Stop Hitting That Tab Key. . . NOW!

So you’re writing and editing to digitally prepare and submit a manuscript for your first-ever book-baby.  Well, it might surprise you to know that there is one crucial thing you may very well be doing completely wrong!

If you’ve gotten in the habit, over the years, of hitting the tab key to indent your paragraphs, stop it, and stop it now!

As I’ve stated on my “Ahoy!” page, I’m here to report any mistakes I make in this ongoing learning process, as I make them.  And here I am. . . because for over twenty years, I’ve been hitting that trusty ol’ TAB key to indent my paragraphs.

So, why is this a mistake?  What’s wrong with it?  Aren’t most word-processors set up from the get-go for their tab-key results to indent paragraphs properly?

Well, in a word, no.

The tab key is set up for “tabulating” tables and columns.  From the Wikipedia:  “In word processing and text editing the Tab key will often move the insertion point to the next tab stop in a table, or may insert the ASCII tab character or many space characters.”

Sure, if you’re just printing out a chapter or three of your story, or looking at it on the screen, the indentations created by the tab key will look dead-on correct. . . all nice and professional-looking.

But the problem comes in when you submit a novel or novella that has been “tabbed” within an inch of its life.  Even if you submit a PDF to an online publisher (such as CreateSpace or SmashWords), they still have to do their own formatting, and tab indents can often choke their conversion programs.

Oh, it may still go through, but when you proof it, it will probably look like the first lines of your paragraphs start all the way an entire half of the page over!  It took me a bit of research and playing around with a few different word processors to figure out why my proofs were looking like this, and how to fix them (because I have been, for my entire life, a tab indenter).

So, as you’re blazing along through your first draft, pounding out paragraph after paragraph, get your fingers off of that tab key!  Try this instead:  Move your mouse cursor to the top of the screen, and, depending on the program you’re using, look for a tab called “format” or “formatting” or something along those lines, and in the menu for that tab, look for “paragraph” or “indentations.”  Set the field to read “0.5” (as in inches).  This should, theoretically, set things up to where you don’t have to do anything at all at the start of the new paragraph. . . just hit “enter” when you’re done with a paragraph and the next line should be automatically indented for you.

In Scrivener, if you’ve copied and pasted a body of text in which you have previously used tabs, you can select “Format > Convert > Strip Leading Tabs” to get rid of all of those unholy tabs at once, then press “command”+”a” to highlight the entire text, and go to “Format > Text > Tabs and Indents” to set all those now-missing tabs to 0.5″ indentations.  Voila!

The result of proper indentation will be a text that will compile correctly, convert to other word-processing programs correctly, and basically just save yourself time, effort and headaches on down the road.  Your PDFs and digi-publisher proofs will look, for the lack of a better word, “correct.”  You’ll smile, because you’ve made something that looks and “feels” professional. . . as opposed to lines that start somewhere off in the bedroom closet instead of roughly 5 characters over.

Author: Benjamin Brunson

Benjamin Brunson (born 1975) started writing at the age of 7, when his father encouraged his pounding out of stories about a certain movie archaeologist on a family typewriter. He grew up in an era when action movies were iconic, and comic books were a mere 75 cents and available at every grocery store and corner gas station. His imagination was further fueled by a mother who introduced him to books and reading at an early age, eventually gifting him with copies of Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That same mother would also bestow upon him a deep love and respect for the ocean and a good storm. Brunson would go on to participate in a creative writing magnet school program in his high school years in Montgomery, Alabama, where he became co-editor of the program’s literary magazine under the tutelage of Jerry Lawrence. At Auburn University, he majored in English and Literature, and quickly landed a spot as the film critic for the campus newspaper. The professors he would encounter in his collegiate career, namely Dr. Oliver Billingslea and Dr. Suzie Paul, would inspire him and help shape and steer his lifelong dream of creating fiction. In 2003, a major television network would cancel Brunson’s favorite sci-fi show about a group of ragtag misfits who, aboard a cargo spacecraft, took on various odd jobs in order to cull out a living and keep on flying. Feeling as if a deep void had been created in his life from the loss of the show, Brunson channeled his love for the ocean and began scribbling the notes for a handful of newly created characters and locations. These notes would, fourteen years later, form the basis for his monthly oceanic adventure saga, Blue Daunia.

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