Authors Keep Formatting When They Should Be Styling

POSTED ON Apr 1, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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Microsoft Word style palette for Indesign book designEverybody’s formatting, but nobody’s styling. And that’s my problem.

You see, I get files from authors all the time. I get the files while the book’s being editing, and I use those to make estimates and do design samples.

After editing is finished, I get the final files to import into the layout to create the set of first proofs that go back to the author and editor.

But before I ever get there, I have to deal with the author’s files. To understand what’s going on here, consider what most people go through to write a book.

Books Take a Long Time to Write

I would estimate the average self-published book takes about 2-3 years to write and produce, and I’m confining myself to nonfiction here. You novelists are a special crowd.

During this 2 to 3 years the author will have created the book in pieces, at different times. She may have cut and pasted notes from a lecture she gave last year, or a piece of a report written for a conference. Maybe the author has an archive of newsletters, other manuscripts that never got published, and research material from the web.

Gradually the word processing file holding this floating amalgam of content gets a bit bloated. Various reviewers, editors, and book coaches leave their markup comments behind. Changes are tracked from version to version.

On top of this comes the real problem, the authors who strive to make their manuscripts look as good as possible, formatting, adding pictures, squaring everything up.

Sometimes the Solution IS the Problem

But let’s face it, very few people ever master the complex web of features in a program like Microsoft Word. In fact, I think that the sheer scope of the program discourages people from learning the most basic features that would make their jobs a lot easier. Faced with the mass of functionality in this mammoth program, a lot of people simply ignore it all, and use Word like an electronic typewriter.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But preparing manuscripts for typesetting is a whole different matter. The files have to go through a thorough scrubbing to get rid of all the formatting the authors have done, and to make sure they import properly into Adobe InDesign.

The other day an author told me they had spent 6 hours fixing up the sentence spacing in their book file. Imagine how I felt, when I could have fixed all the spaces in about a minute with a series of search-and-replace operations, using the power of Word to do the heavy lifting.

Another author spent days formatting his manuscript with numerous graphics, laboriously creating picture frames, captions, borders, shading, the whole works. Just as methodically, I stripped the file bare of all the bits and pieces to assemble the parts I needed for the layout.

But here’s the real problem. While all these writers are busy making their manuscripts look beautiful with different fonts, alignments, sizes, picture boxes and text boxes, they are missing the one feature of modern word processors that could really save them—and me—a huge amount of time: Styles

Styles Are Worth Learning

Simply, a Style in Word is a whole set of formatting instructions that you can save and re-use again and again. Not only that, but if you assign styles to the elements of your text you want to look different from the main body text, you can change all of them at once by simply changing the style definition.

For instance, if I have a Style named “Subhead” and I’ve defined it as 12 point Times Roman Bold, but now I decide I’d rather have Helvetica. All I have to do is change the style definition, and all the subheads, maybe hundreds of them in a long book with this style tag assigned to them will instantly change to Helvetica. Pretty neat, isn’t it?

But wait, it gets better. If your Word document is styled with Word styles, it makes the job of importing your file into InDesign faster and more reliable. InDesign’s intelligent importer can spot and manipulate these style assignments, putting the layout of your book on a fast track. It’s amazing how much faster a book can be proofed when the Word files are styled.

Alas, I have bad news. It’s very rare to get a manuscript file from an author with styles assigned consistently throughout the file. Sometimes I’ll get one from an editor, but even that’s rare. If people understood how much time they could save themselves—forget centering all those picture boxes, it’s a waste of time—I’m sure they would take the ten minutes or so to learn how to use them.

So do yourself and your book designer a favor: start styling your file with Word. You’ll be glad you did.

Takeaway: One of the most powerful—and most neglected—formatting tools in Microsoft Word is Styles. Learn to use Styles to save lots of time in manuscript production.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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