A subtitle for this article could be “If only I had known…” Even though I’d been an English teacher for years before I began writing for publication, I knew very little about preparing a manuscript. I could have avoided many messes and mistakes if I had educated myself about professional writing first.
Here’s what I wish someone had told me:
1. Pay attention to what your word processor is doing.
While you’re typing madly away, you’re probably not thinking about styles (normal, paragraph indent, strong, emphasis, etc.). Oops! Because computers are programmed to make changes automatically, you could end up with a jumble of formats that must be painstakingly reworked into a consistent style.
Publishers won’t do this for you: Preparing a professionally formatted manuscript is your responsibility.
Professional writers think about styles and formatting through the whole writing process, not just when the manuscript is finished. I learned a lot about formatting from an excellent (and free) ebook: The Smashwords Style Guide. It’s aimed at people who are publishing e-books, but many of the principles apply to any kind of manuscript.
Here are some tips:
- Learn how to use the style menu, and keep an eye on it while you’re writing. Know what your computer is doing to your manuscript.
- Use as few styles as possible.
- Be consistent when you’re using special formats like bullets, italics, indented paragraphs, extra spacing, and numbered lists.
- Don’t use the space bar or tab key to indent paragraphs. Set the indentation from the style menu, or use block paragraphs (paragraphs with no indentations). Plan your headings and subheadings. They need to be consistent (there’s that word again!) and follow a hierarchy. You can’t just insert a new heading any time you feel like it. (Been there, done that, and it took me a long time to fix it.)
- Know the rules for writing with a computer. Use one space (not two) after a period. Save hard breaks for the end of a paragraph (in other words, don’t press the enter key until the end of a paragraph). Don’t put a space after the last period of a paragraph. Know how to make a dash by typing two hyphens with no spaces before or after.
2. Before you start drafting your article or book, know what you want to say.
If you’re doing research while you’re writing, or you’re writing about a complex issue, you’ll probably need to write your book twice – once to get everything down on paper, and a second time to get all of it organized. If you don’t follow this system, you’re likely to end up with a jumble of ideas.
3. Make a detailed plan and carry it out carefully.
List your ideas and shape them into a detailed outline before you start your first draft. If you’re the kind of person who wants to let the article or book “just happen,” you’re going to end up with a disorganized manuscript that has to be redone from scratch. (Been there, done that too.)
4. Make sure you fulfill the promises and expectations you create for your readers.
If you start out with an announcement that you’re going to discuss three beaches, four historical figures, or ten how-to’s, follow through. If you state a position at the beginning of your article or book, don’t deviate from it later. Readers should always know where you’re taking them.
5. Think about marketing right from the beginning.
In the early stages, when you’re struggling to get your project started, this sounds like silly advice. Marketing can wait, right?
Wrong! A little extra effort in the early stages of writing can help you sell your book later. Here are two useful tips:
- Jot down selling points while you’re writing your book. Later, when your publisher asks you to create a marketing plan, you won’t have to worry that you’ve forgotten something important.
- Keep the “Look Inside” feature of Amazon.com in mind while you’re writing. “Look Inside” allows online shoppers to read the early parts of your book free of charge, right on their computer screens. This means that your first chapter should sparkle, and your table of contents should convince readers that your book has exactly what they’re looking for.
Paying attention to these pointers pays off. Your future editors will be impressed, and the publishing process will move along more smoothly. Most important, you’ll sell more books! Yes, it takes extra effort – but the results will be well worth it.