Formatting text messages

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A reader writes to ask:

My manuscript contains text messages from one character to another. How would you suggest I format them?

When you present an exchange of text messages in fiction, you're essentially presenting a different form of dialog. As such, if I were doing it, I'd treat the messages the same as any other dialog—except that I'd underline the text instead of enclosing it in quotation marks.

Underlining (or rather italics, which is what underlining in a manuscript indicates) is the generally accepted way to indicate in a story that you're quoting from written or printed material—say, a note or a sign. Or, in today's world, a text message or email.

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Testifying with boldface

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A reader writes to ask:

Is the occasional Bold word in a manuscript okay? Because every time I change point-of-view, I leave an empty line (which from now on will be filled with a #), and make the first word of the next paragraph bold, just to make it clear to the reader that the point of view has shifted. Or will that depend on who I send my manuscript to?

Your questions evoke a whole thicket of intertwined issues which I will attempt to unbraid for you. The first of these has to do with how best to indicate a point-of-view shift in your fiction. There's no right or wrong way to do this. Some writers feel no compunction about switching POVs without any typographical indication, which is fine if you have enough control over your omnicient narration. Using a scene break or even a chapter break to indicate the shift is the more common technique, and should be sufficient in and of itself. The first couple of sentences after the break ought to make the POV change perfectly clear without any need to employ trickery like boldface words.

This raises our second issue, which is the proper use of boldface text. Boldface is not seen much in fiction, at least not within the text itself. It is seen most commonly in non-fiction, where it is used to emphasize keywords and terms that relate to the subject at hand. From time to time you might see it employed in fiction for typographical effect—for instance, to indicate text that appears on a computer screen, perhaps in an instant-message exchange, or to highlight some other kind of quoted passage. It's rare enough, though, that in the olden days there wasn't a good way to indicate boldface from your typewriter keyboard. Instead, you had to draw a squiggly line directly on the page underneath the text you wanted emphasized.

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A reader writes to ask:

The font I have been using for 10 years is Arial. I like it alot. Any comments. Should I check with Sheila Williams, the editor at Azimovs.

No. No. No. A thousand times no. Use Courier or Times New Roman. Do not use Arial, and do not bug Sheila about it. Do check the spelling of your intended market before you submit your manuscript. That is all.

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A reader writes to ask:

I am using 2010 microsoft office for my novel manuscript. I need to change the titles of movies from italics to underlines. Any quick way?

It's a bit tricky, but there is a way to convert all the italics in your document to underlines. This technique will work in Microsoft Word 2010 and in a couple of the older versions of Word that I tested. (Other word processors may have similar features.) I should emphasize that this is an all-or-nothing proposition.

First, find an instance of italics in your document. Select an italicized word by double-clicking on it or by highlighting it with your mouse. Now right-click on the selected word. Click the Styles option in the pop-up menu. You should get an option in the resulting menu that says Select Text with Similar Formatting. Click that. (In older versions of Word, this option will be in the main pop-up menu, not in a submenu.)

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Cheating the format

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A reader writes to ask:

I'm getting close to done writing a manuscript, set to your specs for 250 words per page, and it's threatening to break 600 manuscript pages (about 150k, assuming no half-pages). That's going to be a heavy stack of paper when I get it printed out. There seems to be some empty room on the pages as it stands, and I'm thinking of squeezing it into 500 words per page by increasing the line length and quantity, just so I can save some trees. Would you recommend for or against this plan? Do you have any other suggestions for my big stack dilemma?

I can sympathize with your desire to reduce your big stack, if not for environmental reasons then at least to keep postage costs in check. But when you look into your heart of hearts I'm sure you know what I'm going to tell you. Six hundred pages for a 150,000-word manuscript sounds just about right.

I've examined the sample page you sent along with your question, and honestly it looks perfectly fine to me. You're using a 12-point Courier font. You're averaging about 60 characters per line, which tells me that your left and right margins are set properly. You have 25 lines of text on the page, plus a header, which means the top and bottom margins are good. In short, you're doing everything right. You're just having a hard time digesting the fact that your manuscript is so big.

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A reader writes to demand:

Setting everything according to the various suggestions for Word to lay out my pages for writing a book, I find it impossible to get 25 lines on an 8½ by 11 when double spaced. Explain.

"Explain"? That's a rather imperious imperative sentence, but I'll do my psychic best to satisfy your command without your Word document in front of me for reference.

