How I Write: Step 11 – The Formatting

Now that you’ve got your finished and (reasonably) error-free manuscript, it’s time to get it ready for release. That means formatting. Realistically, you can feed modern ebook distributors a pretty janky file and still get something you can sell. Don’t. This is where the rubber meets the road for your book. You don’t want your killer story to be wrecked by a mediocre reading experience.

The Hardware

If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve got everything you need in the hardware department.

The Software

My own method for formatting uses Microsoft Word and Calibre, both of which have been discussed earlier. If you’re a Mac user, Vellum is a somewhat pricy but highly recommended alternative. It provides spectacular results with very little effort.

The Content

Formatting your ebook can be intimidating for a first timer. If you follow the instructions below, you shouldn’t have any difficulty, and I encourage you to give it a try. That said, if you’re really worried, this is a service many editors provide as an add-on. There are also no shortage of freelance book designers who can help you out. I’ve never worked with one, so we’ll be looking at my methods below.

I recommend working with DOCX as your base file. It works natively with up-to-date versions of Calibre, and saves cleanly to most other formats. Save a copy and clearly label it so you’ll know this is the publishable version. Then open it up in Word (to be able to follow this tutorial literally) or your word processor of choice.

For the best shot at the book looking the way you want it to regardless of how the reader is reading it, you’re going to want to keep the format as simple as possible. eReaders can to things like change font size and font color, so the fewer things you’ve written in stone, the fewer problems are likely to come up. Since it bit me in the butt more than once, I’ll make this clear. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T SPECIFY “BLACK” AS YOUR TEXT COLOR.

“What? But I want my text to be black, why wouldn’t I want it to be specified as black?” you may rightly ask.

The underlying problem here may have been fixed, but once bitten, twice shy. If you are reading late at night on an electronic device, it is frequently more comfortable to do so with white text on a black background. This is called “High Contrast” mode or “Nighttime Mode” for a lot of eReaders. If you’ve set your text to black, some of the more naïve programs will happily obey your wishes, and you’ll end up with—you guessed it—black text on a black background. This is what we in the business call “a bad reader experience,” what with the not being able to see anything.

So when going through the next few steps, remember, the color you’re looking for is “automatic.” That’ll give you nice black text in standard situations, but still allow the program to swap to a more appropriate color when necessary.

But on to the step by step stuff.

Choose your Normal

Most of your text is going to be “Normal” text. Most of the rest will be based on it. So your first step is to choose normal. On the “Home” ribbon in Word, click the little arrow in the lower righthand corner of the “Styles” section. This will bring up your Styles box. In the lower righthand corner of this, there’s the “Options” link. Click on that. I usually pick “In Use” for the “Select styles to show” dropdown. I also make sure to check “Paragraph level formatting” and “Font Formatting” at this stage. Click Okay.

Now you’ve got a list of every little formatting quirk in your document. Find “Normal,” right click, and choose Modify.

You can make your normal text whatever you like. The eReader is going to make some of its own decisions about this later. As a rule though, here’s what I stick with.

In the Modify Style Window, I pick Times New Roman, size 12, Justified Alignment, Single Spaced, Automatic Color.

In the lower left hand corner, I click the format button and choose Paragraph. Here, I pick First Line, 0.5” for indentation.

Set Up Your Headings

On your format list, you’ve probably already got Heading 1. If you don’t, add it. (Via the Manage Styles button on the bottom of the Styles menu. You can get a little fancier with this one, but I like:

Modify Style -> Times New Roman, size 14, Bold, Centered, Single Spaced, Automatic Color.

Paragraph Style ->Indent (none), Outline Level 1

Once you’ve got that set up to your liking, go through your manuscript and make sure all chapter headings and ONLY chapter headings are set to Heading 1. Missing a chapter heading can cause problems when making the table of contents, and having random text set to Heading 1 will randomly promote it to being a chapter of its own.

If you’re writing Non-Fiction, you’re likely to need lower level headings. I like to make them similar to my regular headings, but not bold and at Outline Level 2, 3, etc.

Other Special Formats

I find I frequently need a handful of other seldom used formats, so here they are.


For this one I use the same settings as Heading 1, but I set Outline Level to Body Text.

No Indent

You probably don’t have a style for this yet, so in the Styles Window, pick New Style from the bottom. Name it something like “Normal No Indent”

Style type: Paragraph

Style based on: Normal

Style for following paragraph: Normal

Then go into paragraph style and change Indent to (none).


 This is, perhaps, a little overkill, but when I center something, I like to make sure it has no indent. Otherwise, when you want something centered on the page, you’ll actually get something on indent to the right of center. Most people won’t notice. The ones that do are driven to the brink of insanity by it. So make a new style like you did for No Indent, except in addition to removing the indent, also set it to Center Alignment.

Your Title Page

For your title page, go to the top of your document and press Ctrl-Enter to make a page break. Type your title, and make it Title Style. Put a blank line, then in Centered Style, type your name.

At this point, I like to put another Blank line, then, still in Centered Style, Copyright ©2015 [Your name]. I’m not sure if this is necessary, but it couldn’t hurt. Another unnecessary but nice thing to do here is to add another blank line, then credit your cover artist (Cover By [NAME]).

From the Author

If someone gets to the back of the book, it usually means they liked your stuff. This is a good place to let them know you appreciate them, and let them know how they can help you out. On a fresh page after the end of the story, I like to make a heading that says “From The Author,” then type a sentence or two thanking the reader. I mention how if they liked it, it would be nice if they left a review. I’ll include links to my social media stuff if they want to get in touch with me, then add in a list of other books of mine they might enjoy.

