Writing Tips Wednesday – Getting the layout right

Every Wednesday I’ll be sharing some hints and tips about how to improve your writing. These are basic things I have learned over the years, from writers websites, published authors and constructive feedback from friends, family and online pals.

There is an argument that fiction writing cannot be taught because it comes from talent alone, it is in your nature to be creative. Whilst there is some truth in that, even the most creative person needs to learn how to use their ability and make the best of their craft.

This week: Getting the layout right.

Fiction writing isn’t just about the characters, places, worlds, plots, sub plots, dialogue, narrative etc. You can have the best story ever but if you can’t make it easy to read then your idea is unlikely to grow wings and fly. Well, it might, but it might take a while.Your story may well be the most beautiful, insightful, gripping thing ever written but if it looks like a turd sandwich not many people will spend their time reading it.

I’m talking about how to lay out your writing so it is comfortable on your readers eyes and flows without forcing them to concentrate, double-check the previous line and work out who is talking, doing, feeling or thinking.

Forget that you might be trying to impress a publisher or agent for a moment and look at the layout of your story as you would want to read it. There are certain rules to follow to keep your readers turning those pages.

The Mental Model.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about basic web design – HTML – How To Make Your Life Hard – where I discussed basic web page coding and how to organise your files. I also talked about the Mental Model, this is something we all use in every facet of our lives. We build up a library of what to expect, from the layout of a supermarket or gas station to how to find (and where you would expect to find) the email button on a web page.

The same principles can be applied to writing. As a reader you have a mental model of a book; cover, blurb, title, forward, acknowledgements, dedication, chapters and so on. Before you open the first page you have an expectation of what the next 293 pages are going to look like. And this includes the layout.

Imagine you are preparing to read a book, you’re comfortable, relaxed, maybe even have a drink beside you or a snack to keep you going through the story. You turn to the first chapter and this is what you find:

“Yeah kid, that was me,” said Greg. “You like that show huh?” “Are you shitting me! It’s the best cop show on TV!” Catrina looked mortified. “Peter! Don’t use language like that!” She looked at Greg. “Sorry.” “Don’t listen to her, Petey, tell it like it is,” said Greg. “If you like somethin’ you go right ahead and say so.” “He’s not to use foul language,” said Catrina. Her expression softened. “We watch it every week, the kids love it. We all do actually. Big fans! It’s such a cool show, you must be very proud.” “It’s garbage,” said Greg. He wanted to bite his tongue but he couldn’t help himself. His publisher battled with him at every book signing when Greg spoke his mind. You need to keep your fans happy, Greg, not go spouting off a bunch of insults and opinions, that’s not what they want to hear. Hank & Jack: P.I was a show for morons, it was cheap to make and used the same regurgitated story lines week after week. “But you…” Catrina glanced at her husband. “Isn’t that your show?”

I think you’ll agree with me, it’s a turd sandwich, right? You want it to make sense but there are just too many things going on in a tiny space that your brain is battling away, The Army of Keep Going and the Battalion of This is Too Much are draining you of enjoyment.

That excerpt was from my short story – Straight Shooter – and I messed it up to show how a bad layout can ruin a good story, well, I thought it was pretty good. An extreme way to highlight my point but it works.

But people don’t write like that, do they?

Yes. Some do because they don’t know the rules yet or they don’t spend enough time making sure their story makes sense. It might to them but not to another reader. The rules to follow here are simple:

 – When a new person speaks start on a new paragraph. Having two people talking in the same paragraph distracts the reader, they expect to see the next piece of dialogue in its own section.

 – Keep things simple by writing from one character’s point of view at a time. You can cheat with this but it’s not a great idea. Using the “…thought Greg” and “….”thought Peter” can be jarring to the reader, especially if both thoughts are in the same paragraph.

 – Try to stick to one person’s point of view. You can switch between characters but make sure the reader knows this has happened by using a line break or indicator between paragraphs: ### to show there is a new scene or a switch between characters.

 – New paragraphs should be obvious. It’s all well and good if you hit the return key and start on the next line but if your text still looks bunched together that distraction will break your reader’s mental model again.

What about indents, tabs and spaces?

I write in MS Word, and use indents or tabs to highlight a new paragraph has started. WordPress isn’t very helpful when it comes to pressing the Tab key to indent so I took a screen shot of the excerpt in MS Word. It might appear a bit squashed up but I closed the right tab in so the image would fit into the WP page without blurring.

Good paragraph layout

The same text placed in WP would look like this:

paragraph spacing in WordPress

So you can see the difference in layout when you give it some thought. If you want others to read your story why put them at a disadvantage to you? You know the story but they don’t so with a little care and attention you can make the layout easy to read. Obviously you can change the line spacing to suit your editing style, although agents and publishers will want to see your manuscript set out in a specific way, which can be quite different to how you would lay out your text on a web page or WordPress for example.

