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E-Book Formatting with Microsoft Word

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PUBLISHED JULY 2017

by Jim Azevedo, Marketing Director, Smashwords


Jim Azevedo

Learn how to leverage the power of paragraph styling and enhanced navigation to make your next e-book more accessible, enjoyable, and desirable to readers.

In this article, you will learn how to professionally format and design a reflowable e-book using Microsoft Word. You will learn the basics of e-book formatting using the world’s most popular and ubiquitous word processor.

We will review which types of books work best, and you will learn how to leverage the power of paragraph styling and enhanced navigation to make your next e-book more accessible, enjoyable, and desirable to readers.


The Difference Between Fixed and Reflowable Formats

Before we begin, let’s set the stage by explaining two different types of book design formats: fixed and reflowable.

Print book design is “fixed,” which means the book designer controls where and how every word, character, font, font size, and page number will appear on each page.

Most e-books, by contrast, are designed to be “reflowable,” which means that the text can shape-shift and reflow across pages. Although there are e-book design tools that enable fixed-format e-books, this is not the topic of this article. Fixed-format e-books are best used only in specialized applications in which readability is dependent upon complex design.

As you will learn, complex design can be the enemy of accessibility, yet smart, reflowable design does not mean that the book should be plain and unattractive.

Reflowability is a powerful, and often misunderstood, feature of e-books. It is what allows the reader to customize the look and feel of your e-book to fit their tastes. Today’s reading apps let readers adjust font size, font style, and font color, and they even allow readers to choose custom backgrounds behind the text.

Reflowability allows you to unlock your e-book’s potential to reach the widest possible audience. It’s what enables maximum accessibility across any e-reading device of any screen size.

I would estimate that nearly all fiction e-book sales at major retailers are for reflowable books, and probably 95 percent for nonfiction. Reflowability is what allows the same e-book to look great on any device.


Getting Started

To begin, open your manuscript in Microsoft Word—any version will do, even if you’re running one of the older versions. Despite over 20 years of updates to Microsoft Word, the underlying features have changed little.

Your next step is to “clean” your document. Most manuscripts in Word have been touched by multiple people, from authors to editors, and, often, these people are using different word processors. This can cause the document to accumulate inconsistent and even corrupted styling that is invisible to the naked eye, yet can interfere with your final output.

To purge any hidden corruption so you’re ready to apply your professional styling, be sure to make a backup copy of your original document and set it aside. Next, copy and paste your entire manuscript into a text editor app—like NotePad on Windows computers or TextEdit on Macs. Click to highlight all of the text, and then copy and paste that plain text into a new and blank Microsoft Word file (see the free Smashwords Style Guide for a more in-depth explanation of the cleaning process we call “nuking,” where you’ll also find handy keyboard shortcuts). This cleaning process will strip out all of the prior styling and hidden corruption.

Now you’re ready to apply styling.


Managing and Modifying Styles

First, let’s quickly review what we mean by a “style.” Microsoft Word includes multiple canned paragraph styles from which to choose. The power of Microsoft’s styling options is that you can create and customize multiple styles for different elements of your e-book; the body, headings, subheadings, and title can all have custom paragraph styles.

Once you create styles, it’s easy to apply these styles globally with a single click. Let’s say, for example, your book has 50 chapters, and you’ve created a custom chapter heading style to these chapter headings that you’ve labeled as “ChapHead.” And let’s say your current styling defines ChapHead as 12-point Arial flush left, and you decide 14-point Arial centered looks better. Microsoft Word’s styling feature allows you to apply this global change to all your chapter headings in about 10 seconds flat. So, a change that might otherwise take you two hours can be done in 10 seconds.

After you paste the plain text into your fresh Word document, that text will probably inherit the canned styling of Word’s “Normal” style. If it doesn’t, I recommend placing your entire document in Normal style because this is what you’ll use for the main body of the book. Next, you’ll probably want to modify the underlying Normal style so that it matches your preferences for font style, font size, line spacing, and paragraph separation.

Paragraph separation is important, and it’s usually done with either a first line indent or by using the block style where non-indented paragraphs are separated by a blank line. Without proper paragraph separation, the reader won’t know where one paragraphs ends and the next begins.

Avoid mixing the separation methods. For example, most fiction reads and looks best with first-line indents. For narrative nonfiction, first-line indents also work best. For nonfiction containing lots of charts and graphs, the block style might work best.

Too often, self-published authors and publishers will mix the first-line indent method with the block method, and the result is an amateur-looking book.