I'll summarize what I assume your problem is, though I've covered this issue in much greater detail elsewhere. But let me preface my summary by emphasizing that the number of lines per page probably doesn't even matter. As I try repeatedly to make clear, formatting your manuscript is about following general guidelines, not about breaking out your protractor and slide rule. It's an art, not a science. It's cooking, not baking. As long as your formatting falls in the general neighborhood of correctness, you'll be fine. Don't get so caught up in refining the finest details of your formatting that it bogs you down and distracts you from what's most important: writing the best novel you can.

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A reader writes to ask:

My memoir is divided into sections rather than having chapter titles. Some sections have as little as one chapter while the longest has seven. In a book I can see each section, which has a title and date range, having its own page to introduce the following chapter(s), but in a manuscript what is the proper formatting for this? Do I put the section title on the first line followed on the second line by the date range then half way down the page start the first chapter in that section and when a new chapter starts have a page break and start the new chapter half way down the next page? Or do I give each section it's own page and if so do I start the title half way down the page?

I suspect you might suggest I title each chapter but I'd rather not do that especially the way the book flows. So, I'm open to any and all suggestions. I just want to get it right and get going on sending it out to agents.

Also, I have seen conflicting information about where to start a chapter on the page. Some say half way down others say 12 spaces down. Perhaps I'm a stickler for perfection but as this is my first manuscript I want to give myself every opportunity for success.

Your question, if I follow it correctly, is about how to indicate large divisions in your book manuscript, divisions higher up than the chapter level. You're calling these large divisions "sections," but if you flip through a few novels from your bookshelf you might also find examples where they're called "books" or "parts." The Fellowship of the Ring, for instance, is divided into two large sections called "Book I" and "Book II," and each of those sections contains ten or twelve chapters.

In print, the section heading and/or title will often appear alone on its own page, the better to indicate a major division in the book. You shouldn't do it that way in your manuscript, though. Your initial idea is the right one, and is similar to the way I do it.

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Long quotations within your text

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A reader writes to ask:

Is there a guideline for when you want to include the text of some other text within your story? I'm thinking of something like Barry Malzberg's Herovit's World where parts of the novel were actually exerpts from the main character's novel that he was writing. In print these show up in a different font from the main text. How would this be done in manuscript? Would it be like a block quote? Or something different?

A very interesting question, and one that applies equally to fiction and narrative non-fiction. The material quoted in your work could be excerpts from a character's novel-in-progress, as you indicated, or could include such items as personal letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, or any other large chunk of text that your characters might read or write.

I wasn't positive of my answer right off the bat, so I polled a panel of three expert copy editors and/or book designers. The responses I got back differed in some details and caveats, but the basic meat of their answers was the same:

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Meet the Courier family

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A reader writes to ask:

I have a question about font. In your article, you suggested that only Courier or Times New Roman should be used, and you strongly recommended Courier. My version of Microsoft Word apparently does not support the Courier font, but it does have New Courier. I have attempted, to no avail thus far, to determine what I might do to change my Microsoft Word to allow the Courier font. Is New Courier an acceptable alternative (preferable to Times New Roman) or would you recommend using Times New Roman, assuming I cannot get the old Courier font to work on my Word version?

I should clarify that when I refer to Courier, I'm speaking of all fonts in the Courier family. This would include Courier New (not "New Courier"), which is the actual Courier font included by default with most computer operating systems. Courier New is absolutely fine and correct for you to use in your manuscript.

Some writers who prefer to use a Courier font find Courier New too light and spindly for their tastes. A favorite substitute for these folks is Dark Courier, which is free to download and install (at least if you're a Windows user).

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Sentence spacing

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A reader writes to ask:

I have always used two spaces after the end of each sentence and someone recently said they believed that was no longer the correct method to use. Can you tell me if I should leave one or two spaces between each sentence in a paragraph or is it one of those inconsequential issues?

I receive more email on this topic than any other. For such a simple question, it stirs up plenty of passion, controversy, and bile on forums where these sorts of things are discussed. I would like to advise you that it's an inconsequential issue, but clearly it is not for many writers and editors.

The roots of this debate go way back to the days of typesetting by hand, when two different styles of sentence spacing emerged. French spacing was the practice of setting a single space between sentences, while English spacing meant using two spaces. The two-space method carried over into the realm of the typewriter when that device was invented. If you learned typing on a typewriter, you were no doubt taught to put two spaces after every sentence, and two spaces after every colon, too.

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FLOG is Hugo- and Nebula-nominated author William Shunn's blog on manuscript formatting and preparation for fiction writers. It features formatting questions from real readers and writers like you. Submit your questions to format at shunn dot net. Identitying information will remain private. We regret that we can't always respond individually to submissions, and that we can't answer every question we receive.
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