Thursday, November 10, 2011

Information Not Decoration

After yesterday’s Twitter storm on ms prep, I thought I’d  go over some of my routine and give a few thoughts on why aspects of it ought to become part of yours.

JV-level Manuscript Prep

These are the things you do that save an editor a couple minutes and require next to no technical skill.

First thing you need to do is reveal the formatting—meaning all the para marks (¶), spaces, tabs, and breaks. This is crtl-shift-8 (sorry, can’t remember if it’s the same in Mac). In the most recent Word, the button is here, on the far right of the paragraph box on the Home tab of the ribbon:


Now, you can see what you’re working on. Let’s get started.

1. Eliminate two spaces after a period or other terminal punctuation. Lots of writers are hardwired for this typewriter vestige, and I’m not going to go into why it’s unnecessary. Just trust me, it is.  (Unless your editor explicitly tells you it’s necessary, but if you’re writing novels, I’d bet dollars to donuts that one-space will be the right call.) If breaking the habit in process wrecks your flow, then don’t worry about it while you’re drafting. Just find and replace when you’re done. The quickest way to get to find and replace in Word is to control/command F (depending on the version of Word, the button could be in several places on the screen. It’s on the far right of the Home tab of the ribbon in the most recent for Windows).

In the most recent Word for Windows, ctrl-f gets you:


As you can see, clicking on the drop down gets you to the more advanced find options. Hit replace to get:


In the lower left, hit more to get:


This is, as they say, where the magic happens. Killing your two-spaces is as simple as typing two spaces in the find-what field (literally, hit the spacebar twice—don’t worry that nothing seems to be there) and typing one space in the replace-with field. Hit replace all. You’ll get:


Don’t stop yet,though. Repeat the whole procedure. (Why? Well, if you’re perfectly consistent in your two-spacing, you’ll make no replacements on this second pass, but you’d be surprised how few are perfectly consistent.) Here’s what I got with the same manuscript on the second pass:


Keep going until you make no replacements.

This is basic junior varsity prep. Simple, right? Now, if you want to be one of those JVs whom the varsity coaches have their eyes on, you can …

2. Fix all the places where you used hard returns (hit the enter key, in other words) to create vertical spacing or breaks.

Why is this bad? Because it all has to come out eventually and your goal in the manuscript should be to convey your work and nothing else—information, not decoration. For example, let’s say you like to make the beginnings of your chapters look like the beginnings of chapters in a typeset book, so you start them halfway or more down the page by hitting enter a bunch of times:


And of course you throw an extra vertical space below the chapter number or title because that looks right too. (Suffice it to say, if you revealed the formatting on the InDesign document for a finished book with the same design outcome, you would not see a string of hard returns.)

Slightly more pernicious is using a bunch of hard returns to get a new page, like so:


This is basically the same problem when it comes to turning the manuscript into a book. You’ve added extraneous non-information for the purpose of decoration, and it will all have to come out. There are lots of ways to fix this, but the JV way (assuming you’ve got a novel with lots of chapters) is to go chapter by chapter (you can use find and search for the word “chapter.” For the varsity aspirant, you can enter “^p^p” in the find field (without the quotes. And ^ is shift-6). This will find every instance of two hard returns in a row (places where you hit enter twice).


For JV- and even varsity-level ms prep, I recommend not trying to do any sort of automatic replace at this step. Just find and fix manually. It’s too easy to wreak havoc with an unintended replace. It’s also a good way to go through the manuscript from a different perspective. I often notice more important editorial things when I’m doing this sort of near-mindless ms prep.

For the two circumstances I mentioned, the JV fixes are:

a. Start your chapters at the tops of pages. If this bothers you while you’re working, do it last.


b. Start new pages by inserting a page break at the end of the chapter. You can find page break under Insert in any version of Word I can think of. Ctrl-Return is the keyboard shortcut (aside to Microsoft. Why the hell do you say the shortcut is “Ctrl+Return” when on the keyboard that you manufacture, the key is labeled “Enter”?):


For some, double hard returns also appear when you make a break within a chapter:


As long as you’re consistent, this is OK,  but my preference would be for something visible and unique to mark those sorts of breaks—even if the final book will only use space. For example:


This is a very easy find and replace for the designer. It’s impossible to miss at a glance, and—most critically--it can’t get hidden if it falls on page break. Your intent will be crystal clear to all who work on the book. Again, information, not decoration.

3. If there were a step three, it would be about the tab key, but Word tries to outsmart you with tabs, so this is generally less of a problem—or if it is, it’s harder for me to generalize about, so I’ll kick it down the road to a varsity post.


Isn’t all this an editor’s job? To an extent, yes, it is the editor’s job. But it’s also the editor’s job to make sure your words convey meaning, but you would never abdicate that role entirely just because the editor is going to do it also. You spellcheck and you sweat grammar. I check spelling and worry about grammar too. Duplication of effort is part of the deal.

More critically, a great many things authors do to their manuscripts are wasting their time as well as ours. Making the text “look right” on the page by adding spaces, returns, and tabs is a waste of your time, especially for an editor like me who will almost certainly never read your manuscript on a physical page. The decorative non-information you add to your manuscript doesn’t improve my reading experience, and eventually it all has to be deleted by me or by an already overworked designer or production editor. Why put it in?

Every person who works on a book seeks to add value according to their skills, and all off those people, author included, have a limited amount of time in which to add that value. Production editors and designers have skills that can make a page unspeakably beautiful in subtle but important ways. They also have heavy workloads and limited time. Don’t waste any of that time.


I can’t close without saying that I’m almost completely blind to this stuff when I’m considering a new manuscript. If I love a book, I will pursue it even if the author wrote it in Claris Works and hit return every time she got near the end of a line (no, I’m not kidding).