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5 Manuscript Formatting Secrets to Win a Reader’s Love

5 Manuscript Formatting Secrets to Win a Reader's Love

This post last updated 1/24/2021

Hello Lovelies,

You have finished your novel, and you have decided to self-publish. Everyone’s doing it, so why shouldn’t you? After having your book edited, and getting the book cover designed, you are ready to throw it up on the Zon, or wherever, and sell some copies, right? Before you do that, please take some time to learn about formatting. Formatting a book properly can be the difference between a forever fan and a1 star review.

Oh… formatting. A very important step that people forget. Formatting is to the inside of your book, as a good cover design is to the outside. In other words, it’s really important. But many authors don’t think about it. They are just so excited to get their book out there that they don’t consider the final polish their book needs to be really successful. And you know why? Because so few people talk about it.

This is a shame, because there are quite a few indie-published books that I had to set aside because I just couldn’t get past the poor formatting.

Don’t let that be you.

Here are five formatting secrets that will help you build forever fans.

Warning, this is A LOT to consider. If you find it too daunting, don’t give up on your dream of self-publishing. You can hire a professional typographer, like me, to do your formatting for you. But if you are on a tight budget, these tips will help you to up your publishing game.

1 Formatting for E-book

This is actually really easy, because in the case of an e-book, the LESS formatting, the better. Wait, what? It’s true. Fancy formatting in e-books actually often leads to poor reader experience. Every e-reader is a different size, and many readers like to customize to their reading needs by enlarging the print for the visually impaired and changing the font color or format for those with sensitivities. With e-books, it is best to keep to simple and common fonts (Most e-readers will not have Stonehenge, no matter how cool the font looks to you. It will end up being changed by the e-reader, which could mess with the overall layout, so it’s best to avoid it.)

Stick with common fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman, or Garamond (the font for choice with book publishers.)  

Be sure to include a linked title page to each new chapter, even if you aren’t using clever chapter names. Many e-readers will save the reader’s place, but if it kicks it out, this saves the reader from having to scroll and scroll and scroll.

In your title page, include your front matter and back matter. The great Zon tends to skip those bits, and boots up on the “first-page” but if you include the acknowledgments on your title page, then that is the page the e-reader will start at.

E-readers scroll wonderfully, so remove all page splits and only place that at the end of each chapter. It saves the reader from blank gaps in your book in weird and unexpected places. At the end of your last chapter, add a reminder asking them to read and review. Many readers don’t go to the back matter. This small reminder before the “end” of the book will encourage them to leave a review and we all know how important reviews are!

If you REALLY want to add a bit of fanciness to your e-book, then check out Smashwords great free Style guide.They cover everything from adding images to bullet points, how to get poetry to play nice, and more. I use it for all of my books and have never had a complaint about formatting. If you want a bit more flash but Smashwords Style guide is breaking your brain, then check out Draft2Digital. 

2 Getting the Right Set-Up

I loved that CreateSpace gave us options. Really, I did. But they didn’t give any guidelines with those options. Ingram Spark isn’t much better. None of the distribution channels I’ve checked out address important formatting guidelines. They seem to expect authors to already know this. Or perhaps because the big publishing houses establish these different rules in-house, the distributors never considered it an issue and don’t know that there are these sort of unspoken guidelines out there. Any which way you slice it, they are out there and they do get discussed in formatting forums, in textbooks on formatting, and between formatters and clients. 

Here you go, and you’re welcome.

First, you get to choose the size of your book. They say that 6X9 is the most common choice, but what they really mean is that it’s the easiest. Why? Because they are taking a full sheet and folding it in half. No cutting required. Unfortunately, if your book is less than 75K words, this could leave you with a “thin looking book” even if it’s the right word count for your genre. Let’s be honest, before you became an author did you know the word count for your genre? Probably not. But we all know that we feel more ok with dropping $20 on a 500-page book than on a 150-page book.

If you print your 60K thriller on a 6X9, it will only come out to around 150 pages. Go look at thrillers in B & N. They are almost always on 5X8 and around 350 pages. Makes the reader not feel bad about paying $12.99 for them. Ah, sneaky, sneaky. But it works. So how do you decide what size to go with? Well, the lazy way would be to go with the rule of a smaller word count equals a smaller book size, but the safer bet is to go to B & N and discreetly measure the size of the covers in your genre. This works.

