Formatting your novel in MSWord – 10 tips and tricks

Formatting your novel for publication can be a nightmare. But, while there are many great formatting programmes out there (Atticus, Reedsy), and many paid formatting services you could take advantage of, you can get by with MSWord and make it look pretty professional.

You could start by using a template (see this link for a list of free book templates). This has the advantage that you get page numbering set up for you, one of the hardest parts to get right. Or you could start from scratch and do it all yourself, and I’d advise doing this. Knowledge, after all, is power. These articles talk you through it.

There are, however, a few additional tips and tricks I discovered in the process of formatting my books which I wish I’d known about earlier, and you might find useful too.

Formatting a paperback (or hardback) is more complicated than formatting an ebook, so most of the following applies to the paperback/hardback only. (I only publish on Amazon but most of these tips apply to other platforms also.)

1 Page size

Have a look at books similar to your own for inspiration. I used 6 x 9 for my short-story and poetry collections because I wanted to reduce the page number (and therefore the cost) but it was too big, so my novels are 5.25 x 8 and fit better into my genre of historical fiction/fantasy. Check out size options on kdp then, in Word, set your paper size to this size from the layout tab.

2 Margins

Once you know roughly how many pages your book will have you can find out the minimum margins from kdp. These minimums are very small so make your margins more generous than this. Measure a book you like the look of. One thing I found was that despite setting my gutter margin (the inner margin) at more than the kdp minimum I still ran into difficulties when I uploaded since I got an error message to say I didn’t have enough gutter. This mostly affected pages where I’d used italics and some letters, like ‘f’ went over the edge. So increase your gutter and perhaps decrease the outside edge margin to make up for it.. You’ll find the actual dimensions of the margins in the printed book are never the same as what you’ve set so definitely get a proof and be prepared to adjust accordingly. (This image shows a full right-hand page in my book – note the wider inside (gutter) margin on the left.)

3 Font

There are various font options and you’ll need to adjust other factors once you’ve decided on a font. Don’t choose a fancy one for the bulk of the text. I use Aleygra which is quite a small font but well spaced between lines and thus quite easy to read. (Other fonts may need to have the spacing between lines adjusted – use the ‘exactly’ option in line spacing and mess about until you get something you like the look of.) I used a font size of 11 for my first book but my second book had more words so, to keep to roughly the same number of pages, I reduced the font for the second book to 10.5 (with some of the front matter in 10). It’s still pretty readable. Kdp insist fonts should be no smaller than 7 (which is absolutely tiny!). Remember to check you’re allowed to use the font you’ve chosen in a print book.

4 Headings and paragraphs

Do use styles for these. (From the home tab.) It will save you time in the long run. I have the following styles for my novel: normal paragraphs (indented by about 0.5 cm), first paragraphs (with no indents), Section heading, Chapter heading, Chapter title, and Scene break. I also had styles for particular parts of my ‘Settings’ page (but forgot to use them!) For section headings and chapter headings these incorporate a section break before the page, so they automatically start on a new page with a new section which is important for page numbering. Having a heading in a particular style doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it, however. You can still change individual headings manually. Some of my chapter headings were too long to fit on one line, so I reduced the font size on these manually until they were one line wide. But remember that if you subsequently modify the style, everything will be changed, including any heading you’ve change manually.

5 Scene break symbols

The classic scene break symbol is an asterisk or three asterisks, but there are other options. Many people insert an image, but this is a bit of a pain to do and can sometimes look rather pixilated, and images can be hard to control in Word. I used an image for my short story collection (from Vecteezy), but when I came to my novel I wanted something sharper and was lucky enough to find a celtic symbols font with a whole list of options. Whatever you choose, remember that ebooks only show a limited number of fonts so you’re best sticking with the asterisks or inserting an image. (There are a number of sites where you can find scene/page break symbols. Vecteezy is just one of them.)

