The Art of Writing
August 14, 2007 9:53 PM   Subscribe

What is the correct way of writing paragraphs in a novel?

Do you _have_ to write it in such a way that there is no space in-between paragraphs, or is it okay if you leave some space in-between. Also, as a first draft, will I have to follow this rule (of not writing paragraphs with spaces in-between), because it looks much more aesthetically pleasing with the spaces.
posted by hadjiboy to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is something your word processing program should be able to take care of for you. Write all your text with simply one hard return between paragraphs and then set the paragraph spacing in your style settings appropriately. If publishers you're submitting to prefer no spaces, then submit without spaces. If you prefer your hard copy to have space between paragraphs, set it that way before you print a copy for you.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:59 PM on August 14, 2007

The correct way is "According to the style guide of your publisher."

If you don't have a publisher, the correct way is "According to your agent's advice."

If you don't have an agent, the correct way is to read the style guide of the publishers you're sending to and send it that way, and to not get your hopes up.

If you're writing for fun or your own enjoyment, the correct way is whichever you prefer unless your readers tell you that your work is difficult to read.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:01 PM on August 14, 2007

Typically, there's no space between paragraphs.
posted by dontoine at 10:51 PM on August 14, 2007

Um, there is no chance that whatever you use to write this will end up determining the typesetting of the final thing. Write it however looks good to you - it will be turned in to plain text before being typeset.
posted by phrontist at 11:09 PM on August 14, 2007

Your judgement on "aesthetically pleasing" is just that - your judgement. It's really up to publisher's guidelines. Unless you're creating something a little avant garde - and the spaces need to be there. But even then you're running the risk of looking unprofessional because you aren't following a publisher or agent's guidelines.

I know some publishers ask for a first draft manuscript to have lines double-spaced, so that might be a consideration, too. But anything you do should be uniform throughout the piece - which is the easiest way to gain a pleasing aesthetic. What you're really going for is practical, though.
posted by crossoverman at 11:26 PM on August 14, 2007

I’m such a novice. This is my first attempt to do anything of this sort, and I’ve been using the novels which I like as guidelines to write the first draft. Naturally, this meant following the same structure that they have (leaving spaces at the top of a new chapter, no spaces in-between paragraphs, etc. etc.) as the way to go. Is that wrong? Should I just type it out without editing it into a novel-like format?
posted by hadjiboy at 11:49 PM on August 14, 2007

I have no experience whatsoever with submitting a novel to a publisher. However, if it were me, I would do something along the lines of the first comment by jacquilynne.

Create your document with as little "hard-coded" editing and spacing as possible. The actual textual data on the page should be as raw and simple as it can be input.

From there, the formatting can be tweaked via the options in your word processor of choice (I'm really digging Apple Pages, personally).

I don't know what file format requirements these places might require, but if it's physical print or PDF you could tweak these options easily as per each individual specification and then export (or print) that document.
posted by travis vocino at 11:56 PM on August 14, 2007

This is my first attempt to do anything of this sort, and I’ve been using the novels which I like as guidelines to write the first draft.

You should just type it out and not worry about making it look like a finished novel just yet. Double-space your work - it's much easier to read that way. Don't worry about how much space after a chapter heading.

And the best writing advice I've ever received: just write.

Formatting can come later - and then see publishers' guidelines, etc.
posted by crossoverman at 12:16 AM on August 15, 2007

Proper Manuscript Form
posted by hindmost at 1:14 AM on August 15, 2007

My first novel was published a couple of years ago (by a large reputable publisher, not self-published, just to be clear). Two things:
1) What crossoverman said: worry about making your writing as good as it can be 1000 times more than you worry about this sort of thing. It's the quality of your work that's important.
2) Put a linespace at the end of each paragraph. That is, press return twice. This makes no difference to your chances of being published, but when they come to typeset your manuscript it'll make some layout guy's life a bit easier. Also, it makes navigating a large manuscript quickly a bit easier on the eye.
posted by acalthla at 2:01 AM on August 15, 2007

And the point jacquilynne made bears repeating. I see far too many word processor documents where the author has simply hit Enter twice at the end of every paragraph to get the spacing they want.

This is the Wrong Thing.

The Mark of the Wrong Thing is pages whose first line of text is one line lower than the pages around them, simply because the first paragraph after a page break happens to be one of the blank ones; authors who notice this happening with often Take The Wrong Thing To The Next Level by simply deleting the annoying blank line, which means that as soon any change happens that alters the pagination, paragraphs that should be spaced apart end up jammed back together.