Writing for the Web – Layout Guidelines.

Not everyone likes or enjoys reading fiction via a screen, so it’s in your interest as a writer to ensure the reader has the best possible experience. Many of you read masses of text on your PC every day, if you counted the words you’d likely be surprised how much you get through. We all adjust our reading behaviour between printed media – books, magazines, newspapers etc and what we see on the screen. We tend to scan web pages for salient information, and when we find it we read that chunk of text and move on, our eyes searching for key words, prompts, images, headings etc.

It is important to understand how people read text via a screen because a bad layout can prompt visitors to your website to become irritated and leave. These are a few basic rules for laying out text, fiction or none-fiction, on a website or blog:

 – Use black text on a white background. White text on a black background might look attractive to you but remember the reader or visitor will be using their mental model and will expect black text on white.

 – Use coloured text sparingly. A chapter or section heading in a different colour than the main body can help keep the readers eyes flowing down the page. Make sure all Headings or Section Titles are the same colour, font style etc, or if you must use more than one or two make sure there is consistency – Heading One, Heading Two, Heading Three for example. Would you be happy to read a page filled with rainbow coloured text?

 – Try to avoid using italics. Pixels on the screen often fail to make italics as legible as those in a book. Also ask yourself if it’s really important to use italics to highlight a word. I have used italics in my own fiction writing and I’m still undecided if it looks okay.

 – Create spaces. Look at the layout of this list. It’s clear and easy to follow. The text is black. There are spaces between the points and the page is broken up with section headings. As you read a web page your eyes take in the overall look of the page, not just the line you are reading. So if you see a vast chunk of text below your current line it can feel daunting to keep on reading.

 – Use your blog to build linking pages. If your text or story is 10,000 words long the reader will know this even if you don’t tell them, the tiny scroll bar on the side of the page can make reading it feel like a chore. To avoid this break up your text over additional pages, schedule posts for the next day and the day after, create a set of nested pages – one main page and several beneath it that contain the chapters for example.

 – Images can draw the eye along. Avoid placing a series of large images one after the other in your text. This can break the reader’s flow and distract them from the purpose of the text – to entertain or inform. Smaller images, 1/3 or 1/4 of the wide of the page can help highlight the point of the text and entice the reader to keep going.

 – Check spelling. Your blogging platform, WordPress, Blogger etc, might have a built-in spell checker but it can miss things. Write your post/story/poem/none-fiction piece in MS Word or other word processor. If you don’t have one there are a plethora of online spell checkers where you can paste your text and check it for errors. Try SpellCheck.net or Orangoo.com for example.

Manuscript Format Guidelines.

These are basic guidelines to use when submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher. Some details may differ from website to website. Most places will have a recommended set of criteria to follow so it’s best to check them first before you place all your hopes and dreams in the post box.

 – Use double line spacing for all your text. Agents and publishers may want to make notes and they use this gap to scribble their ideas, corrections, thoughts etc.

 – Text should be left aligned, never justified. The right hand side should be “jagged” this has something to do with how an editor counts the words per line I think, drop me a comment if you know the actual reason for this.

 – Use a clear font, 12 point is best. Some will argue that Courier or Courier New is the accepted font, but that’s open to debate. Just make sure the font is clear, easy to read and consistent.

 – Use a non-proportional font where possible, these are where every character occupies the same space. If you look closely at the text on this page the characters are not all equal. The word “infiltrate” for example, the letters “i, f, l, t” take up less space than the “n, a, e” which is okay for quick reading on a screen but can be problematic for editors when trying to determine word count, line length etc.

 – Use black text on a white background. No fancy stuff and no other colours.

 – Use plain white paper. No gloss or sheen.

 – Only print on one side of the paper. If I was an editor I wouldn’t want to keep turning pages over and getting mixed up or seeing text on the other side through the paper.

 – Choose quality print or best print NOT fast draft. You want your manuscript to be level pegging with all the others that cross an editor’s desk, so why scrimp on ink at the last moment?

 – If using an image or drawing make sure it is high quality. Blurred images or drawings won’t win you any favours.

 – Leave a 1 inch (2 cm) margin around your text. This gives room for notes.

 – Indent each paragraph by half an inch (1 cm). When editing your next draft you should check this is consistent throughout your manuscript.

 – Don’t insert extra lines between paragraphs. This could be misinterpreted as a section break that has ### missing and thereby confuse the editor.

 – Bold or italics should not be formatted, underline those words to show the emphasis.