6 Page numbering

This seems fairly simple until you realise that some pages, blank pages, section pages, and the first page of a chapter (amongst others) shouldn’t have a page number. This is the point at which point I started tearing my hair out. But eventually I discovered how important it is to divide each chapter into sections. A blank page should be its own section, as should section headings and any other page you don’t want a page number on. Traditionally, front and back matter shouldn’t be numbered as part of the book and is often numbered with roman numerals instead. I found it easier just to have no page numbers on these pages, so made the whole of the front matter a separate section. Ditto with the back matter. This is a good article on to how to do page  numbers. If you’re setting up numbers at the top, along with your name and book title, you’ll need to use left, right and centre tabs in the headers. Putting numbers at the bottom is easier, but will take up more space. Page numbers and headers/footers, can be in a different font, are normally smaller, and sometimes in italics.

7 Widows and orphans

A widow is a line at the end of a paragraph that sits on its own at the top of a page. An orphan is the first line of a paragraph that sits on its own at the bottom of a page. (See images above for examples.)

I don’t mind orphans too much, especially if the rest of the paragraph is on the facing page, but I try to get rid of widows when I can, and preferably both. There are various methods. The first is to rewrite a paragraph somewhere on the page to make it longer or shorter, or to insert a paragraph break. Sometimes neither is appropriate, so the next thing to try is to shorten or lengthen a paragraph by adjusting the letter spacing. You do this from the home tab using the little arrow in the bottom right corner of the Font section of the Home tab. This brings up a font box. Switch to the advanced option. Highlight the paragraph you want to adjust – choose a paragraph with only one or two words in the final line; the longer the paragraph is the more likely this is to work. Then adjust the spacing to condensed by no more than 0.1 pt – any more and you’ll notice it. With luck you’ll reduce that paragraph by one line and thus bring the widow back to join the rest of the paragraph. Sometimes it’s easier to expand a paragraph that has only a few words less than a full line in the last line so it goes onto the next line. Do this by choosing the expand option. But don’t put an expanded paragraph next to a condensed paragraph because you will notice the difference.

Another way to lose space and bring a line up is to reduce the space before a scene break symbol. This looks OK as long as the last line of the paragraph before the scene break symbol only has a few words. In the image in section 5 above, I could have reduced the space above the scene break symbol if I’d needed to.

Remember that by removing one widow or orphan you may be creating new ones further into the chapter. So start at the beginning of a chapter and work your way through, using all these techniques to remove widows and orphans. But don’t sweat it. Personally, I don’t mind orphans too much and a widow doesn’t look too bad if it’s more than half a line long.

8 Drop caps

I like the look of these but ran into trouble when I used a fancy font with ‘swashes’ so ended up switching back to a less fancy font (Cinzel instead of Cinzel Decorative). I generally drop by 3 lines and use a spacing of 0.1. My text is in Alegrya but I used Cinzel as the font for drop caps to fit in with my headings. Where I ran into problems was when a chapter opened with dialogue. Depending on the font used, the quote symbol can look weird or too big. But it can be changed individually by selecting and choosing an alternative font which has a smaller quote mark. You might think you could just reduce the font size of the quote symbol but that moves it down the page which looks strange. This is a link to a work around which I haven’t tried.

9 E-book formatting

Hurrah! You can ignore most of the above!  A kindle/ebook reader will adjust the font and size according to the reader chooses. All you need to do is remove a lot of the formatting you’ve put in for the paperback. So remove page numbers and set your fonts to one of the standard kindle fonts – I use Georgia. If you’ve used images or a fancy font for page dividers you might want to change them back to a simple character divider like asterisks. Images which look fine on white will show up on a white background rectangle if the reader chooses a coloured background. Transparent pngs don’t work, in my experience. Your title page (which you might have made in your paperback with regular text) should, however, ideally be an image or else it will look strange when the reader increases or reduces size. Drop caps don’t always work on older kindles so you might want to remove them and use capitals or bold for the first few words of a chapter.

10 Use a novel that works as a template for the next one

I’ve saved my best tip to last. Having spent ages formatting the first book of my trilogy I couldn’t face doing it all again for my second book. So I just pasted the text into the original document and deleted the original text. And, lo and behold, all the formatting worked!

So enjoy formatting your novel in MSWord. It isn’t as hard as you might think. And my last bonus tip is that there will still be things that aren’t quite right – I can’t get the level of text at the bottom to exactly line up, for example – but no-one is going to notice except for you.

(Header and footer images from Pixabay, modified in Canva)

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