I love that they give you the choice of cream or white paper, but at the same time, I HATE when an author sends me a fiction book on white paper. White is for non-fiction, cream is for fiction. Standard rules. Why? Honestly, I’m not really sure. I think it has to do with white is easy for highlighting and cream is easier on the eyes. Fiction readers want to read straight through, no stopping to “think,” just absorbing. It is so hard to do that on white paper (as one who suffers regular migraines can attest.)

You need to decide on your book cover- matte or glossy. I know, glossy sounds so PRETTY! But it isn’t for fiction. It is a hot fingerprinty mess and I HATE it for any genre, even non-fiction. But you do have the choice. So let me give you some reasons why I think you should opt for the matte. Firstly, no fingerprints smudging it before you even have it leave the sales table. “But I’m only doing POD,” you might argue. “It doesn’t matter to me.” But readers will care. They will comment on it in reviews, especially if the cover is badly fingerprinted. 

 Second point, gloss is really hard to get a good picture of. I am a book reviewer who loves Instagram, trust me. Glossy sucks. Don’t make it hard for people to do free marketing for you. Give them that pretty matte cover that is video and camera-friendly!


3. Paperback Interior Formatting

General Guidelines

Paperbacks are and hardcovers are no-brainers when Good E-reader reports that both formats have had massive surges in sales in 2020. Especially because both have always been the top formats for books.  At least for this reader, a huge part of that is due to the design. Many self-published authors completely miss this part, or they do it badly. They don’t know about widows and orphans, they don’t know about using block formatting, they don’t think about the importance of each chapter starting on the right-hand page. They don’t think to order a physical proof and check the margins. When their book comes out it is a hot mess.

Don’t feel bad if you never considered these issues. Most readers don’t consciously consider them either. But when a book isn’t formatted the way they are expecting, they notice it. They may not be able to say why, but they notice.  If you aren’t sure about formatting for the size of the book, etc, it is best to use a Word Doc template set to the appropriate trim size.

To access the standard book template in Word, follow these steps:

  1. After opening Microsoft Word, click “File” then “New.”
  2. Seach Books in the search bar.
  3. Browse through the available templates and select one that best fits your needs and book type.
  4. Customize your book template settings as needed.
  5. Start removing the placeholder text and typing your own book information directly in the document.
  6. Click “Save” any time you make changes and before closing the Word application.

But if you take one of those and simply copy and paste, some of the important pieces (like what page each chapter should start on) gets lost in the process. Be sure to go through and set each chapter on the right-hand page, and create a “headline” format in the style box on your home page in Word. That way you can automatically add it as you work through your book, instead of guessing or hoping you remembered.

A good rule of thumb for chapter headings is at least 2 sizes larger than your paragraph text and bold. When setting up your chapter headings, it is tempting (especially if you write sci-fi or fantasy) to do a fancy text. If you do this, make it an image because Ingram Spark distributors don’t have a wide selection of fonts and if they don’t have Skriller, they will do an approximate match. But if you do it in a jpeg then you can customize to your heart’s content and not worry about them changing your font because they will treat your font as an image.

Now, let’s talk about the nitty-gritty that Word doesn’t address in their formatted templates.

The Devil of Formatting is in the Details

Most of us don’t think about it as we are typing away in our happy little work in progress, but Word automatically formats to the left. Most of the book samples will also leave the right side ragged.

Poor Fomatting- jagged edge text
Proper formatting- block text sample

See how jagged that is? It looks awful! Pick up any paperback you got from a traditional publisher and you will notice that the format is in a block text (Meaning a clean line on both the left and right sides of the text) with a first paragraph indent for fiction or a space between paragraphs for non fiction.

See how much prettier that text on the right looks? It’s subtle, I know. But it is such an easy fix. Look at your formatting ribbon (where you change your text size and font style.) There is a group of lines. One shows them all to the left. One shows the centered text, and one shows formatted to the left. And then there’s the block text. Highlight your whole document and change that setting to block text.

Alas, we aren’t done. Now, the tricky bit to block text is dealing with widows, orphans, and spacing.

4. Widows, Orphans, and Spacing

No, that is not the title of a book. Those are typography terms. A widow is a weird break in the text at the top or bottom of a page. Either the first line or last line of a paragraph that just doesn’t sit nicely. An orphan is a single word at the end of a paragraph that falls alone in the line. See the example below.

The simple fix is to add spaces to bump the text to where it should be. At the end of a page, if there is a paragraph that bleeds over, then it should have two lines of text at least to fix a widow. Orphans should have at least two words on that line.

