IWSG: Don’t touch that key!

Oopsie, Lauri’s internet must still be down, so it’s up to me. Sher here with many thanks to Alex J Cavanaugh for helping writers support each other via the Insecure Writers Support Group. I guess one of my insecurities is knowing I can’t help everyone who needs help. As a teen, I didn’t like being labeled as the nurturing type. But I am, and over the years, I’ve learned not to fight it. Although I’m not your mom, I’m probably old enough. So this month I’m giving some motherly advice that will save you time now and money on book design later.

This advice involves a  “don’t touch” principle, making it much easier to convert your manuscript to an ebook that looks right (as in consistent formatting) on all kinds of different digital reading devices. Before I explain further, I’ll tell you why I’m sharing this today.

Yesterday I proofread a book, and the author had the first paragraph of every chapter indented the same amount as every other paragraph, half an inch. I corrected that first paragraph to “no indent,” standard for novels. But farther down, whenever I made a new paragraph, it wasn’t indented even though the ones above and below appeared to be half an inch. What gives, I wondered.

I didn’t investigate until I finished the rest of the proofing. Then I turned on the “show formatting” tool in Word, the one that looks like a paragraph mark. Guess what? The author had used a combination of spaces and tabs to indent most of the manuscript’s paragraphs. Why is that bad? Because ereaders might not indent those paragraphs at all. Or they might indent them too far–

                  like this
or this
                         or this
                                            or a combination of all the above — Ugh! —

      when you wanted this.

Please, when it comes to paragraph indentations, forget you have a tab key. Forget the space bar too. Instead, select a paragraph (or a range of paragraphs), go to the “paragraph” tab in the top menu, click the little arrow in the bottom right corner, and find the “indentation” section. Under the “special” heading, choose the “indent first line” option for every paragraph except your first one in every chapter. For the first paragraph, pictures, chapter headings, and other things you want centered, not centered plus .5 inch, choose “no indent.”

By doing this, you’ve chosen a style that will convert to html (the language of reading devices and the Internet) in a consistent manner. The same principle of using set “styles” applies to all manuscript formatting for books. If you’re ready to convert your book now and need to learn the rest of the formatting styles fast, download the FREE Smashwords Style Guide, read it, and follow the instructions carefully. If you feel like your head is ready to explode, try again another day.

If even this paragraph part of book formatting news set your brain on fire, step back and put on one piece of fireproof material at a time. Knowing my own habits, I also recommend putting tape over that tab key until your hands learn what your brain knows.

Oh, one last bit of motherly advice because I used both farther and further above. In the USA, use farther for distance and time but further for ideas, as in “furthermore.” Some regions haven’t caught up with the majority usage, so whenever in doubt, check Webster’s, still the standard dictionary for US publishers.

That’s all from me. Now please tell me your insecurity or your best advice for writing or formatting — or whatever else is on your mind. Thanks for visiting!

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Indie author-friendly freelance editor, children's book blogger for picture books through YA, kid lit, SF/fantasy lover with special fondness for middle grade, pun-loving SCBWI member, meter-maid for poetry and rhyming picture books.


  1. What a great guide and very informative!

  2. Great advice. I have one for you–my agent recently posted a blog where she recommended doing a page break at the end of every chapter to make sure if changes are made, the chapters start on a new page rather than bunching together. I realized then that I’d been driving her crazy for five years!

    • Thanks, Stephanie. As a matter of fact, page breaks were going to be my next subject! I’ve been using page breaks between chapters for years. But recently I learned that for some ereaders, page breaks don’t work as well as section breaks. I think epub wants section breaks. Same goes for print formatting. Weird. I’m still learning book design.

  3. I haven’t used a “tab” key in years. The program just automatically does it for me. I do forget to shut off that feature though when a publisher says specifically “do not indent first paragraph.”

    Word programs are becoming so complicated.


    • Hey, Donna, good to see you here. Strangely enough, neither have I. But I just had to explain this same concept to hubby two days before I proofed the manuscript. Word doesn’t indent for all templates, and people often accidentally change the indented templates so they don’t indent. That’s when trouble starts.

  4. One of the first things I had published, the editor hounded me on the difference of “farther” and “further.” I’ve never had a problem with it sense.

    And I definitely never ever use tabs. I also use Styles to create all my formatting for my ebooks, so they stay the way I want them to look.

    • Sounds like you’re ahead of the game. I thought all young writers were as knowledgeable as you until I read the chapter book by a young writer. At least compared to me, LOL!

  5. It’s been years since I heard of using tabs. I’m dating myself, eh? Course, I don’t format ebooks either. I gave up trying to do this on my own after my 1st book. Now I’m determined to let the pros do it for me. No patience.

    • Maybe those of us who are “dated” learned the hard way already! But if I could follow the Smashwords Style Guide and make a book look nice, I bet you could too. But with no patience, you might want to buy an inexpensive template from Joel Friedlander’s site, The Book Designer. That might be cheaper and faster than hiring someone. Let me know if you do because I’ve been thinking of doing a children’s book with one of his templates. Thanks!

  6. Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

  7. I don’t use tabs, because my template always indents for me, but I always have to go back and remove the indent for the first paragraph. I tried to follow your directions, but when I got to the special section, the only options I had was “first line” or “hanging.” Am I missing something?

    • It’s good that you haven’t messed up your template. I’ve known writers who accidentally changed the default, and I had to explain how to restore it. But I should have said “none” is one of the choices once you click on “first line” (assuming the default is first line indent because the default choice is the one that shows up in the box). In Word 2010, you don’t see “hanging” until you click “first line” either. I can’t check in Word 2007 because I haven’t set up my desktop computer since we moved. Let me know if you find the “none” choice.

  8. Oy! Another thing I need to worry about during the editing process. I guess I can add this to my ever growing list of things to look out for while I edit away at home. Now I see why people hire professionals πŸ™‚


    • Hi, Elsie. That’s how I feel too. Sometimes it seems like my editing list is never-ending. But some concepts and techniques do get easier over time. I never thought I’d master “which” hunting (that vs which) but I did. So I’m sure you’ll get the “no tab” habit soon.

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