How to Find Word’s Styles Manager

Click to Home, and then under what’s usually labeled “Change Styles,” you’ll see a little downward-facing arrow. Click that to bring up a full listing of available styles. Hover your cursor over “Normal” style until you see the drop-down arrow. Click on the drop-down arrow and you’ll be presented with a few more options, from which you’ll want to choose “Modify Style.” From here, you’ll be presented with yet another pop up box. In the center of the box, you will see font style and size as well as other options, including “Format,” which you’ll see in the lower left corner. Be sure to click “OK” to save changes. Let’s take a closer look at how to implement each method.

Block Style Paragraphs
Block style paragraphs are paragraphs that have no first-line indent but do have a space between paragraphs. This article uses block style paragraphs, as do many other magazine articles and some nonfiction books. There are two common ways to create separation with block style. The most common method (but not the best) is to end each paragraph with two paragraph returns. The better, smarter method is to control the separation using styling. For example, in most versions of Word, if you want your body paragraphs to be separated by a blank line, click to Word’s Styles menu, select your Normal style, then click Modify, then Format, then Paragraph. This brings up the styling for your paragraph. Then under the Spacing option, set the “after” to a point size that is equal to your chosen font size (which will usually be 10-, 11-, or 12-point). If you choose a separation distance that is less than the chosen font height, the paragraphs will look crowded. And if you choose a distance that is greater than the font size, the paragraphs will look spaced too far apart and won’t be visually appealing to the reader.

First Line Paragraph Indents
First-line paragraph indents are most commonly used in fiction and narrative nonfiction. The key to ensuring your first-line indents show up as you expect is to avoid the common error of using tabs or the space bar to create your indents. Tabs and space bar indents will often not work when converting from Microsoft Word into various e-book formats. To add first-line indents to your Normal style, click back to the Styles menu in Word. Here again is the path: Click to Modify: Format: Paragraph. And then, under the first-line indent option, set a special first line indent of 0.25 or 0.3 inches. Before you click out of this screen, make sure there’s no before or after spacing defined in the styling (as described under the Block method above).


What You See Is Not Always What You Get

If you experience a formatting snafu, it’s probably due to what’s called “direct formatting” or “directly applied formatting.” For example, let’s say in your current manuscript you’re writing in 12-point Times New Roman font. You know this because you highlighted your entire document, chose 12-point Times New Roman in the upper left-hand corner of Word’s toolbar, and you can see the toolbar displaying 12-point Times New Roman as your font style. Yet, when the manuscript converted into an e-book, the text appears as 10-point Courier. Why? This is due to Microsoft’s underlying styling. Here’s how to ensure the font and style you want is what you’ll get: First, don’t manually change the font style or size from the toolbar. To make your selections stick, apply styling via the “Change Style” button on Word’s toolbar as previously described.


Adding Navigation

One of the key advantages of e-books is the author’s ability to add navigation within their book. Adding navigation is simple and accomplished by using a combination of hyperlinks and Word’s “Bookmark” feature. Why would you want to do this? With a linked table of contents (ToC), for example, readers can use the ToC to quickly jump to specific chapters, sections, or endnotes. This not only makes your e-book more usable and valuable, it also gives your e-book a more professionally finished look.

Another reason to add navigation is to make your ToC work for you by calling attention to your e-book’s end matter. With e-books, it’s a crime to end with “The End.” If you’re talented enough to hold a reader’s attention all the way to the end, don’t squander the opportunity to connect with your readers by adding these sections to your end matter and linking to them from your ToC:

  • About the author: A paragraph or two about yourself and what makes you tick.
  • Other books by [Your Name]: Be sure to list all of your existing books and especially any books that you may have on pre-order. There is no better time to hook a reader than at the very moment they finish one of your books. Better yet, provide a sample chapter of one or more of your other books.
  • Connect with the author: Invite readers to connect with you via your blog, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (if you publish nonfiction), e-mail newsletter, or other social media channel. By giving readers a choice of how to connect, you allow them to connect with you in the way that’s most comfortable for them.

For a detailed explanation on how to add navigation to your e-book using Microsoft Word, check out this short video via the Smashwords YouTube page.

We have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible when formatting with Microsoft Word, but you now have the basics upon which you can design beautifully formatted reflowable e-books. The same approach to styling body paragraphs and headings can be used for any other element of the book where you want to apply standardized and consistent design to different elements.

For comprehensive help on formatting for headers, endnotes and footnotes, adding images, customizing chapter heading styles, and much, much more, download a free copy of the Smashwords Style Guide at your favorite online retailer or at Smashwords here.

Once you learn formatting with Word, you’ll find it to be quick, easy, and even fun. The skill will empower you to be able to create or update your books with ease without having to outsource it to a professional designer.


Jim Azevedo is the marketing director at Smashwords and a member of the IBPA Independent Editorial Advisory Committee.

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