all your embedded styles, section breaks, weird-ass fonts, and extraneous spaces and lines in order to make this into a readable book.

And if you’re self-publishing the formatting of your own work takes on an even greater importance. If you’re the typesetter, too, you need to at least learn the basics.

This is where you go from writer to professional—show you care about the professionals, or the paying customers, you want to read your work.

And selfishly, don’t give agents and editors an excuse to reject your work without at least starting to read it. If you send them unformatted blocks of 9-point Herculanum because you thought it looked cool it will go right into the recycling bin.

Trust me.

I’ve recycled my share of unreadable manuscripts.

Did I miss the next Lord of the Rings because it was printed on fluorescent green paper? The world will never know, and that drives me nuts. Help us find you, help us read you, help us edit you, and help us publish you.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, E-Books, horror novels, how to write fiction, indie publishing, POD, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Kevin Smith says:

    Google Docs allows you to download your file in a variety of formats, including DOCX. LibreOffice also has a Save As function that allows you to convert the file to DOC or DOCX as well. I’m not sure about every tool you mentioned, but any software that allows you to convert to DOC or DOCX will let you give your editor a file he or she can use.

    • Philip Athans says:

      The question then becomes: Will you be able to see the tracked changes and comments then track your own changes as that file goes back and forth maybe a few more times?

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