January 25th, 2012 / 2:38 pm
Behind the Scenes

A guide for those who would be typeset

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.

Tags: , ,


  1. Anonymous

      Is there an easy way to convert characters in a manuscript that don’t work in html (angled quotes, for example) with the html equivalents?  Without just doing find+replace for every single one that might exist in a document?  This is what I end up spending most of my time doing when I make a new issue of Red Lightbulbs.  Also it drives me nuts how many different ways people try to type an em dash.  Word’s inconsistent autoreplace doesn’t help matters.

  2. Mike Meginnis

      There might be! I’m not sure. I suspect find/replace is the best we can do, though.

  3. deadgod

      Okay, seriously, no words should be misspelled in a text, unless you’re doing something that screws with form, in which case you should probably be aware that misspelling is probably the least reliable way of communicating your intent.  I’m not interested in arguing this anymore.  It’s a plain fact that words should be conventionally and not merely idiosyncratically spelled, and the fact that you find misspelling more aesthetically pleasing or easy to read or that someone taught you to misspell or that you think it’s actually correct or that you recognize it’s incorrect but do it out of habit is not relevant.  Don’t misspell!  Seriously.  Don’t be the bain of anyone else’s existence.

  4. mdbell79

      If you use TextMate on the Mac, it has options to turn all of those entities into their code equivalent. In general, TextMate is my favorite software to write code with: Sleek and powerful and so full of options I’ll never understand them all.

  5. alex crowley

      hooray for all of this!

  6. deadgod

      [disobedience alert]

      With respect to Farjoo’s characteristically self-contradictory and hyperbolic broadside:  he (?) insists that convention is a useful and even irresistible argument in favor of single-spacing after full stops:  “We adopted these standards because practitioners of publishing settled on them after decades of experience.  Among [professional typographers’] rules was that we should use one space after a period instead of two–so that’s how we do it.”

      –‘It exists, so it should exist.’ – a logic that Farjoo (rightly) calls equally “arbitrary” when summoned by supporters of double-spacing after full stops, which defense Farjoo ridicules (I think:  also rightly).

      (Farjoo also presents and supports a “readability”/”aesthetics” argument–which, of course, is actually two arguments, practicality and attractiveness (what I think Farjoo means by “aesthetics”) not being identical, however much they overlap in some particular case.)

      The monospaced-type source of double-spacing after full stops is historically sound, but it’s not why I double-space between fully-stopped units.  Unwelcome as it be, let me explain why this double-spacing makes reading sense:

      You know Saussure’s linguistic Big Idea:  that signs are intelligible as a function of their difference from other signs.  The space between two words is a sign–conventional and disposable, but too useful to discard for the foreseeable future, eh?  Well, different forms of punctuation are meaningful in different ways.  Using subsequent spacing (in front of the next word in the same paragraph) to separate the senses of commas and semi-colons from (various) full-stop devices generates or facilitates or at least attends grammatical shepherding of semantic meaning, which is a kind of ‘semantics’ itself.

      That’s why I’m going to continue to double-space after various ‘full’ stops:  to differentiate them (further) from less-than-‘full’ stops.

  7. Anonymous


  8. A D Jameson

      Mike, this is great! And you’ve made me realize how much my tabbing needs work—thanks!

  9. Amber

      Yay! This is so helpful, especially because non-web geeks like us (ie, most normal human beings in the world) have no clue that things like tags exist. Before I learned CSS and HTML, I always put spaces between my paragraphs, trying to be all helpful-like. Now I facepalm when I remember that.

  10. Amber

      p tags, that is. I forgot the comments here accept HTML. Derp.

  11. Amber

      Also, how do most editors feel about double-spacing? I hate it but I know a lot of places would prefer it. I know it’s an easy fix, but I hate looking at my writing spaced out all stupid like that.

  12. Mike Meginnis


  13. Sarah Gallien

      Oh Mike! We love you so, so much!

  14. Mike Meginnis

      I really strongly prefer double-spacing, and I’m pretty sure that’s almost universal. Electronic submission systems have made this less relevant (CTRL+A and the double space button will let me adjust it quickly) but not as much as one might think (I read most of my slush in the Submishmash document viewer, where I can’t edit as I read). Ultimately it’s irrelevant to typesetting, of course.

  15. Mike Meginnis

      Haha what

  16. Anonymous

      Very helpful! I’ll be putting new section asterisks in everything now.

