Unhelpful formatting

A classic error among authors is to format their manuscript so that it looks pretty close to how they think their book should look like after typesetting. After all (they think), layout is something that anyone with half a brain can do.

Examples of such DIY layout are:

  • using the space bar to align figures in columns (use tab or right-align),
  • creating hanging indents with a hard return and tab (use normal paragraph controls instead),
  • keying hard hyphens to ‘fix’ bad line breaks (use discretionary hyphens),
  • placing break-out text within text boxes (indent the text, use a different font or other special signifier instead), and
  • inserting illustrations with their captions within the text document (keep illustrations as separate files – more about this in a few days).
  • I have even encountered authors hard-keying the running heads for each page (ouch! – of course, you know that all word processors have a header-footer function)

Then, thinks the author, it’s just a ‘small matter’ for the typesetter to tweak this layout and the book is ready to print.

Right? Wrong!

No word-processing program is able to layout a book in a satisfactory manner. To achieve a professional result requires specialist typesetting/desktop-publishing software like Adobe InDesign. (It also requires someone with specialist typesetting skills and experience.)

Such typesetting software works quite differently than programs like Word where everything is jumbled together in the same file. Rather, what you have is a container into which you import separate elements; these are then arranged and formatted in different ways with other embellishments added to the layout.

In a way, the difference between (say) InDesign and Word is the difference between arranging food on a platter versus in a food processor.

As such, unhelpful formatting adds days (even weeks) to the typesetting process. Why? Because all of those minor adjustments to the basic text have to be reversed before the typesetter can get down to doing the proper layout job.

So, when next you have the urge to improve the appearance of your manuscript, take a breath and ask yourself which is most important: looking good at the rehearsals or being ready on opening night.

(Post #11 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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