The horrors of formatting

Argh, the ugliness, it burns my eyes!

That was my reaction on seeing my first attempt to compile an e-book via Scrivener. The indentation was inconsistent. There were weird symbols where speech marks should have been. It looked like a typesetter had eaten his work and then vomited all over my screen.

Hundreds of Euro symbols died in the making of this mess.
Hundreds of Euro symbols died in the making of this horror.

It’s not the fault of the stories in the book – some of them are old and I’d write them better now, but I’m still proud of them. Nor was it Scrivener’s fault – I love that program almost as much as I love Shelley the laptop or Muke the car, my main sidekicks in the great adventure called Andrew Gets His Shit Together.

No, it was my own fault, and I should have known better.

You see, I just copied and pasted those stories into Scrivener from the original documents. And let me tell you, when I started writing I did not understand how proper electronic document formatting works. They don’t teach you that sort of thing in university, even though it’s a vital writing skill. Hell, I was writing this blog for years before I found the settings for headings, instead of just using bold text. And as I learned while formatting documents in my last office job, this stuff does matter.

It might feel like a waste of time to learn proper document formatting. You can just hit ‘tab’ to indent a paragraph and go for bold when you want a title to stand out, right? Wrong. Every time you format a chunk of text you add more information, information that most people don’t know is there. And every time you copy and paste things around or transfer a document from one format to another, that information gets more complicated. If you don’t take the right approach, that garbage starts cluttering up your documents.

If you use best practice you can save yourself a lot of pain, letting software like Scrivener, WordPress, or Word neatly change the look of your story or article at the touch of a button. If you don’t it can take hours of editing to make changes, and you’ll still have traps hidden for when you, for example, compile it into an e-book.

So please, whatever you’re writing for, whether it’s books, magazines, your blog, or just your team at work, take an hour now to learn more about how to format your documents, including indentation and header text. You will save yourself and those around you hours of frustration further down the line.

I’m giving up on this document for today. Tomorrow I’ll be starting again, using .txt documents to purge all that rotten formatting and then putting the stories into a nice, new, clean Scrivener template. So remember folks, do as I say not as I do. Start by learning about formatting.

Using scrivener

In my post on writing tools, I mentioned the scrivener word processing program. And everwalker said that she’d tried it but just found she used it to prevaricate. I can see how that would happen – part of scrivener’s usefulness is in giving you a place to store ideas and research, and organising that can be a great distraction from actually writing. But if you can get past that, I think there are some ways in which it can be really useful.

For me, the main thing is breaking the story down into manageable chunks. There are other ways to do this, but for me scrivener’s one of the best. I can click on a scene in the side bar and I’m straight there – no scrolling through a huge document or opening separate documents for each scene. And those blocks are easy to rearrange – if I realise that an incident should happen earlier in the story I don’t have to mess about with cutting and pasting, I can just drag it to the right place.

I also find the pinboard overview handy. It’s a place where I can look at what scenes I have planned, and in what order, with brief notes on each one. Again, it’s a place for rearranging, and for planning, without getting sucked into the details. But when I want the details, I open the file and my notes off the pinboard are there.

And that’s the last useful bit for me – the notes. When writing in word I used to keep my plan further down the document I was writing, and skip up and down to check what I’d meant to include. With scrivener it’s there automatically in the sidebar, visible in the document but not in the way.

I’m starting to sound like a salesman now, and not necessarily a very interesting one, so I’ll stop there. For me, scrivener’s not so much about the research files as the writing ones, and I’ve found it worth having just for that. But it’s only a tool, among many available. Some people will find it handy, and for some it’s a distraction.

Writing resources

A friend was asking me recently about submitting stories for publication. I pointed him towards one of the resources I use most, but it occured to me afterwards that I could have been a whole lot more helpful. So for the Northman, and for anybody else who might want them, here are some of the resources that I’ve found most useful as a writer:

Writing excuses – A podcast discussing tools and techniques for writers. Four published authors share their skills and experience, and provide writing prompts in case you need some inspiration. Only fifteen minutes a week, but I’ve learned a heck of a lot from it.

Duotrope – An online database of short story markets that you can also use to keep track of your submissions. Vital for me in identifying appropriate places to send stories and judging when to chase up responses.

Write or Die – The program for anyone who has trouble pushing themselves to stop prevaricating and keep writing. Basically a word processor that tells you off if you pause to long. Cheap to buy, and a great motivator. Nothing drives me on like that glowing red screen.

Scrivener – A program that helps you organise your story notes, plans, research and chunks of writing. It makes it easy to link the plan and the story together, to find the part of your manuscript you’re working on, and to rearrange scenes when you realise you’ve gone wrong. It’s the only thing I’m recommending here that has a substantial cost, and I think it’s well worth it. I use it for pretty much anything I write now, not just stories. I plan in Scrivener, draft chunks of text in Write or Die and then copying them into Scrivener to compile and edit.