  17. Sarah Gallien

      Why do you prefer it? Is it just easier for you to read? We read on
      submishmash too, but often on a mobile device, so double-spacing just
      means more scrolling and generally for pieces that all ready feel way too long.  I was always under the impression that people who
      things double spaced required it because they edited on paper (only so much room in the
      margins) but no one does that anymore…

  18. Sarah Gallien

      What the hell happened to the formatting there?

  19. Mike Meginnis

      Yeah, I just find it much easier to read. Single-spaced text lends itself to that thing where you struggle to transition from the right edge of the paragraph to the left. I also have a personal preference for lots of white space. My designs tend to have a fairly big font and a lot of space between the lines, relative to most other lit mag and books I see.

  20. deadgod


  21. Anonymous

      I turn in manuscripts that do not exhibit the problems you mention (I don’t put two spaces after the period and so on), and yet the published version contains misspellings, fucked/whimsical paragraph groupings, randomly elided italics, and other crap that bears no resemblance to the text I labored over.Why does a writer have to “say something,” about how they want their manuscript to look? The manuscript says something; the manuscript is something. If you can’t see it on your iPhone or you can’t guess, by looking at the converted file in Quark, what the document must have looked like to the writer, open the file they sent you in the program it was composed in. Or maybe journals should insist on submissions in InDesign or whatever.

  22. Mike Meginnis

      Well, a lot of publishers suck at their jobs too. I try not to submit to journals that do that sort of thing. It definitely helps to use a standard format, but Word files or RTFs or anything like that should be easy to work with.

      The source of miscommunications between author and publisher isn’t generally that people are opening files in InDesign alone, though — it’s that there are more changes between manuscript and published text than most writers realize, and sometimes there are multiple reasonable interpretations of the source document. In these circumstances, publishers should ask, but sometimes they won’t notice the ambiguity — in the same way that you may believe your intent is self-evident, the publisher may believe the same, while neither of you agree on what exactly that intent is.

  23. Ryan P


  24. mimi

      Thespa cebe tweent woword sisasign con ventio nalanddispo sable, buttoou sefultodis cardforthef or esee a blef utureeh!

  25. Anonymous

      %%emph{I} don’t get why people can’t just learn textit{wysiwym}-style markup (e.g. {latex}) and compose in plain text. Then you’d have lots of control over what intra-sentence “signs” you have, like so:hspace*{4em}{dots}It’s not emph{that} hard. And after all, dotsvskip 2embegin{center}{LARGE Wordtexttrademark emph{sucks}!}end{center}

  26. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I thought the two spaces was just an old, outmoded courier thing from when typeset characters were all the same width.

  27. Tim Jones-Yelvington


  28. deadgod
  29. deadgod

      Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s what Manjoo is talking about in his discussion of ‘mid-20th c. monospaced type’ (which I referred to).

      I handwrote before I learned to type, and I’ve always moved my writing hand a bit more to the right immediately after a full stop (all-in:  period, exclam, qu mark, full colon) than after a comma, semi-colon, or a word followed by another word in the same full-stopped unit (which are three less-than-full ‘stops’, at least as written). 

      I was taught to handwrite this way, and I agree with Mike (and Manjoo) in that having been taught to do something is an “arbitrary” reason to do it.

      But, as I’d meant to mean at perhaps greater length than is interesting to read, that (learned) conventionality isn’t why I – and others? – persist in double-spacing after full stops–while either handwriting or typing.

      I have (and consciously think) a rational reason for double-spacing after full stops:  namely, to distinguish one kind of spacing from another.

  30. deadgod

      Let me suggest, as Mike and Manjoo do not, the reason typesetters – and the “publishing” biz as a whole – decided on equally marking gaps between words in the same grammatical unit and between ‘fully stopped’ units:  commerce.

      Single-spacing after full stops is reasonable from the point of view of publishers who pay for the paper the writing is printed on; money can be saved, and so ‘made’, by single-spacing after full stops in pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, and books, regardless of (any?) diminution in the communicative effect of the fullness of some ‘stops’.

      Does that commercial perspective remain valid on this here newfangled, e-dangled intarnet?

  31. deadgod

      No, he didn’t mean ‘whole asses’; he meant ‘holes in asses’.

      . . .  Oh, wait–

  32. mimi


  33. Thursday Treat: Links I’m Lovin’ 1/26/2012 « Limited Edition Love

      […] Thinking about typesetting your work? Check this […]

  34. bgko78

      i.  cant.  believe.  anyone.. would.  waste.  an. entire.    article

      even writing     this. take a  a  zoloft.   and  take  the.  stick.

      out. of  y  o  u’re . asshole