Cleaning Your Manuscript: Think of Steamed Rice

Long before you dive into InDesign, Dreamweaver, or an HTML tool, you want a clean text file.

Really, you do. In fact, you can even forgo Microsoft Word for the first part of this step, if you like. Strip out things such as tabs, funky fonts, charts, and clip art (ew). Make your manuscript painfully simple, and you’ll reap many rewards further on. Look how boring the original MS Word document is for Yellow Buick Review:

MS Word plain

Fear not; the E-book will be much prettier.

We call this the “steamed rice” version. It’s plain, it’s readily digestible, it’s unlikely to cause problems. Terribly bland, though, right? That’s fine. Steamed rice provides the foundation for all the spicy, yummy stuff you’ll be cooking up. Best learn this point early: Don’t bother making your poems beautiful in MS Word. You’ll make them look beautiful later, after you’ve made them look clean.

What does clean mean? For our anthologies, it means:

  1. A “big” font in a universal typeface. Think 16pt Times New Roman or 14pt Helvetica. If there’s an extra space or a missing period, you’ll want to notice it.
  2. Smart quotes, as in “sixes and nines.”
  3. Real dashes, as in “—” or option-shift-hyphen on a Macintosh.
  4. No soft returns. A soft return is a shift-return. Poets use them all the time for enjambed lines, but they are poison to poetry E-books.
    Here is a soft return. Find them. Delete them.
  5. One space after periods. Typewriters are long gone, my friend.
  6. Elipses … instead of …  (Can’t tell the difference? Try highlighting them with your mouse.)
  7. No tabs, no spaces. You’ll make indents later, with styles.
  8. Absolutely no handwriting, illustrations, or funky fonts. Fractions and footnotes should look boring: 1/4, 3rd prize, etc. You can use âçcént marks and basic symbols such as £ or π, but beware anything outré. A good rule? “If you have to look up how to type it, don’t bother.”
  9. (Optional) Italics and boldfaced words. I’m really torn on this one. If it were truly up to me, I would avoid them in MS Word, and add them at the very end with character styles. However, this stage is often where we do the most E-mail proofreads and edits with our contributing poets, and many of them must see their emphasized words.

(Anthologies need as much uniformity of presentation as you can impose, because the tone of the poems will vary so much from poet to poet. For more information on our in-house anthology style guides, check out the Bicycle Comics blog.)

The temptation will always be to add more decoration and flair. Especially when you send proofreads and edits to your contributors. After all, they submitted their poems to you and trusted that you’d make them look professional, right? Surely you can do better than Times New Roman 16 point, right? Fight that temptation!

It’s hard, but perhaps the biggest lesson of digital publishing is the distinction between content and presentation. You weren’t taught this distinction in grade school; it didn’t exist. You wrote with a pencil and what went onto the page were your words in your handwriting.  If your teacher didn’t like the typeface you chose for your book report, she might complain, but she couldn’t change it, not on the page. But the readers who download your poetry E-books can and will “adjust” your content to suit their Kindles, iPhones, and Android tablets. The best you can do is to make that content as clean and as simple as possible.

This divergence of content and presentation isn’t new, of course. It has been going on for centuries in music. Ever see one of these?

iTunes equalizer

Go ahead and tweak ’em! After all, it’s YOUR computer!

Think about it:

  1. A composer sat down at a piano, or perhaps with a violin, and wrote a symphony. Notes on paper, key changes and dynamics, maybe a few notes for the conductor.
  2. Next, a conductor read the sheet music, handed copies to the orchestra, and taught the players how to play the symphony. The conductor decided how the music should sound.
  3. Then, maybe the orchestra recorded a CD. Sound engineers and the conductor worried about getting every little detail right.
  4. Finally, when you play the CD in your home stereo or in iTunes, YOU get to adjust all those graphic equalizers. The composer wrote the symphony, the conductor interpreted the symphony, a sound engineer recorded and mastered the symphony… and the listener gets to pump up the bass or listen to the symphony over the hum of her car on the highway.

Selling your E-book on Kindle, Kobo, or iBooks is like selling a CD to someone with full set of graphic equalizers. (Selling a poetry E-book on Kindle is like selling a music CD to someone with a buzzy set of headphones.) You do all you can, and then you learn to let go and trust the audience. Maybe your anthology will be E-book only. Maybe, like Bicycle Comics, you’ll offer both paperback and E-book editions. Either way, do yourself a huge favor and get yourself a plain, steamed-rice text file to start.

Next step? We’ll add some of the style back in, then export it to XHTML!






1 Comment

Filed under Book vs. Ebook, Manuscript Preparation

One response to “Cleaning Your Manuscript: Think of Steamed Rice

  1. Pingback: Famous Last Word Post | The Yellow Buick Review

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