Formatting Your Book: Less Is More

February 7, 2018 by Evan Braun

There’s nothing quite like a beautifully typeset book, isn’t there? Crisp fonts, beautiful graphics, attention-grabbing chapter titles, attractive line spacing, headers and footers all in their proper places… it makes the heart sing.

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So when an author finishes a book, their first instinct is often to make it look like a book. After all, page after page of plain words on letter-sized paper doesn’t really look or feel like a book. It looks and feels like what it is—a manuscript.

A finished manuscript may not feel real enough to some people.

I’m one of the judges of the Word Alive Press Free Publishing Contest, and it’s amazing how many authors try to give their manuscript a leg up by sprucing up the formatting. Many people think good formatting is the best way to make their manuscript stand out from the crowd.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Contests like ours usually have formatting requirements, and usually they reflect the industry standard: Times New Roman, 12-point font, double-spaced, one-inch margins, half-inch paragraph indents.

To many people’s minds, this no doubt seems boring.

But there’s a good reason for it. A contest’s judges are searching for the best written book, not the book with the most impressive layout—and indeed, for the most part no formatting done on the part of the author is going to be as eye-catching as the professional’s work when a book finally goes to print.

In other words, worrying about how your book is laid out immediately after you write it is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. As the author, your first responsibility is to write the best manuscript you can—and so its fate will live or die on the quality of its words. In fact, many contests won’t even consider submissions that don’t follow their formatting rules. Word Alive Press certainly doesn’t go that far—we’ll consider every book we receive—but a heavily formatted book is going to be at a disadvantage.

If you get a professional editor, including a Word Alive Press editor, chances are the first thing they’ll do is strip out all the formatting. Why? Because they, too, want to focus solely on the words. They don’t want the distraction of multiple columns, unnecessary textboxes, and different fonts and colours. They want to keep it as simple as possible—the industry standard.

So I think it’s natural to dress up your manuscript as much as you can, but ultimately it’s good advice to fight this instinct and instead pour all of our efforts on making the quality of the writing stand out as much as possible. You’re going to grab a reader’s, or a contest judge’s, attention best through a perfectly crafted first line, or a great hook at the start of your first chapter. Read over your book a few extra times for spelling mistakes and grammar. Make sure your dialogue sounds natural, that the pace of your storytelling moves at a good clip. These are the aspects of a book that matter most.

If you do all those things, and do them again and again over the course of writing many books, chances are good that one day you’ll see your beautifully typeset book on a bookstore’s shelf—or even better, in a reader’s eager hand at the checkout line!

But first things first—it all starts with the words.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.