Proper Manuscript Format : Typesetters Marks

Indicating boldface type

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A reader writes to ask:

I have perused your formatting advice and have a question. You advise underline to indicate italics, what about bold? Make it "actual" or use asterisks, etc? I need to indicate vectors in bold for a fact article but for sci-fi geared magazine. Thanks.

The use of boldface type is rare enough (at least in the fiction world) that, back in the olden days, one had to indicate it by hand by drawing a squiggly line underneath the words to be bolded. For whatever reason, our society has adopted italics as the preferred method of emphasis, which is why underlining is a function readily available on most typewriters but undersquiggling is not.

Boldface is, however, more common in non-fiction. In cases where it may indeed be required, either by a publication's style guide or by conventions you've adopted for a specific article, I would just go ahead and use the actual bold function of your word processor. You are unlikely these days to submit a manuscript on paper, and using asterisks around the words to be bolded is likely just to result in mistakes in the final copy.

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A reader writes to ask:

[My question] regards major and minor scene breaks. I understand that one sets off a blank-line break with #, but what about a more significant scene break, the sort one usually sees in print marked with a blank line, a divider (often three asterisks, centered), and another blank line? Is it as simple (and aesthetically unappealing) as placing # signs in the blank lines? Or does one leave the blank lines blank in this case?

The answer may be blindingly obvious to everyone but me, and if so, my apologies for troubling you. But I find both options to be less than pleasing to the eye, so if I'm going to inflict one on an editor, I'd much rather inflict the right one.

An excellent question. I think we've all seen major scene breaks like the ones you describe in published books—something less than a chapter break but more than an ordinary scene break. Sometimes they might be rendered in a book as several blank lines followed by an unindented paragraph with the first several words in bold. But how should one render this super-scene break succinctly in a draft manuscript?

I've never seen this done, but my suggestion would be to use three hash symbols centered together on a line (# # #) as opposed to just one (#). The hash symbol is the typesetters mark for indicating space, so I think any editor or typesetter worth her salt would recognize that you intend this to be a higher-level scene break than ordinary. (Of course, you could also explain your intention in your cover letter to the editor.)

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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:

If you don't mind, I have a very quick question for you. You say that italics should never be used, and italicized passages should be underlined instead. But what if a story has long passages that are meant to be italicized, as a formatting choice? In my case, it's meant to delineate the story from the narrator's asides, and I'm afraid it would look incredibly annoying to have a full page of underlined text. Are there exceptions to the no-italics rule, or should I stay with underlining, regardless of length?

Most people balk at the conventions of manuscript formatting because the results aren't pleasing to an eye used to reading typeset pages in books. A professional editor, however, is probably not going to be annoyed to see a full page underlined in a manuscript. I've done that myself with story submissions. (The editor who originally bought that story did ask me if I was sure I wanted to italicize those passages, thinking it wasn't really necessary, but he did not tell me the manuscript itself looked bad that way.)

If you really feel displeased with the way a page of underlining looks, then do it the way writers using typewriters did, where underlining long passages was not practical. Print the manuscript, then draw a long straight line down the left margin of each passage you want italicized. Write "ital" in the margin next to each passage. If the passage runs to the next page, put "ital" in the margin again on the next page. It's a bit unwieldy, but it's much better than using italics in your manuscript.

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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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