Did you know that the font you use has an impact on the way any given reader might perceive your book?
For example, The Book Designer site talks about the importance of fonts and currently has dozens of articles on this topic alone!
Fonts like Webdings or Comic Sans have been extensively memed about, but it goes beyond that. A study done by Wichita State University’s Software Usability Research Laboratory shows that people actually respond differently to different fonts: script fonts were perceived as feminine, serif fonts as practical, and modern fonts as masculine.
As writers, we spend a ton of time thinking about how readers will respond to our story, characters, themes, and prose. But it’s also important to factor in how readers will respond to our book as a finished product, complete with a cover and pages. The way the words look on the pages matters, too.
In this article, we’re going to talk about book formatting. We’ll talk about what formatting is, whether you could format a book, how to format your book, and what sorts of formatting software might be helpful.
What is book formatting?
Formatting is the way your book looks. It’s the layout of your book—think chapters, page numbers, paragraph spacing, things like that. This includes aesthetic choices like which fonts you use for chapter headings and page numbers, and it also includes more technical choices like line spacing and font size.
There are different pre-existing formats used for different purposes. For example, if you went to public school, you’re probably familiar with MLA, APA, and Chicago-style formats. Even if you haven’t actually used them, you’ve likely heard about them. These are formats used for essays, and they dictate the way a paper is structured, how sources are cited within the paper, and how the bibliography looks.
Why do we use formats like this? Mainly, it helps with consistency. Using one format for your essay makes it much more readable—the reader knows automatically what your cited sources look like and how to read your reader if they know the format and you’ve used the format consistently.
Books follow the same principles. Using a consistent format throughout your book keeps the content organized, and it makes the reader able to follow along easily. Strange or inconsistent formatting might pull your reader out of the story to wonder why the font is suddenly bigger, why the spacing is suddenly strange, or what exactly is up with your footnotes.
Can anyone format a book?
So, can just anyone format a book? In other words… can you format a book?
Well, yes and no. Formatting a book is a skill like any other—there’s some stuff you need to learn and some tools you’ll need to use. Formatting a book to print takes a lot of time and effort, and it’s a lot more complicated than it may initially seem. If you’ve never done it before and you’re planning to format your book yourself, you’ll need to allow a healthy amount of time to learning how it works.
That being said, you can absolutely learn to do it. It’s possible on programs like Word and Docs (although it’s arguably most difficult to do it this way), and there are also a ton of book formatting software options out there to help you. More about those softwares at the end of this post!
How to format a book
Figuring out how to format a book for print will vary widely based on which software you’re using and what sort of book you’re formatting. For example, a picture-heavy coffee table book with huge pages will be a different animal than your standard novel. A comic book will look different than an adult biography.
This means that when it comes time to format your book to print, you’ll need to research the specific software you’re using and the specific book you want to create. If you’re determined to use Microsoft Word and you want to make a paperback that’s about five by eight inches, you’ll have to find resources that meet those specific parameters.
However, there are some tips and tricks you can learn right now to help you make your manuscript cleaner. This set of guidelines will be perfect for polishing up a manuscript to send to an editor or to a cover artist, and it’ll make it much easier for you to put your book into formatting software. Think of these as industry standard guidelines.
Oh, and these tips don’t require you to purchase any formatting software—you can do all of this in Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or whatever you’ve got on hand!
Step 1) Use headers in Microsoft Word or Google Docs to create chapters
Okay, so, quick confession: I didn’t know about using headers in Microsoft Word until about a year ago. I’d been freelancing for a while, so I knew about Google Docs, but I always did my creative writing in Microsoft Word, and I didn’t use headers. This meant that my seventy-thousand-and-up word manuscripts had no real structure. I hit Enter, I wrote “Chapter Seven,” and I kept going.
This is no way to live, it turns out.
Adding headers in Microsoft Word works almost exactly the same as it does in Google Docs. Go to the ribbon and look on the right hand side—you’ll see a column with different options like ‘Normal,’ ‘Heading 1,’ ‘Heading 2,’ and so on. Use these to sort your manuscript into chapters. You can also use headings and subheadings to separate your book into parts and then chapters, if applicable.
This makes it much easier to find specific chapters and scenes in your book, and it will make a world of difference when it comes time to put your book into whichever formatting software you use.
Step 2) Check your line spacing
Paragraph and line spacing should be consistent throughout your manuscript. The general rule of thumb is to use an indentation at the beginning and to have no space in between different paragraphs. In Microsoft Word and Google Docs, you can set the entire manuscript to include or exclude spaces between paragraphs.
You may also choose to put a space between paragraphs—this is common in nonfiction manuscripts. If you do, don’t include the indent at the beginning, and make sure the spacing is consistent. Use your word processing software to set the spacing automatically to keep it uniform.
Step 3) Put the book in Times New Roman 12 pt font
This is an easy one! If you haven’t already, put your manuscript into Times New Roman 12 pt font.
I’m not saying you have to draft in Times New Roman, and I’m not saying you have to publish in Times New Roman—if you’re a Garamond stan, live your best life. But when you format your book, you should start here, because Times New Roman is basically the standard font. It’s readable, and it’s accepted by just about everybody, editors and agents alike. Same with 12 pt font.
Step 4) Check the margins
The margins are the white spaces around the body text. These should be set to one inch all the way around—again, you can set this up automatically in whichever word processing software you’re using.
Step 5) Use black text on a white background
This might sound obvious, but it’s important: you want to use black text on a white background. This is the most readable option, it’s the easiest to print, and it’s industry standard.
I personally like to change my page and text color when I’m drafting to make it easier on my eyes—in Microsoft Word, I change the page color to black and type in white for a DIY ‘dark mode,’ and Novelpad (which I’ll talk about later) comes with a dark mode that you can just turn on. These are great tips for drafting, but you’ll want to put the document back to a white page with black text when you’re all done.
Step 6) Number your pages
Numbering your pages makes it much, much, much easier to find specific scenes and reference specific lines. Make sure your page font is the same as your body text font—again, it should all be in Times New Roman. You’ll also want to use the page number tool on whichever word processing software you use.
Step 7) Check spacing after periods
I know this sounds super particular, but guess what? Formatting is all in the little details, and this one is no exception.
There should be one space after periods, not two. This is probably the default for your processing software, but give your manuscript a once-over to double-check.
Step 8) Check your book’s page size
You should also check your book’s page size. Word processors almost always default to 8.5×11” pages, which is the standard you should use—this means that as long as you didn’t change your pages at some point, it’s probably already correct. Just do a quick double-check to make sure you didn’t accidentally change it.
After you’ve followed the steps above, your manuscript is now fit to send to an editor, agent, or professional formatter. But what if you’re the do-it-yourself type?
Have you tried formatting your own book before? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!
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