Make Your Manuscripts Easier To Edit With This One Weird Trick

Pop quiz: Which of these two bibliography extracts is formatted correctly?

Example A
Example B

(These are from the bibliography for my dissertation, if that wasn’t 100% obvious.)

They’re exactly the same, right? I haven’t slipped in any typos or Chicago style mistakes for you to catch. If we’re looking at this on the screen in Word or printed out, we won’t notice any difference. But what if we change the font from Times New Roman to Book Antiqua?

Example A
Example B

Example B looks just fine, but Example A is a mess – most of the line breaks are in the wrong places, and the indenting isn’t consistent. It didn’t look like this before, so what happened?

Let’s shine the Microsoft Word equivalent of a black light on the original examples: the “Show paragraph marks and other hidden formatting symbols” tool.

Now we see the issue. Example B created the bibliography-style indentation by selecting the text and applying a half-inch hanging indent using the paragraph settings tool (see the screenshot below) or the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+T (Windows) / Cmd+T (Mac), while Example A used a mix of paragraph breaks, soft returns, tabs, and spaces to do the indenting manually.

The same principle applies to other indented elements, like block quotations – instead of breaking it down into individual lines and using tabs or spaces to indent each one, just select the whole paragraph and click the “Increase Indent” button or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+M (Windows) / Ctrl+Shift+M (Mac).

As we saw above, it looks the same on the page (as long as you don’t change the font), so if you’re writing a paper for a class, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. But if you’re writing for publication or want to publish someday, it’s important to get in the habit of applying indents and other formatting in ways that allow for the text to be edited and the page layout to change, which means using the formatting tools in your word processor instead of manually re-creating the format using tabs and spaces. (Plus, once you learn how to do it, it’s much easier than sitting there and trying to put exactly the right number of spaces at the beginning of each line!)

When I’m copyediting a bibliography, the first thing I do is turn on that “Show paragraph marks and other hidden formatting symbols” setting to see how the author did their hanging indents. If I see a bunch of dots and arrows, I turn Track Changes off and remove all the manual indentation – which can take a couple hours for a book or dissertation bibliography, even though I have a few macros that help it go faster – so that I can 1) apply my corrections without throwing off the line breaks, and 2) save the next person in the publication process some time and frustration. (If I’m working directly with the author, I might also take the option of asking them to fix it and then send it back to me.)

So, in writing for publication, even at the earliest draft stage, keep in mind that what you see on the screen in your word processor isn’t what the final product will look like. Using the built-in tools for different types of indentation will save time and effort for both you and your editors.