We’ve all done it, at some point in our lives: driven a typesetter into a berserker rage; convinced an editor to disrobe down to his / her loincloth (and why editors will persist in wearing such things, one can only speculate) and to race outside and ululate at the moon, tears of confusion streaming down his / her face; motivated a proofreader to put down that red pen, and to pick up that Maxwellian silver hammer and go forth and perpetrate percussive retribution.
Oh, we probably didn’t realise it, because we were safely hundreds or thousands of kilometres away, but that’s beside the point. The point is that careless text costs lives; and you can do something to prevent this. You can clean up your act. Or, at least, your manuscript.
There are plenty of people out there who’ll tell you how to get your words right, in a piece of writing, and you should listen to them. You should listen to them as though your life depended on it, because one of these days it just might. But getting your words right is only part of the process. Getting the bits between your words right is just as important, to the editor and proofreader, and vastly more important to the typesetter. I’ll let you into a secret here: the typesetter doesn’t care one bit about your words. Words are just spack-filler on the page, whether they be the product of some sweaty, self-aggrandising authorial ego-trip, the ill-birthed response to some dread implacable deadline, or the greatest thing since someone first had the idea of slicing raw toast. What’s crucial in typesetting, what will determine exactly where in relation to you your typesetter sits, on a scale from Gandhi to Attilla and beyond, are the bits between the words.
I’m here, now, to tell you what to do with those bits. Politely. Before some typesetter tells you what to do with them. Not politely.
Happily, you can redeem yourself, and the bits between the words, with Search and Replace. (In the discussion that follows, I’m assuming Microsoft Word, because rapacious market dominance. But the principles still hold for other word-fondling packages.) There’s even a recipe.
Here are the search-and-replace options I usually use, in this order (and the order is somewhat important):
Type whatever is in the square brackets. The translation is given in parentheses. The reason for the search-and-replace is also given, unless it’s obvious.
1. Find: [^t] (tab) Replace with [ ] (space) — get rid of all tabs from the manuscript. Authors sometimes use tabs as an alternative to indenting the first line of a paragraph, or, even worse, use them in place of a space somewhere within a paragraph. This can be enough to tip your typesetter over the edge, right there.
2. Find: [^p ] (paragraph break, space) Replace with [^p] (paragraph break)
3. Repeat #2, until there are no further changes. This ensures that all paragraphs start without padding by tabs or spaces.
4. Find: [ ^p] (space, paragraph break) Replace with [^p] (paragraph break)
5. Repeat #4, until there are no further changes. This ensures that all paragraphs finish without padding by spaces. (Not such a problem as having them at the start, but you may as well clean it up.)
6. Find: [ ] (space, space) Replace with [ ] (space)
7. Repeat #6, until there are no further changes. This gets rid of all double spaces. If you want to know typesetters’ opinions on double spaces, see ‘tabs’ above.
8. Find: [….] (full stop, full stop, full stop, full stop) Replace with […] (full stop, full stop, full stop)
9. Repeat #8, until there are no further changes.
10. Then find: […] (full stop, full stop, full stop) Replace with [ … ] (space, ellipsis, space) — the purpose of #8 to #10 is to put in ellipses. Some authors use four or five full stops in place of an ellipsis (which is always, and only, a sequence of three dots). It’s unethical and time-consuming for typesetters to hunt down such authors and dispose of them, so hunting down and disposing of the mistakes will have to serve. (The ellipsis, of course, can be found through Insert / Symbol / More symbols / Special characters, which is more complicated than it used to be in earlier and better versions of Word …)
And here we need to discuss conventions. The convention I adopt is that ellipses are always separated from adjacent text by a space on either side. Authors don’t always put these spaces in — if they need to be there, then it’s safer to put them in. (It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.) If the convention you follow is that ellipses aren’t buffered by spaces, then don’t put the spaces around the ellipsis in step #10. But you do need to have a convention. And to know what it is. And to follow it.
If you *do* put spaces around ellipses, then at this point it’s a good idea to repeat step #6, just once more, because you might have made some double spaces with that last find & replace.
And then, because the convention is that quote marks (and parentheses, and question marks) should go beside an ellipsis with any interposed space, you would need:
10a. Find: [… ”] (ellipsis, space, close double quote mark) Replace with […”] (ellipsis, close double quote mark)
10b. Find: [“ …] (open double quote mark, space, ellipsis) Replace with [“…] (open double quote mark, ellipsis)
10c. Find: [… )] (ellipsis, space, close parenthesis) Replace with […)] (ellipsis, close parenthesis)
10d. Find: [( …] (open parenthesis, space, ellipsis) Replace with [(…] (open parenthesis, ellipsis)
10e. Find: [… ?] (ellipsis, space, question mark) Replace with […?] (ellipsis, question mark)
(Yes, I’m assuming here that you’re using double quote marks rather than single. If you’re using single quote marks, sure you’re saving ink, but you’re also making things harder for yourself. Nobody ever mistook a double quote mark for an apostrophe, unless they’d forgotten how to count to two …)
I also use the convention that all dashes are emdashes, which are never padded by spaces*. So:
11. Find: [—] (hyphen, hyphen) Replace with [—] (emdash) — on some implementations of Word, ‘hyphen hyphen’ will automatically be replaced by an emdash, but this depends on how your version is set up. Murphy’s Law. It’s safest to check for yourself.
12. Find: [ —] (space, emdash) Replace with [—] (emdash)
13. Find: [— ] (emdash, space) Replace with [—] (emdash)
These are the basics, for the conventions I adopt for punctuation; yours may be somewhat different, in which case some of the steps above would be different, in ways which should be obvious once you’ve thought it through. I’m also assuming you’ve already attended to the niceties of rudimentary formatting by (a) indenting all paragraph first lines, using the ‘indent’ setting on the ruler and (b) centering all scene-break markers and other items that need centering. If you haven’t done that, then go do that now. Right this instant. And don’t even think of touching that ‘tab’ key.
But there are still a few other things to watch out for:
(a) Maybe you accidentally put in a few instances of [..] (full stop, full stop) or [. .] (full stop, space, full stop) — search for these, and assess whether any instances you find are supposed (a) single full stops or (b) ellipses. It’s probably more reliable to change these on a case-by-case basis rather than try a global search-and-replace, as long as there aren’t too many instances.
(f) Look through the cleaned-up manuscript, to see whether there’s anything you’ve missed. Authors will do the orneriest things sometimes, and second-guessing yourself won’t necessarily catch all the anomalies. Sometimes there’s no substitute for a labour-intensive visual inspection. If looking through the entire manuscript one more time is, as I believe the modern idiom has it, ‘twisting your melon’, then at least look through the first few pages. If they’re clean, it probably means you’ve been reasonably well-behaved, or at least predictable. If you find a few things sticking out in those first few pages, though, you’ll save work for yourself (or the layout artist and/or proofreaders) in the long run by just knuckling down and going through the whole thing. Again.
Manuscripts that have been cleaned up in this manner are a joy to typeset, they leave less trouble for proofreaders to find, and they save editors from needing to make the fiddly fixes that will keep the typesetter off their backs. Baldly put, they save lives.
Getting the words right will maximise your chance of finding a home for the story, somewhere. But getting the bits between the words right will help reduce the occurrence of typesetter-initiated mayhem. And reducing that is a good thing. Right?
(* This is the convention I follow for print. On the web, as here, I now tend to pad my dashes by spaces, because on some platforms they can otherwise just look like hyphens, and that doesn’t help anyone.)