A guide for those who would be typeset

Posted by @ 2:38 pm on January 25th, 2012

Today at Slate, Farhad Manjoo does editors and designers everywhere the service of insisting on the plain and simple truth: putting two spaces after a period (or a colon, or a question mark, or an exclamation point, or etc.) is not just unnecessary, it is wrong, and furthermore a pain in the ass for everyone who has to handle your work when you’re done with it. It wasn’t long ago that it didn’t really matter how many spaces you used in a manuscript. The typesetter would have to retype the entire thing character by character, and it was very easy for them to remember not to key two spaces simply because the manuscript contained them. However, things have changed. We no longer re-type anything. We insert documents into other documents. We copy and paste. While it has become increasingly common for writers to work with an awareness of what typesetters do (because they are more and more often themselves doing this work, though perhaps more often in a WordPress “Add New” page or a Dreamweaver window than InDesign or Quark Xpress), I am still frequently amazed and disheartened by the ways in which they choose to format their manuscripts. Let’s talk about these things a little.

First, we need to define the problem more clearly. Basically, our goal should be to create the cleanest, most format-neutral manuscripts possible, with clear indications of the work’s intended appearance. What you create is not what will be published, but a source document. The goal is therefore not to simulate a published page, but to make a useable document that serves that purpose. There are four areas where writers most frequently get things wrong: the aforementioned spaces between sentences, indenting paragraphs, paragraphing generally, and page breaks.

Spaces between sentences: Okay, seriously, there should never be more than one space between any two characters in your manuscript, unless you’re doing something that screws with form, in which case you should still probably be aware that the space character is probably the least reliable way of communicating your intent. I’m not interested in arguing this anymore. No rational human being is interested in arguing this anymore. It’s a plain fact that there should not be two spaces between anything and anything else in your manuscript, and the fact that you find it more aesthetically pleasing or easy to read or that someone taught you to do it that way or that you think it’s actually correct or that you recognize it’s incorrect but do it out of habit is not relevant. I can feel some of you thinking about sharing these thoughts in the comments right now and I forbid it. Don’t do it! Seriously. Don’t make that comment, and don’t use two spaces between sentences.

If you ignore me and do it anyway, here’s what’s going to happen: the person who has to design your book’s interior is going to sigh heavily, mentally classify you as slightly less intelligent than he or she previously believed, and do a CTRL + F to automatically replace all of your hideous double spaces with single spaces. If this person has sufficient experience with your bad habit, he or she is then going to run the same find/replace function, because you didn’t get it right — inevitably, you used three or even four spaces several times in the manuscript, all of which will have become, as a result of the first find/replace function, two spaces. This, in case you were wondering, is not awesome. It’s not that hard to deal with — in fact, it has to be done to “clean” documents once, just to make sure nothing slips past — but it makes you look like you don’t think about other people when you write quite as much as you should.

Indenting paragraphs: There are a couple of acceptable solutions here, depending on how nice you feel like being to the people who see your manuscript when you’re through with it. You can indent every new paragraph with the tab button. If you do this in Microsoft Word, it’s going to figure out what you’re up to and start setting the indent for each new paragraph to that level automatically. This is kind of annoying for people working with the text down the line, because now some of your paragraphs have the invisible “tab” character at their beginning, which needs to be removed, and some don’t. But we’re used to this, the solutions are pretty easy, and we understand how it happens, so we won’t hold it against you. It would be better to use the styles feature in Microsoft Word (or its equivalent in your preferred word processor, if possible) to define how much indentation you want in your paragraphs, using different styles for different types if you have them. This will make it easier to import your text into print- and web-oriented layout software, because now the text is clean: there aren’t any invisible characters in the paragraphs, which means they don’t need to be deleted (note: no competent designer will ever use your tabs), which makes it that much easier to get right to the work of laying out your text.