But thanks to Word’s auto-formatting, when you do that sometimes it will leave the words oddly spaced on the line, or leave a wide gap at the bottom of the page. These are relatively easy to fix. For word spacing, change one of the words in that line to make it longer. For the gap at the bottom, add 1 more space at the top of the page. It is subtle enough that it should not cause a problem for the average reader.

5. Prettifying By Genre

Ok, I can’t go into a ton of detail here, because there are something like over 100 genres and subgenres to consider and this is already a pretty long article. But you can look at your genre and see the types of prettifying (Yes, that’s a word, because I am an author, and am allowed to make up words. ) that you can do/ is expected for your genre. This is where typographofiles (It’s a word, see the above) really shine. But there are a few key points to consider before you go hog wild.

1. What is the typical print size for your genre? Most fiction, especially books under 75,000 words are printed in 4.25” x 6.87 to 5.5″ x 8.5″. With the more wordier books getting larger dimensions. You will want to check with your distributor for the right sizing options available to you and then test your dimensions in your document to check printing costs. I try to keep my size consistent for the series.

For example, The Clear Angel Chronicles are smaller books usually ranging between 65,000 and 70,000 words. I go with a 5 x 7” (178 x 127mm). The Hunter’s Saga books tend to be larger, between 75,000 and 90,000 words so I go with 5.5 x 8.5” (216 x 140mm). If you write fantasy or Sci-fi, you may even want to consider 6 x 9” (229 x 152mm) or larger even though these are typically reserved for hardback books.

2. Is it appropriate for my genre? As much as you love the filigree fonts often used in fantasy chapter headings, crime thrillers generally don’t leave room for pretty fun fonts like that. Adult fiction books generally do not include chapter pictures. Police procedurals don’t typically use decorative elements to indicate a scene break, despite The Book Designers neat recommendations, it saddens me that they did not address genre appropriateness. 

3. When is too much TOO MUCH? Yes, there is such a thing as too much, and again, this will vary to some degree from genre to genre. But a good rule of thumb is no more than three elements per page. That means your chapter title, your “regular” font for the book, and your extra frills. Keep in mind, that includes using italics as well as filigrees.

You don’t want to wear your readers out.

True story, I started a book that I found at B2B CyCon a few years ago. It had a great premise, it sounded like a fun fantasy read. In the first page, the author chose an interesting way to tell their story. Each character’s viewpoint was in a different color and font from the other. 5 fonts on the first page. 5 different colors! I didn’t make it to page three, and I LOVE typography!

So do a bit of research before you go crazy. After you do the research, keep something from the e-book example in mind. Not all printers will have all your fun fonts. I learned that the hard way when I did a fun drop case font at the start of each of my chapters in the first run of Elements of a Broken Mind. The proof came back perfect. I LOVED it.

prettifying by genre- chapter headings

Then I ordered 50 books and they came to me looking like this:

Layout print issues- example, dropped fancy text

WHERE did the S in Seargent go? That printer who was contracted to do the run apparently didn’t have that font style. And it’s a pretty common font style too. If you decide to do special fonts for the chapter titles or a cool drop down like I did, save yourself the heartache, and just make them into an image. That way, no matter who your printer is, you won’t get missing fonts. Unlike e-readers, they won’t “adjust” for you.

There you go, five formatting tips to bring your published book to the next level. Are there any other formatting tips you would suggest? Share in the comments. 

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t want to do your own formatting? That’s ok, I provide this service. Send me an email with the following information and I will be happy to send you a quote.

  1. Manuscript
  2. Genre
  3. Distributor(s) (Bookbaby, Ingram Spark, or one from this list.)
  4. Publishing goals (Publishing exclusively on K.U., or publishing wide in ebook, paperback, audiobook, and hardback.)
  5. Your turnaround time. (I require at least 48 hours, but if you want an e-book/ paperback/ hardback done with prettification in a week then there will be an additional charge. Deadlines of 6 weeks will have no rush service charge added.)
  6. Budget- I can do a barebones ebook for $50. I can do an ebook and paperback barebones for $150. I can do customized special designs e-book, paperback, hardcover for as much as $1,000 depending on the number of pages and the genre. Giving me a sense of your budget will help me recommend the best option to fit your budget.

Until next time,

Keep Writing!