Linked Table of Contents

This one’s a little overkill, but I’ve gotten into the habit of doing it. Hit Ctrl-Enter after your Title page stuff, then enter “Table of Contents” in Heading one. Under that, in No Indent Style, write the name of every chapter in order on its own line.

Next, the tedious part. Again, this isn’t 100% necessary, but doing this, I’ve found just about any ebook format or distributor will create a good output that behaves as expected.

On the “Insert” ribbon, go to the Links section and choose bookmarks. If you wrote this and spat it out of Scrivener. It has “helpfully” given you a ton of bookmarks. Delete them all. Even the hidden ones. The more unnecessary information you include in a file, the more likely a computer will use it to do something you don’t want it to.

Once you’re clear, click on the page count in the lower left-hand corner to bring up a list of all those headings you made. You’re about to do these next few steps a lot of times.

Click a chapter heading in the navigator. It’ll jump you to right before the heading. Now click Bookmarks and Add a bookmark with a name that will sort appropriately. I like to do CH_00, CH_01, CH_02, etc.

Once you’re done, go back to the Table of Contents. Highlight the title of the first chapter, hit Ctrl+K, click bookmark, and pick the appropriate bookmark for that chapter. Do it for every line in the Table of Contents.

Clean up the Styles

Open up the Styles window again. You want to pare down the list of styles you made earlier. For every style in the style window right now that isn’t one that you made and adjusted to your liking, do the following. Save after every successful adjustment, because there is a strong tendency to cause the program to hang if it is a particularly long file, and it is quite frustrating to lose your work as a result.

Right click the style. Click “Select all # Instances.” It will highlight each of them. Lots of times, there will only be a handful of them, and they will be blank lines. While they are still selected, just click the Normal style. This will shift all of them to normal and, now that the style is no longer in use in your document, it will remove it from the lit.

If the instances are, for example, several hundred individual italicized words, click normal, then click the italic button. The idea is to make sure that everything is at least based on Normal. There will be some variations on this. Using the same example, italicized stuff in a No Indent paragraph will required you to click No Indent, then make them Italic again. But you’re going to want to go through and make sure everything in the “In Use” style list is either one of the styles you made or based on one of the styles you made.

One thing to look out for. If a whole paragraph is the same format—italicized/bold/centered—then make sure you set it back, because sometimes those can get messed up if you fiddle with them.

Finishing Touches

A few last things I like to do, which make things a little nicer but don’t matter too much. If your chapters don’t all start on their own page, go to the end of the last sentence of the previous chapter and hit Ctrl-Enter to make a page break. You can actually do this with the heading format, but I like doing it manually.

Also, and this is super minor, lots of people like to make the first paragraph of every chapter No Indent. Not sure why, but I’ve started doing it. Just click somewhere in the paragraph and click the no indent style in the Styles window.

And there you have it. Save it and you’ve got a file that should convert very nicely into whatever format you like. If you’re feeling feisty and want to have some good copies of files to distribute to readers personally, there’s a few more steps you can do.

ePub Format

Open up Calibre. Drag and drop the DOCX file you just saved onto it. It’ll be added to the list. Click it, then click Edit metadata. Fill in the title, author name, and series. If you’ve got your cover, you can throw it in here too. Then, hit convert books. Make sure the output format (in the top right corner) is EPUB, then hit OK.

When it’s done, right click the book and choose Edit Book.

This is the most tricky and intimidating part. You’re going to edit… HTML… This is all exceptionally optional. All you’re really doing is making sure nothing went wrong in the other steps and putting in some hooks to take advantage of some exceedingly minor features of some ebook readers.

We’ll start with the easy part. Go to the tools menu and choose Add cover. Make sure Preserve Aspect Ratio is checked and hit OK.

Now double click stylesheet.css. CODE! SCARY! Just scroll through this and look for “color: black” and delete it. There’s other stuff you can do here, but it can get hairy in a hurry.

Next, double click “content.opf” Scroll down to where it says “<guide>”. Replace the entire section starting with “<guide>” and ending with “</guide>” with what’s below.


    <reference href=”titlepage.xhtml” title=”Cover” type=”cover”/>

    <reference href=”TABLEOFCONTENTS” title=”TableofContents” type=”toc”/>

    <reference href=”STARTPOINT” title=”Start” type=”text”/>


Once that’s in place, scroll up to the top of the list of files on the left side of the window and double click them one at a time until you find the table of contents. (It’ll probably be index_split_001.html) Replace the TABLEOFCONTENTS (leave the quotation marks) with the file name. It will start to auto-fill. Once you’ve got the file name, put a “#” and it’ll autofill a list of headings. Pick one. Any of them should work.

Now do the same thing for STARTPOINT, except instead of aiming for the file with the TOC, you’re looking for the start of the novel.

Save it all and close the Edit window.

If you’ve got something to test epub files, you can click on the book you just cleaned up on the list, then click “Click to Open” next to “Path” on the right side of the screen. Double click the new epub and see how it looks. If you don’t have something to test it, just click “EPUB” next to “Formats:” and Calibre will preview it for you.

Either way, take a look. If it looks good, you can click Convert Books and make any other formats you like, though realistically, Mobi is the only other one you’ll need.

And that should do it. I started by saying this wouldn’t be too difficult, and now I see that this is one of the longest chapters, so I may have spoken too soon. Regardless, it’s over now. Next step, self-publishing!