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Melinda Martin

Document Prep Tips from a Book Designer

Illustration of five people adding charts and graphs to an enormous book. One person stands on the ground, one uses a ladder, one sits atop the book, one stands on a graph on the page, and one stands on a stack of other books so they can bring the graphs down like artwork on cables.
Illustration of five people adding charts and graphs to an enormous book. One person stands on the ground, one uses a ladder, one sits atop the book, one stands on a graph on the page, and one stands on a stack of other books so they can bring the graphs down like artwork on cables.
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After a book has been professionally copy edited, a book designer will begin the layout. My goal is to help you, your self-publishing clients and their book designers work smarter, not harder. I often say, “It’s not the doing but the re-doing that costs.” More than just money, re-work costs us the most valuable asset we have: our time.

The layout of a book will depend on its content. At the editing stage, the author might not have engaged a designer yet. Since a book designer will strip out excessive formatting, I recommend that editors keep everything as simple as possible. You and the author can focus on the content; the book designer will focus on the formatting.

The team’s responsibilities

The book designer is responsible for steps including the following:

  • selecting typefaces
  • consulting on trim size
  • placing images
  • setting the size of margins, headers and footers
  • adding page numbers to the table of contents
  • cross-referencing content within the book as needed
  • styling chapter headings and subheadings

To make the design process smoother for authors (and designers!), editors can support their clients by ensuring that the elements below are clearly marked in the manuscript.

  • boldface, italics and underlining
  • superscripts
  • small caps and all caps
  • hyperlinks
  • paragraph styles
  • indents
  • centering
  • bulleted and numbered lists
  • tables

Book design mistakes to avoid

Word processors often include multiple ways to create the same visual effect, and for the casual user, it seems easy to revert to the manual formatting steps that we learned in school. But for the book designer, one-by-one manual formatting changes can create complications — and increase the cost when the designer has to spend extra time undoing them. 


Do not use the tab key to indent paragraphs or align text. Instead, set an automated indent in the paragraph settings.


Do not use multiple spaces or returns to accomplish anything. If an author has put multiple spaces between sentences or pressed return dozens of times to get to a new page, you can remove the extra spaces while editing by using find & replace.

Do not use soft returns (shift + enter). Soft returns are a manual method to control line breaks, and the designer will determine the best line break based on trim size, margins, words per line, etc.

Page and scene breaks

Page breaks are based on the importance and flow of the content. They are decided during a layout review between the author and the book designer, so there is no need for the editor to add page breaks at all. As long as chapters or other sections are clearly labeled, the book designer will assess the content and ensure page breaks happen where they need to. If there is specific content that should appear on its own page, then you can always leave a note for your designer in your manuscript.

Scene breaks occur within a chapter when the setting changes abruptly (common in fiction). To establish a scene break, do not hit the enter key two or three times. Simply type “Scene Break” on its own line or type “***” or something similar. As long as you’re consistent, the book designer can easily find them and work with the author to set how the scene break should look.

Text boxes and call-out quotes

Do not use text frames. Ever. 

All text should be in-line, and if you need text to appear in a sidebar or call-out quote, you can leave a note for the designer. You can do this by using a tag like [COQ] or colouring the text.

For call-out quotes, you’ll also need to consider the following:

  • which text is the call-out quote
  • where it needs to go and/or which text it needs to stay close to
  • whether the original text will remain in place alongside the call-out quote or whether it will become the call-out quote

Understanding paragraph styles

Paragraph styles are oft-misunderstood. Several people only see them as a decorative option, not as the organizational utility that they are. Styles let you communicate with the designer.

Remember writing an outline in middle school English class? The same principle applies here.

Heading 1 is reserved for the top-most level of the book. This is often the chapter title, but it could be the labels for Part 1, Part 2, etc. (in which case chapter titles will be marked as heading 2).

Make sure your client’s text doesn’t skip from heading 1 to heading 3. Subheadings should be marked with the next logical heading style. If you don’t see a heading 3 or heading 4 style in your style list, you can easily create one and then start using it.


Images are not a one-size-fits-all subject. All images should be in the highest quality obtainable and uncropped/unedited. The book designer will handle the cropping and the sizing of the image for final export. (The image should be able to obtain 300 DPI on final export.)

The best way to go about having images in a book is for you to not insert them at all. 

Instead, ensure the author has labelled their files to send separately and type out which image you want inserted at the place in the manuscript that it needs to go. If the author wants a caption to go with the image, type that out as well.


To learn more about these concepts and see more formatting tips, visit my website.

What kinds of document prep do you do for your clients?


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2 Comments on “Document Prep Tips from a Book Designer”

  • The advice on styles for headings is great, but I’d like to know more about the appropriateness of applying Word styles during editing. I sometimes find it necessary to apply styles throughout a manuscript to clean up extremely inconsistent manual formatting, for example, but it is unclear if this is useful for the designers, whom I am rarely able to communicate with directly.

    • Hi, Michael! If the designer knows what they are doing, then this is very useful. Even though we have our own styles set up in InDesign, we can map your style to our style.

      For instance, I have several different Heading 1s that I use, depending on if I want the chapter to start on the next odd-facing page or the next even-facing page or if I just want it to stay in the natural flow of the document.

      So if you used Heading 1 in Word, when I bring that manuscript over, I map it over to the Heading 1 style in my ID document that I want to use.

      Usually, only the heading styles and the block quote styles are the most helpful to me, as I have over 100 styles that I use for a vast number of reasons that I will manually apply, depending on the type of book.

      A fiction book may only take 10 styles, whereas a non-fiction book could take 50+, depending on what all is going on with the styling.

      Let me know if I can answer any additional questions.

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