The Right Thing is to put one (1) paragraph break at the end of every paragraph - always! and apply a suitably named style (Body Text is a good pick for the style name) to all your body text. That way, you can fiddle with the look of your entire document to your heart's desire just by making formatting changes (such as Space After Paragraph) to the style rather than laboriously applying them piecewise to your text.

Those who can grasp the beauty of the Right Thing will probably also grasp the necessity of a Forced Line Break (shift-Enter in Word and OpenOffice) which is not a paragraph break and doesn't trigger extra spacing, if such has been applied to paragraphs, and the usefulness of the Show Invisible Characters toolbar button.
posted by flabdablet at 2:36 AM on August 15, 2007

Formatting can come later, but it shouldn't, unless there's a very pressing reason for you to put the extra lines in.

This is because it will potentially be a huge pain to go through your six-hundred-page document after the fact and delete every single one of those extra lines. Also, you'll probably miss a few, and these will look like scene changes. (Skipping a line is a reasonably common way to indicate a scene change within a chapter, so it'll look like one and be jarring even if you're using a different method.)

Sure, your content's more important, but it helps to have a manuscript that looks professional and isn't annoying to the person loking at it.
posted by Many bubbles at 2:50 AM on August 15, 2007

Oh--it occurs to me that you might be typing this in a simple text editor, which (much like most text on the web) will result in Big Block O' Text Syndrome if you don't put extra lines in. If this is the case, try using a word processing program instead. You can get it to double space and do the indents for the paragraphs automatically, and maybe it'll look more like a novel to you, without your having to add extra lines.
posted by Many bubbles at 3:00 AM on August 15, 2007

Just write it so that you find it the most pleasing. You'll enjoy working on it more, and you'll be more likely to finsih it. When you submit it, reformat it for their standards (assuming you aren't using a typewriter).
posted by DarkForest at 5:32 AM on August 15, 2007

Here's what the in-house guidelines from Random House have to say on the matter:
• Uniform line space: Do not insert extra space between paragraphs unless you are indicating a space break or extract. For a space break, use three number signs alone on a line: ###. For extracts, add one line space above and below.
And for general manuscript advice, the same guidelines advise:
For more detailed information regarding specific elements of manuscript preparation, we suggest you refer to The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (University of Chicago Press: 15th ed., 2003).
posted by headspace at 5:32 AM on August 15, 2007

Thanks a lot for the suggestions everyone!

I know I have a one in a million shot in ever achieving this dream of mine, but what the hell.

hindmost, those links are just what the doctor ordered. A thousand thanks to you!!
posted by hadjiboy at 6:26 AM on August 15, 2007

I agree 100% with all those people who suggest using word-processor styles (style sheets, whatever) for this. Just hit returns once at the end of each paragraph by apply a style to all your paragraphs. That way, you can instantly change the manuscript from double-spaced to single-spaced (by changing the style).

This should be your procedure for ALL formatting. For instance, don't type your chapter headings in all caps. If you think they look good like that, type them normally but apply an all-caps style to them. That way, if you (or your publisher) change your mind, you can instantly convert all heading to normal case (or make them red or italicized or whatever).

To many writers don't use styles because they've never heard of them or they've heard of them but don't know how to use them. Spend 15 minutes reading online help.

That said...

it will potentially be a huge pain to go through your six-hundred-page document after the fact and delete every single one of those extra lines.

PLEASE don't waste your time doing things like this! Learn to use find/replace. If you want to get fancy, learn regular expressions (which are a sort of super find/replace -- they're called wildcards in Word). But even without them, you could solve this problem in seconds.

In Word:

Find: ^p^p
Replace: ^p
posted by grumblebee at 6:52 AM on August 15, 2007

Just two more questions if anyone's still listening out there: if I have to write a prologue, should I write "Prologue" on the first page, right below the title and the byline, and then follow with the matter? And, how do I start a new chapter--on a fresh page? (I'm assuming so).
posted by hadjiboy at 7:12 AM on August 15, 2007

Applying Body Text ("Text body", in OpenOffice) style before you even start writing is a good idea, too, because then it will automatically be applied to everything that follows. You will see the extra after-paragraph spacing happen every time you hit Enter, and you'll be less tempted to hit it again.
posted by flabdablet at 7:12 AM on August 15, 2007

Pick one of the heading level styles to apply to your Prologue and Chapter headings. Then you can turn on Page Break Before in the paragraph formatting for that style, if you want. Also, you can set Followed By to Text Body, which means that as soon as you've hit Enter on a chapter heading you'll be typing body text again with the spacing all nice.

