Monday Musings: Sometimes Looks Matter! a.ka. E-Book Formatting Made Easier

I’ve talked about formatting a plenty in some of my recent articles, both writing and reviews.  I’ve talked about why good formatting and editing are important and we’ve seen poor formatting impact review scores, an unfortunate but real factor when it comes to the enjoyment of a book.  It’s something so obvious, yet so easy not to understand as a starting author.  Heck, I only really grasped it completely myself until a few months as a reviewer and certainly made my own share of mistakes in this regard, as you can see by the multiple editions I’ve put out of my own novels in such a short time.

However, so far, I’ve offered only critique without any real advice or assistance.  Let’s fix that.

The first thing to keep in mind formatting-wise is learning the core rules of paragraphing and especially dialogue rules.  The biggest sins that I have seen that brought a book down is lack of proper paragraphing.  It’s easy enough to look up the proper definition of a paragraph but far harder at times to put it into practice.  Remember that a paragraph must tie into one central concept.  If the actions or scene described by a paragraph start to wander, it’s time to start a new one, no matter how long or short it has become.  The break-up of text helps the eyes and the division of thought helps the brain.  Formatting-wise, it’s important to make sure you have a paragraph style set in your word-processor that creates a division of some kind, either a proper indentation at the start of a paragraph (my favorite) or extra line spacing between them.

Dialogue paragraphing and formatting is even more important than that.  Dialogue rules are not as simple as they may seem and you can even find some minor disagreements over the finer points of the rules.  However, the biggest issue I have seen with dialogue in books is also the simplest of rule to watch out for.  It’s simple: any time the speaker in a dialogue sequence changes, start a new paragraph!  Also, a corollary to this: if one speaker has a multi-paragraph continuous dialogue, do not close the quotations until it ends or the speaker changes!

Even if you are weak in some other areas of your dialogue grammar, following these two prime rules will make it ten times easier for readers to follow your dialogue and will let you clear away many uses of dialogue tags, especially in two-party conversations.

The point of these pointers is to show that good formatting is worth the work and is, at the heart of it, pretty simple.  The power of e-readers lets the actual reader customize the important things (font size, line spacing, etc.) to fit their visual needs.  You just need to provide a clear, simple framework for the e-reader to do its job.  The other possible trip-up here may be something beyond the core knowledge of grammar and that is dealing with the technological end of things.

Those problems are too big for me to go into detail here on my humble blog, but I can still provide sources for answers.  The best resource that is free for providing a proper base manuscript for most e-book services (it works perfect for Amazon and Smashwords (and Smashwords then covers a network of other services)) is the Smashwords Style Guide.  It’s free and it provides not only an array of advice but gives specific information on the computer side of things, how to set up formatting that will make for easy e-book conversions, how to set up hyperlinked table of contents for easy navigation, and so on.  Regardless of your feelings on Smashwords as a book service, the guide itself is incredibly useful, especially if you’re not a very tech-savy sort.

My second piece of technical advice is more of a suggestion.  Most e-book services want manuscripts in either Microsoft’s .DOC format or as a PDF.  If you lack the resources or cash for Microsoft Word (as a Starving Author, I understand this), you can take out two birds with one stone with Apache OpenOffice.  It can save your manuscript in .DOC formats, can convert them to PDF, and offers most of the tools available in Word, as well as enough similarities in layout and UI that most advice for Word users for formatting translates over almost exactly.  It’s not perfect, but it’s still excellent and well-worth its price of free.

Hopefully this will help out my fellow indie authors to produce better and better works!  Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

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