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Self-editing Tips and Tricks to Save on Editing Costs for your Book

Tips and Tricks to Save on Editing Costs

This post was updated on October 14th, 2021

Hello Lovelies,

Editing. The hardest part of being an author. By FAR! And the place that you will find the most scammers out there to make a quick buck. Seriously, there isn’t a site I’ve been to that doesn’t have tons of people peddling questionable skills to authors. I have seen so many authors get badly burned because they hired sub-par editors, or they hire top-notch editors (who are worth a pretty penny!) without having done any self-editing of their book and end up paying through the nose.

So, let’s talk about each step of editing and some free ways to address it so your editor spends less time doing the work, and in turn will charge you less!   If you are traditionally published by one of the big houses, your book will go through several editors before it goes to print. There’s a process, much like sanding, and if you do not get each step, then you are missing out. While you can go back and forth between steps, step two cannot truly be done until step one is finished, and step three cannot truly be done until step two is finished. 

As we review each step, I will share what an editor does for that step, and things you can do to self-edit your book before sending to that type of editor that will help save you money.

Step 1. Developmental Editing

The first step is general editing. (Also called content editing, revisions, story editing, developmental editing, substantive editing, re-writes, etc.). This is where the editor goes through the story and catches plot holes, recommends what needs to be cut, re-written, added, etc. This is where character development and motivations are analyzed, where genre tropes are explored. It is carving your vision from the rough wood, or refining the best of the story.

How can you save money on an editor for this step?

After you hit “the end”, shelf your book for a few days or weeks, then start fresh reading it focusing specifically on story development. If you find issues address them. Rinse and repeat until you are able to finish without any changes being made. But you can probably see a host of reasons why this is not ideal. One, you can only fix what you know to fix. Two, it is very time-consuming. Three, you know things about your character and the story that maybe never made it to paper but you have it in your brain and even with time off, those elements may still impact your story. 

I personally do this developmental self-editing step for all of my books, in two ways. First, I re-read what I wrote my last session to get me back in the groove for my writing session. As I am reading it, I can catch obvious iussues. Then, once the manuscript is done, I put it away for a week and then do a full read on a weekend when I don’t have anything else planned. I find the longer I give my “memory” to reflect on the story, the less likely I am to catch issues so a quick read-through works best for me. Then, rather than shelving and going for a 2nd go in another week, I will actually do the 2nd option for self-editing.

A second option that is very helpful is to get someone who isn’t an editor to do a read with some guidelines. A lot of authors work in peer groups and this is a great (usually free) resource.  Others use Alpha readers. This is a good place to have your mom, or cousin, or friend read through and point out issues in the story. If you aren’t working with a professional group, (or even if you are, depending on the quality of the group) you want to send a list of questions to your alpha reader to answer as they review, so that they know what to look for. Here’s my favorite Developmental self-editing checklist, and I post it at the beginning with a thank you note, and then add it to the end of each chapter, to encourage regular commentary. (FYI, I totally use this list during my own pass-through. It is that handy!)

For the reviewer: Please provide responses to at least five of the questions below:

  • Is the writing clear? (Did the author provide the key info regarding tense, POV, use of language to enable you to follow their writing with ease?)
  • Can you visualize the settings and characters? Is there too little or too much description?
  • Does the story flow well in terms of time, POV, setting – or does it jump from scene to scene?
  • Are the characters believable for their age, occupation, time period?
  • Is the dialogue natural or forced? Is any dialect easy to follow or does it distract you from your reading?
  • Are there too many or not enough dialogue/action tags? Can you follow the conversations easily?
  • Are there any sections you skipped? Why?
  • Are you confused by any parts of the story?
  • Did you feel the emotion of the story? Were you drawn into the character’s world?
  • Is there enough intrigue, conflict, tension, emotional pull to make you want to read on?

Feel free to comment on other aspects also, such as voice, style, use of language, character development, structure …and so on.

Thank you,


The struggle of crowd sourcing this step is that:

  • It can be time-consuming.
  • You cannot guarantee the quality of the responses you will get.
  • You risk your work getting exposed before it is ready.

I make sure for this step that I am using people I really trust, and I keep the group small (Ideally at least 3, never more than 9) and they all sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). You will still want to make sure that the editor you hire will also cover this, but your goal is that there will be very little work required at this step so that they don’t have to take as much time covering it and what time is spent on it is taking your good book to make it GRRRREAT!

I’ll be honest, when I quote line editing projects, if I see a lot of content issues, I won’t even offer a line editing bid. I will recommend that they submit a developmental editing sample so I can give them a quote on that. I have seen books where they clearly hodge-podged editing issues and it is sad. On the other hand, while I am doing line edits if I catch dev edit issues I will mark them as well. 