 – Write END at the bottom of the last page so the editor knows there are no pages missing or that there are no more to come.

 – Top left side header on the first page should include your name and contact information.

 – Top right hand corner must include the page number, NOT at the bottom of the page, and certainly NOT on the left hand side. This is because the page number is easier to locate on the right.

 – Put the title of the piece half way down the page, centered, with your name underneath, word count below that. Round the word count – 90,000 words or 94,000 words is easier to read than 94,892. Round it up to the nearest 100 or 1000 words depending on the length.

 – Get the header correct. Top right of every page should read: LAST NAME/TITLE/PAGE# but NOT on the same page as your title, name, word count etc.

 – Indicate a line or section break with a # or ### in the centre, like so:

Every so often Greg noticed Peter watching him with a surreptitious smile. Greg wasn’t sure how to take this so he slurped his vanilla cokes dry and paid the check. As an after thought, and because he liked Wendy’s happy-go-lucky nature, he dropped a fifty in the tips jar on the way out. The vanilla cokes really were top dollar.

###

Greg didn’t say goodbye or nice to meet you to the family and left the diner. Outside he breathed in the fresh country air and hefted up the belt on his bulging trousers. From his shirt pocket he took a pack of Red Apples, slipped one between his lips and fired it up. Can’t beat a smoke after a meal, especially when the air isn’t filled with toxic exhaust fumes, gotta enjoy the little things.

 – Package your manuscript in a box or tough envelope, and do NOT staple or bind the pages together.

 – Start a new page for every chapter.

 – Chapter titles should be between 5 and 8 lines from the top of the page either left aligning or centred.

 – Text of the chapter should begin 1-2 lines below the chapter title.

 – The first paragraph of a chapter should NOT be indented.

These are rules and guidelines I have picked up over the years and may be different to what you have read elsewhere, so as I said before it is worth checking with the agent or publisher for their specific guidelines. Over time you will build up your own knowledge base but it’s always worth keeping your eye out for changes and new protocols. One thing I have noticed when I Googled “manuscript format guidelines” is a strange rule about making sure your manuscript is “typed” which can be misleading. I can only assumed this means printed and not hand written, surely they don’t mean typed on a typewriter!

If you have any hints and tips I’d love to hear from you.

Until next Writing Tips Wednesday, keep your imagination churning and your keyboard busy!

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22 thoughts on “Writing Tips Wednesday – Getting the layout right

  1. Great tips Dave!

    Two comments: in regards to spelling — don’t rely solely on spellcheckers. Not only do they miss things like ‘to’ instead of ‘too’ but they don’t catch many grammar errors. Grammar is just as important as spelling, especially when submitting, and I’ve seen too many people who relied on spellcheckers thinking all is safe. In regards to italics — I am partial to using italics. I guess I just like the look but it does depend on when they are used.

    I’ve found blogging has been a great lesson in thinking about how the overall look affects reading experience. When I look from the readers viewpoint (instead of just through Word or the WP editor), it is amazing how differently something can look!

    I also think for new bloggers, they should consider keeping word counts around 750 words, give or take, maximum 1,500. Unless you already have a following, most readers who do not know if you are a good writer will not put the effort into a post with the tiny scroll bar.

    Readers who know and like your style are willing to make the effort knowing it won’t be a time waster, but most new readers think ‘no way, moving on’ before even giving it a chance. I’m guilty of this. I may be missing some fantastic writers but if I see long, long posts of several thousand words I often move along. I read a lot of blogs, write my own blog and stories, keep up with news, not to mention being on Twitter, G+ and all the rest, so investing in a long post that might be iffy is not something I do often.

    One last thing, “Writers Market” is a fantastic tool. Not only does it list publishers, magazines, contests, etc., even markets open to new writers, but it provides guidelines for manuscript formatting, pricing for freelancers and tons of other information. I assume it isn’t just an American thing, but if it is, for American writers it is worth the investment.

    • Thanks for the extra info Indigo! Excellent point about new bloggers keeping their first bunch of posts short, I know I have been put off with a new blogger splashing out with a very long post when they start out. I often feel guilty for not spending time reading a variety of blogs, as I tend to read what comes in my inbox instead of blog surfing. I should remedy that really.

      I just checked out Writers Market, briefly, and will head back for a decent read this weekend.

      http://www.writersmarket.com

      Looks like an interesting site, worth a good browse around.

      I’m working on my piece for SPP this evening, so fingers crossed I’ll have something workable by tomorrow. Just read Scribbla’s Double Helix piece, impressive stuff.

      http://scribbla.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/double-helix-short-story-part-i

  2. I bought the book “The Writers Market” which gives you a free year to the online site. I haven’t looked into the cost of the site only, but I believe it is cheaper to buy the book and get the year free.

