Writing tips: how to write robust paragraphs in Word

[In this post, I’m going to address a topic that some of you might consider pretty basic: how to write a paragraph using Microsoft Word. It certainly is fundamental but I would say around 15% of the manuscripts I receive in my capacity of publisher, editor, or formatter, have been written by authors who do not know how to tell Word when a paragraph has finished. With a lot of additional rework and luck, you can just about get away without knowing how to do this if you self-publish a paperback, but if you self-publish an eBook starting with a Word document without properly defined paragraphs then the results will be unreadable – Tim]

The most fundamental task of a word processor is to wrap lines for you automatically.

If you were looking at the paperback book from which this post was extracted, you would see it consists for the most part of paragraphs, each of which is separated from the next by a small gap. Most paragraphs have more than one line of words. In fact, you are reading such a paragraph now.

When you type such a paragraph into Microsoft Word, the correct approach is to keep on typing until you get to the end of the paragraph. Then you tell Word that you’ve finished the paragraph by pressing the Enter key. Then you start typing the next paragraph.

For simplicity I’m using the term ‘Enter key’. You might refer to it as ‘Return’ or ‘Carriage return/ line feed’. The button on my keyboard has a short downward line followed by a longer line to the left that terminates in an arrow. These are all names for the same button. It is very rare for PC/Windows software to distinguish between them, but some Mac software does, including Word.

You must not tap the Enter key until you have finished the paragraph. Inside a paragraph, it is the word processor’s responsibility to automatically decide when a line has finished and so it needs to start the next word on a new line. If you try to do this yourself by hitting the Enter key in the middle of a paragraph, then you are going to have a badly formatted paperback book. And if you use the same Word manuscript as the basis of your eBook edition, that is likely to be even worse. In the latter case, I’m not talking ‘doesn’t quite look professionally formatted’, I mean ‘utterly unreadable, ask for money back and complain about poor quality to Amazon.’

The reason is simple. You might think you are setting a new line at the correct place. But it is dependent upon variables such as font size, margins and page size. As soon as any of these variables change, your new line will be in the wrong place. And with eBooks, all of these variables are completely out of your control.

I’m going to repeat the previous paragraph but I’m going to insert a paragraph break at the end of each line. When I wrote this in Microsoft Word on my computer, the lines appeared to wrap perfectly. I can’t tell precisely how this will look on whatever device you are using to read this post, but I am sure it won’t look good. If you are using a Word document to send to Amazon KDP or Smashwords, or using a Word document as the input to an automated conversion tool, such as Calibre, then this is the kind of result you should expect if you don’t set paragraphs as I’ve explained.

The reason is simple. You might think you are setting a new line at the

correct place. But it is dependent upon font size, margins and page size.

As soon as any of these variables change, your new line will be in the

wrong place. And with eBooks, all of these variables are completely out

of your control.

The screenshot below shows how your document should look.

How your paragraphs SHOULD look

Notice in the Ribbon that I’ve ringed the show/hide button (¶). Setting show/hide on means that I see a paragraph mark at the end of each paragraph and a section break at the end of the page.

The ‘show/hide’ or ‘paragraph mark’ (¶) is properly called a ‘pilcrow’. This blog post has been extracted from the manuscript I wrote for a book. When I needed to enter a pilcrow into the text, for the paperback I added the Pilcrow through ‘Insert Character’ from the Ribbon and picked the ‘Arial Unicode MS’ character set and went hunting for the pilcrow. For the eBook version, readers won’t have the Arial Unicode MS font installed on their readers (unless reading using Kindle Reader for PC), but through the magic of Unicode, if your eBook reader has any font that includes the pilcrow, then your reader should be able swap to that typeface and display the character. Modern eBook devices and tablets have good enough Unicode support to display pilcrows and many thousands of characters beyond, although my Kobo readers Mini isn’t able to use fallback fonts in this way.

Unless you’re writing a book on formatting, you probably won’t need to enter a pilcrow yourself, but I’m using it as an example of how you can get special characters into your book.

Now we’ll see the same text but with the paragraphs broken up. Here I’ve hit the Enter key at the end of each line instead of at the end of each paragraph. Remember, if we turned off the show/hide option (and so hide the pilcrows) both examples would initially look identical. But if we changed page size, margins, font, font size or even our version of Word, the lines would break in the wrong place in the second example but would adjust automatically in the first.

How your paragraphs SHOULD NOT look!

Pilcrows don’t always look the same. The most obvious difference is that sometimes the head is filled in and sometimes not. In the screenshot above, the text uses a font called Palatino Linotype, and for that font the pilcrows are hollow. At the bottom I’ve added three blank lines in another font: Calibri, for which the pilcrow is filled in.

I’ve written so far about using the Enter key before the end of the paragraph. Sometimes people keep pressing the space bar or the tab key for the same effect. This has the same results and causes the same formatting disasters as soon as any of the variables changes (such as font size or margins).

Tim

Follow this link to my other writing and publishing tips

This article was adapted from ‘Format Your Print Book for Createspace: 2nd Edition‘ available now as a Kindle eBook, and as a 296 page paperback:

eBook: amazon.com |  amazon.co.uk

Paperback  amazon.com |  amazon.co.uk

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About Tim C. Taylor

Science fiction publisher and author of the bestselling Human Legion series. I live with my wife and young family in an English village. I am currently writing full time, when I'm not roped into building Lego.
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