What you’re never ever going to do from this day forward is to use spaces to indent your paragraphs. I see this way more often than I’d like and while I can’t imagine what causes people to do it, I do know that it is the bane of my existence. Here’s the thing: you’re not going to hit the space button the exact same number of times at the beginning of each paragraph. Some of the paragraphs will have six spaces, some will have four, and some will have five. What this means is that there is no reliable find/replace function that will solve the problem. Say I do a find/replace that removes every instance where there are five spaces in a document. Sounds good, but what just happened to instances of six or seven spaces? Well, they just became instances of one or two spaces. Unless I can successfully identify the most spaces you ever use in a document, and carefully find/replace my way back from that to the point where I remove sets of two spaces, I am going to miss something. This is awful.

Paragraphing: The spread of online publishing has created innovative new problems in this field, and I see these new problems from even the most experienced writers, so you need to pay attention here. It is more and more common for writers to submit stories with an empty line between every paragraph. Not empty space, but an empty line — what happens when you hit “return” twice at the end of a paragraph. I am begging you all to stop doing this as soon as possible. I understand why you’re doing it! I appreciate your attempt at thoughtfulness, even. You’ve seen that online journals like The Collagist, in deference to both convention and common sense, do not indent the first lines of their paragraphs in order to differentiate them from each other. Instead, they have an empty line between each paragraph. But let’s try something together: check out this randomly selected story from the latest Collagist. Now, using your mouse, try to highlight that empty line between any two paragraphs without highlighting the text above or below. Go ahead.

You can’t! Because your eyes are lying to you: there is no empty line. There’s empty space, but not an empty line. What’s happening here is that the paragraphs are defined by the <p> tag: one before the text of the paragraph and one closing tag after. The <p> tag is designed, unless someone uses CSS to define it otherwise, to put about one line’s worth of empty space between any two paragraphs. A good designer will often use CSS to define the <p> tag such that there are more or fewer empty pixels between each paragraph. (I don’t personally think an empty line is the ideal amount of space in most cases: it looks kind of big and clumsy, and draws attention to the under-designed, blog-like appearance of many online publications.) So, in other words, even if your story is being published online, putting an empty line between each paragraph only creates new work for your publisher: now they have to remove all of those hard returns. And if they decide to publish your story in print, they still have to remove those characters and you’ve introduced a potential ambiguity into the situation:

Because sometimes you put those hard returns there between paragraphs not because you think you’re helping your publisher but because you think the piece looks and works better that way. Sometimes I can tell this just from reading the piece, and sometimes I really can’t. Whenever your work is going to be published, if you want it to look a certain way and you’re not sure that will be clear to the publisher, make sure to say something. In any case, if you choose to put space between your paragraphs rather than indent their first lines, ideally, you should simply define paragraphs in your document such that they automatically insert that much empty space after each hard return: in Word, this is what the “after” box is for in your spacing menu, and in recent versions of Word it’s actually necessary to actively set this to 0 if you don’t want the space between paragraphs. If you use paragraph styles correctly, your potential publishers will see your work the way you want them to see it, and they won’t have to manually remove all those hard returns (which can’t be easily managed with a find/replace function).

There’s also the related issue of section breaks. In fiction, you usually indicate a scene change by inserting an empty line, then beginning a new, un-indented paragraph. This is what happens to every paragraph in online publications, so obviously it’s not going to work there, but actually you don’t want to do this in manuscripts intended for print publications, either — it leads to ambiguities. Every computer will render your manuscript a little differently, and your pagination will shift dramatically as you revise your document. Sometimes one of those empty lines ends up in a potentially confusing place, at the end of one page or the beginning of another. Or sometimes it’s just not clear if you meant for a section break for other reasons. So here’s what you do: use an asterisk, centered, on its own line. That’s an unambiguous signal for the typesetter, but it’s easily found (and therefore removed).

Page breaks: When you want to go down to the next page, for any reason, do not — do not — use hard returns to get there. The pagination will shift, things will get screwed up, your publisher will hate you. Insert page breaks! Sweet, beloved page breaks. If you don’t do this, I will find you in your sleep.

Maybe we’ll talk more about this later. That’s enough for now.

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