The horrors of formatting

Posted: June 20, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , , , ,

Argh, the ugliness, it burns my eyes!

That was my reaction on seeing my first attempt to compile an e-book via Scrivener. The indentation was inconsistent. There were weird symbols where speech marks should have been. It looked like a typesetter had eaten his work and then vomited all over my screen.

Hundreds of Euro symbols died in the making of this mess.

Hundreds of Euro symbols died in the making of this horror.

It’s not the fault of the stories in the book – some of them are old and I’d write them better now, but I’m still proud of them. Nor was it Scrivener’s fault – I love that program almost as much as I love Shelley the laptop or Muke the car, my main sidekicks in the great adventure called Andrew Gets His Shit Together.

No, it was my own fault, and I should have known better.

You see, I just copied and pasted those stories into Scrivener from the original documents. And let me tell you, when I started writing I did not understand how proper electronic document formatting works. They don’t teach you that sort of thing in university, even though it’s a vital writing skill. Hell, I was writing this blog for years before I found the settings for headings, instead of just using bold text. And as I learned while formatting documents in my last office job, this stuff does matter.

It might feel like a waste of time to learn proper document formatting. You can just hit ‘tab’ to indent a paragraph and go for bold when you want a title to stand out, right? Wrong. Every time you format a chunk of text you add more information, information that most people don’t know is there. And every time you copy and paste things around or transfer a document from one format to another, that information gets more complicated. If you don’t take the right approach, that garbage starts cluttering up your documents.

If you use best practice you can save yourself a lot of pain, letting software like Scrivener, WordPress, or Word neatly change the look of your story or article at the touch of a button. If you don’t it can take hours of editing to make changes, and you’ll still have traps hidden for when you, for example, compile it into an e-book.

So please, whatever you’re writing for, whether it’s books, magazines, your blog, or just your team at work, take an hour now to learn more about how to format your documents, including indentation and header text. You will save yourself and those around you hours of frustration further down the line.

I’m giving up on this document for today. Tomorrow I’ll be starting again, using .txt documents to purge all that rotten formatting and then putting the stories into a nice, new, clean Scrivener template. So remember folks, do as I say not as I do. Start by learning about formatting.

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Comments
  1. Oh yes. So very much. I’m agreeing with you so hard right now it’s affecting my ability to write cohesive sentences 🙂

  2. Dylan Hearn says:

    Excellent advice, both to check but also to copy & paste via a .txt file. Good to see you using Scrivener. Writing in Scrivener was one of the best decisions I’ve made. A really useful programme and relatively cheap for what you get.

    • Honestly, I’m starting to think Scrivener should just be the standard issue word processing software. It’s so much more flexible than the alternatives, wish I’d had it at uni and in the office.

  3. divine4u says:

    If you read the garbage characters as Ia! Ia! then you have just written a Lovecraftian classic.

  4. TAWilliams says:

    I had the same issues formatting my 1st novel through KDP. I think I ended up uploading that thing 4-5 times before it at least somewhat resembled a proper page. My 2nd wasn’t as bad due to the lessons I learned but it is NOT an enjoyable experience!

  5. Sue Archer says:

    LOL on the death of the Euros, Andrew. Good for you finding the humour in this pain of a situation! I must confess I have been bolding my headings in WordPress (now I must hang my head in shame). I hate formatting issues – such an inane thing to have to deal with, and so time consuming! Thanks for the great advice. 🙂

    • Apparently using the proper headers in WordPress helps with search engine optimisation, drawing Google’s attention to whatever key phrases you’ve put in those headers. There’s a lot of terrible SEO advice out there, and even following stuff that works can be counter-productive if it means the stuff you write reads like a Dan Brown novel put through a blender, but this is one thing that could help you get extra hits without changing the content, so you might as well use it.

      • Sue Archer says:

        Thanks, Andrew! I agree there’s a lot of misleading information out there on SEO…happy to hear about something that’s actually useful. 🙂

      • Using header tags does help SEO, and it also improves accessibility. In both cases it’s because the header tag is effectively metadata. If you put it in a header tag, then any software reading it knows that it’s a heading, not just some random text you’ve made bold, and it can then act on that knowledge. Google’s spider will use it to build up an idea of what the page is about. Screen reader software (used by blind and partially sighted people) might offer the user an overview of the page’s content based on the headers.

        Personally, I don’t worry about SEO beyond the basics (many of which, like headers and alt tags on images, are good practice for other reasons). The way I look at it is this: search engine developers are constantly trying to make their software better at finding good content. If you concentrate on writing good content, the search engine developers do the SEO work for you, because you’re creating the thing that they’re trying to find.

        • Even with my limited knowledge of SEO I’d drawn the some broad conclusion, that good writing was the main thing. I hadn’t made the connection about headers as useful metadata for people as well as software, but it makes sense. Maybe now I’ll think a bit more carefully about them.

  6. malwen says:

    Much sympathy, Andrew. I learned a long time ago to put everything into TextPad to remove formatting nightmares, before making a fresh start on a piece of work. I quite often have to work with templates set up by others and I find this method helps. For my own work, I always start in TextPad, and try not to put stuff into MS Word, or whatever else is going to control the formatting, until the last stage.

    • I don’t know TextPad, but I sometimes use Notepad for similar reasons. I too used to have to work with other people’s templates, and by ‘work with’ I generally mean ‘fix’, so those sorts of tricks came in very handy.

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