Last week, I started reading a novel by a local author I know and stopped at the first page in disgust. The book was self-published—many fine books are self-published-but the author knew nothing about the nuances of typesetting, a time-honored profession that is both art and science. Its traditions and rules are essential to a reader’s pleasure. Ignore them at your peril.

What greeted me on the first page was not a novel but a business letter or report. That was the format, and it’s the format of this blog, which is fine for a blog. But in a novel, the result is like driving a car with bad spark plugs. It’s a jerky ride. We expect a novel to be a smooth read, gently moving from paragraph to paragraph with a slightly indented first line and no space between paragraphs.
A shift in time, place, or person is indicated by a blank line between paragraphs.

When a novel is formatted like this blog, our expectations of a shift arrive after each paragraph, but there is no shift, just an extra line for no reason. Bumpy ride.

How can an author who has read novels all his or her life, not notice the novel’s format of indented first line of a paragraph, no space between paragraphs unless there’s a shift? The exception is the first paragraph in a chapter, which may or may not be indented.

Granted, that the Word default seems to be the business letter format, but it’s an easy change to make. With “Home” selected, click on the “Paragraph” menu, then click to draw down the menu under Indentation – Special. Click “First line” and then either .5” for manuscript or maybe .25” for a smaller page or the final layout ready for printing. Then go down to “Spacing” and make

sure it indicates 0 for spacing between or after paragraphs. Not a big deal but needs to be done.

Formatting is important. It is a professional “ticket of admission” to an agent’s, editor’s and publisher’s interest. Many publishers are adamant about the format.

Here’s another problem. In my critique groups, I notice that many would-be writers have vague ideas of the tools they’re working with. Tools like commas and hyphens, for instance. Commas are scattered indiscriminately throughout the manuscript and hyphens ignored altogether.

Many good dictionaries include a guide to grammar and style, but style guides like the Associated style-manualsPress Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style provide excellent and clear instructions on what to capitalize, when to use commas and hyphens, etc. The result is clarity for the reader rather than irritation.

Watch those commas. Quick rule: Usually, if you have two independent clauses, each with a verb and subject, use a comma before the conjunction. If not, eliminate the comma. Makes more sense that way.
The dog chased the cat, and the cat ran.
The dog chased the cat and the other dog.
The cat ran and chased the dog.

In Word, type dashes as two hyphens with no spaces. This usually automatically turns into a dash. Example: On the center panel—glossy full-color…[the dash was typed as two hyphens]. You can also find dashes under “Symbols” in Word.

Watch those compound modifiers. Include the hyphen: full-color photos, real-life photographs. They make a difference in meaning.

Current accepted style is only one space between sentences.

MARYLAND WRITERS ALERT! MARK YOUR CALENDARS: The annual conference of the Maryland Writers’ Association will be March 25, 2017, Crowne Plaza in Annapolis. Keynote speakers are well-known authors Jeffery Deaver and Maria V. Snyder.