Another thing that I do, which I think is unique. I always provide links to additional content when I make recommendations. I am a teacher first, editor second. 

Want to get a free Developmental Edit quote?

Step 2. Line Editing

Also referred to as copyediting, stylistic editing, second edits, or for lazy editors “editing”. This is where the shape of the story gets more cleanly refined. The rough sanding to pull out the general form you created, gradually getting finer until your woodworking project has come to life….. er, your story. Right, we’re talking about editing!

The editor will go line by line to make sure the sentence structure is correct, the grammar is correct and the meaning is clearly conveyed. They will recommend word changes, writing in active voice, or removing sentences that are repeating information.

9 times out of 10, when you get an editor who says they “provide editing services” without breaking those down, this is what they are referring to and unless you clarify, you will get nothing more. There are some clever tools that you can use to self-edit your book for the editor so that they don’t have as much work to do (and in my case, will charge you less) such as ProWritingAid and Grammarly.

However, one of the concerns I have about these tools is that they are only as useful as the hands that wield them. Grammarly is great for technical writing and online copy, but it doesn’t take into account stylistic choices that are seen in many works of fiction. ProWritingAid is a bit better, in that it actually analyzes your text and makes a note to where words are overused and makes stylistic recommendations, but it’s not skilled at specific genres. Both tools are better than nothing, but just like with Word, you still need to know enough to make the right choice in the end. After you run through these programs, you still want to hire an editor, but as you get the hang of it, these programs are great because they will help you write better as you learn the skills. Then you will find that the cost of an editor will drop significantly.

Just as with dev edits, when I am editing for a client I will cite resources that explain the rules. I always use track changes or suggestion mode because at the end of the day your work is your work so it is up to you which rules to follow and which to ignore. 

For clients on a tight budget, I also offer my line edits chapter by chapter so as you learn things from the previous chapter you can incorporate them throughout the rest of the work before me and save yourself even more money. 

Want a free Line Edit quote?

The Final step: Proofreading

The final step is proofreading. The internet has LOTS of differing opinions on exactly what proof reading entails. The gist is that proof reading is a last read-through to catch any final errors. A lot of editors do this pre-layout, but in my humble opinion (and in traditional publishing) it should be done after layout (and in each format you are publishing in) to catch any missed bits. The benefits to doing this after you complete layout is that the proofreader can look at the product as if they were a customer. They can catch not only misspellings, homonyms, and punctuation; they can also “double-check” layout. Consider it a final buff, polish, and seal on your project to make it as shiny and appealing as possible.

Having someone who can catch all the writerly bits as well as spotting funky layout on the page, such as widows and orphans, and the general appeal of the final product will allow you to produce the best final version possible. If you are tight on budget, Beta Readers are a great tool for proofreading. I would choose 5 top readers, and provide them with instructions on what you are looking for and how to notate it.  

If you are sending them a post-layout copy (as you should), ask them to keep a running journal and note the version they are reviewing. (E-pub, PDF, Paperback, Mobi, etc.) Then have them track the errors as such: chapter/page number the error occurs, paragraph number, sentence number, and what the error is. Easy, peasy.

Want a proofreading quote?

Final Thoughts Before Hiring an Editor

I work as an editor in fiction and non-fiction. I have published over a hundred books in my career, and written and published over a baker’s dozen. After 20 years of experience, I still hire an editor for my own work. I have actually had people question my editing skills for this. But the reality is any editor who is also a writer will tell you that they do the same thing. We all have blind spots. We all know what we mean to say and so even when using tricks like “read it aloud sentence by sentence from end to beginning” to catch line errors, some slip through because our brain cannot be tricked. 

Some would say “Eh, but it is better than what a lot of others are producing. I see errors in traditionally published books. Surely you can give yourself a pass?” Except I don’t want to produce better. I want to produce great. And don’t call me Shirley! (Blame my husband for that horrible pop culture reference!)

I strongly recommend that an author gets as many eyes on a project as possible before going to publication and I live by my advice. No book can ever be perfect. But the goal is to have it as perfect as possible.

I do provide all three forms of editing services, but I will not provide all at the same time. Although you can hire me for all three, I will only accept such contracts for all three if the author has utilized other resources (such as the ones noted above) and I require two weeks off between stages to “scrub my brain” so to speak. If you have an editor who does offer all three services in “one pass” you should question the quality of those services.

What are your questions about editing?

Are there any free tools you use?

Let us know in the comments below!

Until next time, 

Keep Writing!