    I look forward to your latest story for SPP, always good stuff!

  3. Some very useful things to keep in mind, Dave. Even if there might be a few small changes required I think it will position you to get a good few things right on the first try. Certainly that will count for something.

    • Thanks! Even when I write I admit I forget some things and when I look back I cringe and see the mistakes so clearly. It’s all a learning curve really, and I saw if you don’t think you can remember something stick it on a Post-It!

  4. Very well written! I concur that relying on any electronic spellchecker spells trouble. Also, a good writer’s guide is fabulous for us dilettantes who want to get things as close to perfect as possible. I’d kill for one right now!

    • Thanks HoaiPhai! Spellcheckers are a nightmare at times, especially when they miss things like 2 “the the” next to each other or as Indigo pointed out the “to” instead of “too” which is easy to miss when you’re so embedded in the writing. Perfection is something I never feel I achieve, I’m often proud of my written work, excited and angry with it too, but perfection…well, never felt that yet. Maybe I’m just too harsh on myself, but then I think many writers are their own worst enemy, always striving for perfection, a tweak here, an adjustment there. I wouldn’t give it up though 😉

      • Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that I think my writing even gets close to perfection — I’m happy if the reader gets the point I’m trying to make or gets a smile out of reading my stuff. All I meant was that even if my writing is amateurism and my thoughts not well organized, I like to have, at the very least, the spelling correct and no Greengrocer apostrophes.

    • Ha-ha! I know that you weren’t commenting on my writing but I thought that you thought that I thought that my writing is some great shakes. Thanks for the compliment but part of the reason why I started blogging a couple of months ago was to force myself to write. I haven’t written much beyond e-mails and birthday card inscriptions in years and found that it has deteriorated. I love your blog not only for the masterful way you write the pieces I find entertaining (like the one about what to do in case of alien invasion), but also for the knowledge communicated in your writings about writing. I’m taking notes and I’m sure my readers will appreciate what I am learning from your blog.

      • Hehe, the alien invasion guide was ace fun to write! My favourite was the zombie horde guide!

        Well I share what I can, it might not always be the best way or the right way for everyone but if I’ve learned anything from writing it’s that there are many different ways to write, and we should all learn from as many sources as we can to improve our craft.

    • I think this is to do with the use of an apostrophe in the wrong way or used when it isn’t necessary, like writing “it’s” (for it is) when you should use “its” – “Mum’s” instead of “mums.”

      Or when people get mixed up with what the apostrophe is supposed to be used for. Let me see if I can get this right.

      “Look at the greengrocer’s shoes.” – the apostrophe here means the shoes belong to the greengrocer, a single person.

      “Look at all of the sailors’ boats.” – the apostrophe here means the boats belong to the sailors, plural, there is more than one sailor.

      The other meaning behind Greengrocer’s apostrophe is the misuse of signs outside greengrocer shops – “Big red Apple’s $1.20 a lb” or “Hot pie’s here!” for example. You don’t need apostrophes there. I suspect this isn’t limited to the greengrocer trade, but any sign that used apostrophes where they are not needed.

      Here’s something I found from Wiki Answers:

      Never use an apostrophe to indicate a plural. The wrong use of an apostrophe to form the plural is called the greengrocer’s apostrophe, since grocers are often the worst (or at least the most visible) offenders. If you have more than one apple, then write apples, not apple’s. If you cannot replace the word with “his,” “her,” “their”, or “its” and if it isn’t a contraction, then an apostrophe should not be used.

      People often forget the rules when a word ends in a vowel, such as the word “mango.” Many people write “mango’s” instead of “mangos” or “mangoes”.

      An exception to this use is in the case of making a single letter plural. Therefore, Why are there so many i’s in the word “indivisibility”? is correct. This is simply for clarity reasons, so the reader does not mistake it for the word “is.” However, in modern usage, the preference is to avoid inserting an apostrophe and instead surround the single letter in quotation marks before pluralizing it: Why are there so many “I”s in the word “indivisibility”?

      Apostrophes are never used in plurals, no matter what the personal preference is. “Do’s and don’t’s” is wrong; the correct form is “dos and don’ts”.

      Making an exception for numbers and abbreviations is not current practice. MLA guidelines suggest that no apostrophe is needed following numbers (as when naming a decade). “I bought many CD’s in the 1990’s.” is wrong; the correct form is “I bought many CDs in the 1990s.”

  5. Oh, yes. That is it. It bugs me so much and its prevalence seems to be increasing. Maybe we should rename it “texters’ apostrophes”!

  6. Pingback: Writing Tips Wednesday – Hook & Hold « Dave Farmer

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