Adventures in Formatting: Three Valuable Lessons Learned

by Cooper Young

For the past two weeks, I have spent approximately 9 hours a day (minus Wednesdays.  I don’t do Wednesdays) tearing my hair out over my manuscript.  Lest you suffer the same abrupt baldness, I offer three valuable lessons I learned the very, very hard way.  Take them, for it truly is dangerous to go alone.

1.  Unless it kills you creatively, write in format.  My poor, poor editor; he puts up with so much.  By the time I finished with Descent I was in such a rush to get it off my desk (I just wanted to be done) that I immediately threw it at a friend with editing experience who had promised to give it a look for me. I spliced files together, called it good, and handed it off without bothering to tidy it much at all.

It didn’t even have a title on it anywhere.

You see, I never bothered to look up Standard Manuscript Format at any point over the course of the three years it took me to write Descent. I formatted it in something like the academic papers to which I was so accustomed (Times New Roman, italics, etc.) but without even that much formality.  I just did what was easiest for me at the time, never thinking about the fact that I did plan to finish it someday.  And then suddenly it was done, and it was full of bizarrely placed hyphens because I never took the time to figure out how to type an em dash (alt+0151, by the way).

Kindly, he ignored all this and did his work. He returned my manuscript two weeks ago, and I spent the first week following making changes.  This past week has been dedicated to changing the format, and I can say definitively that it was about a thousand times more frustrating, difficult, and time consuming than erasing an entire character and Frankensteining a chapter back together over the hole.  I hated it.  I hated it so much.

An example: I was taught in school to type two spaces between sentences.  You can see where this is going.

Have you ever manually found and removed 6,438 extraneous spaces from a document before?  No, “Find and Replace” doesn’t work.  I worked.  For two days.

Next time, I’m formatting as I go.

2. Use a program you know how to work. My husband, kind and caring as he is, bought me a new computer for our first anniversary. Unwilling to buy MS Office again, I switched over to Open Office Writer. I like it, and so far it’s worked well for me for the two months I’ve used it.  However, working well while I’m writing and working well when I’m trying to figure out how to start the pagination at 0 and actually save that way are two entirely different things. I ended up switching to MS Word Starter to fix the pagination, back to OOW to get the chapter breaks in the right places since MSWS won’t display the side ruler, back when the pagination didn’t take and the line spacing was different between programs, and so on and so forth for about another three days until my husband told me to stop being stubborn and just buy MS Word because I’ll “just need it eventually”.

I didn’t. Why? Because next time I’ll have spent more than two months using the software, and will thus hopefully be much more familiar with it.  That’s what’s necessary: experience with the tools on hand.  Especially when said tools are free, dammit.

3. Keep in mind the effects of style on word count. About 75% of my frustration over the past week has had to do with simple numbers. Descent is 120,222 words; not short by a long shot, but not too huge for a fantasy novel.  According to the incredibly helpful, amazing blog I was using as a guide this should give me 480 pages or less.  So, I tidied things up.  Courier. 12pt. Double space set to the correct line height of .165″.  Everything perfect.

517 pages.

I cannot tell you how long I spent trying to find something—anything—else to fix.  Eventually, I did some word counts, ran some averages, and found that I was getting only eight and a half words to a line.  Why?


If you’re like me and use dialogue— especially brief phrases with minimal speech tags—for absolutely everything, you’re simply going to have fewer words per page.  Format how you want, you’ll always end up with a strangely high page count.

That’s all I’ve got.  Good luck, all.