Authors Keep Formatting When They Should Be Styling

by | Apr 1, 2010

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.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Pam Stucky

    Hi, Joel!

    I’ve been using styles for more than 20 years, since my dear ol’ PageMaker – oh, those were the days! I use InDesign for my book interiors, and rarely use Word for anything book-related.

    However, for other things I do occasionally use Word, and depending on the document’s purpose I occasionally use styles. I’m wondering if you (or someone) can tell me why sometimes – often, really! – the styles don’t seem to fully “take”??? I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. The other day I had a bunch of text I imported from various places into word. I set a style for … oh, let’s say Garamond 11/16. All the text “took” the Garamond part. Most of the text took the /16 part. But some of the text stayed at the original size, and some changed to 11. I applied the style again and again and again, but it wouldn’t fully take. I ended up manually changing what wouldn’t change by style. Any ideas what I’m doing wrong?? One thing I don’t like about Word is how it applies tons of formatting in the background that you don’t see; I’m assuming my challenge has to do with that, but I don’t know how to fix it.


  2. bowerbird


    i’ve got some output i’d like you to look at,
    give me some feedback on its quality-level.

    shoot me an e-mail at [email protected], ok?


  3. Joel

    Lindy, you will be amazed at how effective styles are at controlling the consistency of your Word documents. I found a tutorial (although it’s on an older version) here: Word Styles Tutorial and I also recommend for great screencast tutorials on a whole load of software. There are probably others, you might check the Microsoft Office web sites and user groups. And thanks for visiting!

  4. Lindy Abbott

    I have used MS Word for years and never used style. Where is the best tutorial to learn? I am a writer, published online for articles using typepad, but currently working on manuscript (15,000 words into it).

  5. Joel

    Keep me posted, bowerbird, it sounds like an intriguing project.

  6. bowerbird

    joel said:
    > Can you point readers to any specific
    > examples of eBooks produced with these tools

    lots of people are using markdown. and textile.
    but i can’t point you to any specific books, no…

    the biggest class of markdown users is probably
    bloggers, as it’s utilized in many blogging tools…

    many of the commenting systems on blogs also
    use markdown, or some other light-markup…

    the thing is, these light-markup systems are
    geared to produce (x)html output for the web,
    not e-books, with their different packaging…

    i’m creating a tool that’s focused on e-books.
    i’ll be letting you know more about that later.

    > and which relieve the “tension”

    the release of “tension” is because you can
    concentrate on the writing without too much
    worrying about the way it will be formatted.


  7. Joel

    bowerbird, that’s going to take some study on my part. Can you point readers to any specific examples of eBooks produced with these tools, and which relieve the “tension” you quoted from my article? That would be interesting. And thanks for stopping by.

  8. bowerbird

    joel said:
    > there seems to be tension between
    > the desire for “extensible” content,
    > that can reflow on various devices,
    > and the desire for typography that
    > looks decent and is high on readability,
    > something we’ve become accustomed to.
    > I don’t know how it will resolve,
    > but I’m interested.

    the resolution is already in sight…

    it’s called “light markup”…

    writers can concentrate on writing,
    using simple means to indicate the
    type of formatting they want, and
    when they’re done, their product
    is converted to a formatted form.

    the best-known one is “markdown”…

    you can see it and play with examples:


  9. Joel

    Hugh, of course you are right. But MS Word is a real “kitchen sink” of features and I think the size of the program scares casual or non-techie users off. I look at dozens of manuscripts a year, and it’s rare to see one that’s styled past the main headings, if that. I don’t recall 1 manuscript in recent years that was fully “styled.”

    It is pretty neat when you teach this to someone though. Most people see right away how much time and effort they can save. That’s something.

  10. Joel

    Edward, Suzanna, that’s interesting about Smashwords. I confess I’m still getting up to speed with eBook formats, I rely on providers like Walt Shiel (above) for their expertise.

    Your comment about “concentrating on content” is pretty interesting. It reminds me of the arguments between Word Perfect and Word before Microsoft conquered the world, and the studies that seemed to show text written with character mode word processors was better or easier to write than text written in a graphical user interface. Well, I guess we all know who won that war.

    The mashup of content and formatting has had a rather short lifespan. Until word processing and the devolution of layout and font software to ordinary computer users, authors never gave a thought to format. They just wrote, and many still do, knowing that the format will be supplied later, by someone else. Perhaps we’re returning to that model.

    To answer your question, there seems to be tension between the desire for “extensible” content, that can reflow on various devices, and the desire for typography that looks decent and is high on readability, something we’ve become accustomed to. I don’t know how it will resolve, but I’m interested.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  11. Joel

    Hey, Maggie, that’s a great idea. Actually, I have another post coming where I’m going to step-by-step through using Styles to further lower the “barrier to entry.”

  12. Hugh Ashton

    Does anyone *not* use styles? Really? I cannot imagine ever writing any formatted document of more than a page long without styles in any word processor. If I’m designing a book or report, there are about 20 basic styles that I always include (for a manuscript, this can usually be cut down, and in fact, I usually do everything in MS in double-spaced left-justified 12pt Courier). But anyone who is unaware of the existence and importance of pre-defined styles shouldn’t be using Word – they need a text editor, and not a word processor.

    I agree with Edward Talbot, btw – never, ever use Word for creating HTML – it’s Pure Evil ((c) Microsoft, 1985-2010)

  13. Suzanna Stinnett

    Edward, thanks for bringing up Smashwords. I’ve begun uploading a series of ebooks there and am very happy about the mandate against formatting. It’s a huge relief, as I can concentrate on the content. Actually, I think it elevates the content when the “look” is taken out of consideration. If authors are thinking of their readers and all the ways people are going to be reading books in the future, the issue of a naked manuscript that can go into multiple e-readers should be right up front.

    Joel, do you see a shift coming in this regard? I’m certainly aware that there are worlds of publishing I don’t know much about, and I’m curious. Has your work shown any glimmers of this non-formatting new world?

    Thanks for a great article.
    Suzanna Stinnett

  14. Edward G. Talbot

    I know exactly what you mean, but for some DIY kinds of authors, there is a fly in the styles Ointment. If we want to publish on Smashwords, they recommend against using styles. I don’t believe kindle has the same restrictions, although when I uploaded my book with no styles, that part of the upload worked flawlessly (The table of Contents and Cover links – well that’s an entirely different story!).

    Now, I suspect that someone doing a Save as HTML and then tweaking it for epublishing would have no problem (and might be well-served) using Styles. Though as a web programmer, I mightily resist Save As HTML, as often it’s quicker to rebuild the HTML by hand and cutting and pasting if you wind up having to go “fix” what Word did to the HTML.

  15. Maggie Dana

    Joel: I’ll Tweet about this because every author, no matter their path to publication, needs to read this article and learn to use Styles, or at least learn not to abuse them. As a book typesetter, I’ve spent countless hours (days, weeks, months) turning Rain Forest Crunch files into plain Vanilla.

  16. Joel

    Walt, that’s another great reason for learning—and using—styles. I know that the videos I’ve watched that teach converting documents to ePub stress the importance of style-tagging every element to give you control of how they will look in that format. Perhaps this will persuade some authors to find out why Word always says “Normal” up in the toolbar! Thanks for your comment.

  17. Walt Shiel

    And for those writers who layout their book in MS Word (I know, I know…but many do), following this advice about using the styles feature properly will make it so much easier to convert it to e-book formats. And easier in this case means we can charge less for doing that conversion.



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