Using styles like this gives you a headstart if you want to turn your work into HTML, too.
posted by flabdablet at 7:17 AM on August 15, 2007

The real point of the named-style stuff is conceptual separation of content and presentation.

If you let your word processor know which bits of your document are what kind of thing, then you can create formatting rules for each kind of thing by messing with the style formats, and be confident that these formatting rules will be applied consistently throughout the document.

Also, if you export your word processor document into some other form like LaTeX for typesetting purposes or some variety of HTML for the Web, the what kind of thing information survives the export process and can be used to make appropriate choices about formatting in whatever target medium your work ends up displayed in (or read aloud by).
posted by flabdablet at 7:27 AM on August 15, 2007

I agree with crossoverman. Heavens, if it's a first draft, I'd write it in whatever format you want -- dark pink coloured Comic Sans, even. (Or maybe not.)

You can whip it into professional, standard formatting afterward.

I really don't bother with setting the required style until long after the first, second or third drafts.

What I need to do along the way is actually print off a copy of my work in order to see it on paper, and sit down and read it with a pen in hand, and edit. There are things that I simply don't "see" on screen. For this, double-spacing is helpful--you've got room to cross out words, make notes, insert etc.

grumblebee beat me to the advanced functions in Find & Replace in MS Word, but yes, use those if you need to. It makes it very easy to remove unwanted breaks...

...and also if 432 pages in, you decide to rename a character. :)

Good luck with your writing.
posted by Savannah at 7:51 AM on August 15, 2007

I was going to make grumblebee's final point. When considering doing something unconventional with formatting, just consider how easy it is to change back with Find-->Replace. Usually, very easy. People get worked up about double spaces after sentences, or double returns after paragraphs, but in reality, if you get published, your editor or her assistant will be doing countless find and replace searches anyway before sending it to the designer to be set. These will be two of them. It takes the same amount of time to the fix the three times you did it by accident as it takes to fix the 533 you did on purpose. And even if you never do it, she still has to check, which also takes the same amount of time.

Still, you should conform to the publisher's submissions guidelines. But this just makes it that much easier for YOU to make those corrections, too.
posted by lampoil at 8:17 AM on August 15, 2007

Chapter breaks:

If you start fiddling with styles, you should be able to create a style that you can apply only to your chapter headings, that will cause a page break and make the amount of space between the top of the page and the beginning of each chapter uniform. I see it a lot where authors just hit return a bunch of times so that it looks to them on screen that the chapter is starting down a bit on the page, but then they end up with 15 returns between chapters one and two, 11 returns betweens two and three, 18 between three and four, or whatever. Messy. Especially when you're revising.
posted by lampoil at 8:24 AM on August 15, 2007

grumblebee--thank you for the FIND tip--that would come in very handy indeed!

(I've just spent the last hour or two editing the stuff that I'd finished till now, and it looks much better. Thanks a bunch for the help guys. I really appreciate it.)
posted by hadjiboy at 8:45 AM on August 15, 2007

Ditto the sentiments that you should just do whatever's convenient for you as you write your draft; worry about manuscript formatting when it's time to submit it to someone (but do worry about it then.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:37 AM on August 15, 2007

Don't know what program you are using, but if it's Word, you might consider creating each chapter as a new document. Word, especially if you are working on a PC, really doesn't like long documents; you'd be better off with many smaller chapter-sized files than one long book-sized file. You can combine them all later.
posted by Jaie at 1:44 PM on August 15, 2007

Separation of presentation from content is all about doing what's convenient as you write. You don't have to worry in the least what the thing is going to look like; you just select Text Body style and then write, marking chapter headings with something like Heading 2 as you go (one toolbar combo box selection per heading).

Later, you mess with the style definitions to get the formatting you want, and the whole document just rearranges itself by magic. There's no need to do fiddly search-and-replace things or even fiddlier manual micro-edits.

If you want to, you can fool around a little with the style definitions after you've written a page or two to make the text easy to work with as you go - perhaps you want to see extra spacing appear between paras to pick them out easily on screen, and doublespaced text for printed drafts, so you set double spacing and Space After 24pt in the paragraph format for Text Body style.

You don't need to do anything to your precious text to change the look for printing - you just modify the style definitions.

Using named styles means you spend about thirty seconds thinking about how to set up your word processor before you start, and it then steps back and gets out of your way.

If you're going to use Word and you're going to do the one-file-per-chapter thing, make a new template to base your chapter documents on, instead of using the default ( template, and put your style definitions in the template, not in your documents. But if you take David Wheeler's advice, you won't bother with Word for anything big. Use OpenOffice instead.
posted by flabdablet at 10:51 AM on August 16, 2007

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