12 important formatting tips for online writers

The fact that there is only one shot at making a first impression should be something that every content creator or writer who submits articles on spec should take to heart.

I’m the gatekeeper at a site that accepts guest posts, so I get a lot of inquiries. I’ve written occasionally on some of the bad inquiry emails I’ve received and with this piece, I want to offer what are basically some formatting and style tips.

  1. Don’t double space after periods. I’ve been harping on this one for years. My writing days go way back to manual typewriters, so I’ve previously been in the habit of adding the double space. But with the advent of personal computers and word processing software, proper spacing after periods is now handled automatically. And this brings me to an over-arching point I want to make:
  2. Let your software do the formatting. If you’re going to indent paragraphs – which, you generally shouldn’t – learn to set the indent on the ruler. I see so many writers who still hit the TAB key to indent. When writers do this they eventually miss TABing before a paragraph so they have an improperly indented paragraph in the middle of their work. If you set your rulers write, your paragraphs will be consistently formatted with the correct first line indent.
  3. Use your software to center or move type. I get submissions where the writer has centered headlines by hitting the SPACE BAR a couple of dozen times. Sometimes the writer just doesn’t like where the type seems to be aligning and starts hitting the SPACE BAR until it “looks” right. Of course, as soon as any little item on the page changes, then it looks crazy. In any case, content management systems (CMS) like WordPress will hate these strings of spaces.
  4. Don’t hit ENTER or RETURN twice between paragraphs. Again, set up your document properly. In Microsoft Word, set paragraph spacing to “Auto.” This will increase the spacing between your paragraphs. The problem with two RETURNs between paragraphs is that editors have to take out the extra RETURN otherwise the CMS will create huge gaps between paragraphs.
  5. Single space. I get articles from some writers who like to double space everything. Again, I think it’s a left-over habit. English teachers back in the day wanted essays double spaced so they could write comments between the lines. We have better ways to comment now when we’re trading files back and forth.
  6. Know the difference between a RETURN and a manual line break shift-RETURN. And, (almost) never use a manual line break. If you break some of the rules I’ve already laid down, then when you do a manual line break, it will look just like a RETURN on your computer screen, however it won’t behave like a RETURN when your article gets pasted into a CMS.
  7. Periods and commas always go inside quotes, either double or single. This is for U.S. publications. The British do it differently. No matter how strongly you feel the tug to do it otherwise, don’t. This is AP style and Chicago Manual of Style style. The Chicago Manual offers a nice quote from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, “Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the [quotation] marks, though logically it often seems not to belong there.”
  8. Capitalize consistently. Someone submitted an article the other day where the headline began, “Here are seven Ways entrepreneurs can….” What’s the logic behind that capitalization scheme? You may want to capitalize everything but articles and prepositions, but that can sometimes be confusing. I suggest capitalizing only the first word of your headline, unless it includes a proper noun.
  9. Only use single quotes inside double quotes. For some reason, many writers think that the single quote is a less formal version of the double quote. No. Just use single quotes when you have to quote something within a sentence that is already a quote. Example: “When I saw grandma yesterday she asked, ‘Where have you been lately?’”
  10. Don’t use asterisks to make bullets. No matter what software you’re using, it will have a function to create bulleted or numbered lists. Use them.
  11. Don’t use NotePad or TextEdit to write articles. As I was thinking about my last comment, I remembered that people occasionally submit plain text files to me and they’ve obviously written using NotePad or TextEdit. These little programs are not intended for writing and formatting articles.
  12. Learn the difference between the hyphen, en-dash, and em-dash and don’t use a double hyphen. Most often you use a hyphen when you are creating a compound word being used as an adjective, such as: He was the go-to guy for the job. Sometimes hyphens are used to aid in readability: His re-election bid was unsuccessful. Note that the trend here is to use hyphens less in these situations.

The most common use of the en-dash or em-dash are in offset explanatory phrases: Ever since they opened for business—selling brooms and brushes—the company has really cleaned up. This is the traditional way to use the em-dash. However, typographically it looks a bit clunky on computer screens – and I happen to agree – so many will opt for the en-dash with spaces on either side. Either way is fine. What is not fine is using a double hyphen — that’s a no-no. (Sometimes your software will change a double hyphen to an en-dash, but don’t depend on it.)

Do you know how to create these dashes? On a Mac, the en-dash is option-hyphen and the em-dash is shift-option-hyphen. On a PC in Word, the en-dash is ctrl-hyphen and the em-dash is alt-ctrl-hyphen. There are other keyboard shortcuts for both Mac and PC users.

These are the most common problems I see when people submit articles for consideration. Do you have others to add to my list?

rbmanley

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rbmanley

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Jon Spangler

Ray – Nice post. My pet peeve is the Trend of many Tech Engineers to Capitalize Everything that is Important to Them, Regardless of the Word’s Status as a Proper Noun, Title, etc….

    rbmanley

    While I don’t mind English evolving, I’m a little glad I won’t be around in 50 years to see what’s happened to it.

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