Formatting in Microsoft Word – for beginners

As a relatively new author, I’ve been learning a lot about penning my thoughts and preparing things for publication. One thing I’ve learned is that those two concepts are very different processes. The writing and edit phase, while meticulous, is a wonderful evolution from the synapses in your brain to the page. It’s about expressing your heart and soul while aligning with your cognitive process. I dare not say it’s easy, but compared to formatting, it’s a day at the beach in Aruba. I’ve never been to Aruba (yet), but someday I’ll get there.

Formatting a manuscript is a technical skill that is best left to the skilled technicians. However, when you are self-publishing, self-marketing, and self-paying, you have to find ways to cut corners that will not harm the outcome of your masterpiece. For me, the developmental editor was a non-negotiable expenditure. I had learned from many sources that this is something that you must put in your budget, without fail. If your book doesn’t flow properly, if your technical writing skills are not that of a Masters degree in English composition, no one will want to read it. At seven cents a word, this service will take up a chunk of change.

When I was getting my play How Do We Feel Right Now? ready for self-publishing, I self-learned how to format. It was only 39 pages, I had Microsoft Word, I had the internet, and I had a fairly useful brain. KDP University was very helpful in their guidance of how to prepare the manuscript for upload. However, when it came to the nitty-gritty of making the margins, gutters and section breaks happen, KDP was useless. I had to figure out the basics through Google. I had to double down on that introduction when I was preparing my first memoir, What Ronnie Sue Knew.

To start, I gathered several different memoirs that I had on my bookshelf, just to see what others with real publishers did. That’s the running counsel I’d get whenever I had a question about what decision to make – what did other people decide? Look for examples, determine what looks right to you, then go with that. I looked to Michelle Obama’s Becoming, her husband’s A Promised Land, Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malala, Isadora Duncan’s My Life and Gloria V. Key’s A Key That Turned. Michelle Obama’s book is one of my favorites. She writes like she talks (I love how she talks), and her formatting is simple and clean. Gloria V. Key’s book came out in 2019; she is a parent of one of my former students, and has overcome a great deal of adversity to rise to where she is now. She is also self-published. I also pulled a few non-memoir books, just in case I still couldn’t decide after consulting with the memoir pros. I had my pile of reference materials, my Google search bar, and my decision-making powers. From there, I had to become proficient enough in a few things to make the formatting process work.

Full disclosure: I have not mastered any of the skills covered in this blog post. Reading it will not make you an expert, nor will it reveal some great epiphany I had, other than to suggest that you pay someone to spare yourself the agita of formatting your own work. However, I feel compelled to share my meandering experience, in case there are other crazy people like me who decide to DIY this part of the process. I liken my experience to doing the doggie paddle in the middle of choppy ocean waters. It was enough to keep my head above water, but there was no grace or great skill to my effort.

If I were to give unsolicited advice, I’d say leave the formatting to the professionals. Of course, I don’t follow my own advice. For anyone like me, who decides that learning something for yourself is the better option, I offer some of my experience, utter frustrations, and “triumphs.” If you are not looking for nuanced expertise, and have a wealth of time and patience for struggle, read on.

Trim size and margins

The very first decision-making hurdle you must maneuver after you do your developmental edit and before you format is to decide what size your book should be. Look at a bookshelf – books are all different sizes. You have to ask yourself some questions here: How many pages do you have? What is the cost of all those pages? What do you want the book to look like? For both of my books, I chose a paperback cover – it’s the least expensive to produce and as a self-published author, you want to try to break even on your expenses. Royalties, while more in your favor for a self-publishing situation, are still not going to make you rich if you don’t sell millions of copies.

For my memoir, I chose a typical 6×9 trim size. Once I settled on that, I went to Layout -> Margins and got to work. I eventually landed on the following settings: mirror margins (to make it look like the pages of a book) Top – 1.2″, Bottom – .6″, inside/outside 1″, Gutter 0″. The gutter is where the book’s spine will be. KDP told me to make the gutter 0, so I did. The headers and footers were .5″. This sets up your whole document so that everything looks consistent and clean, and your words aren’t too close to the edge of the page. I set my margins even wider (more space) than what KDP suggested, but that was my choice. Once you set this, you’ll get an accurate sense of page count immediately (this is very important when considering your cover design and cost of printing).


I finally figured out how to use Word’s styles function. I had always seen those little tabs at the top of the Home tab, and never had any use for them – until I started formatting the memoir. Then, they became essential to efficient progress. Basically, you can program any section or type of writing to look however you want. Part of my book had long quotes from my mom, which I set apart with indents and italicizing. Pressing a button that switched to that particular style choice was extremely helpful. Then, when I went back to my narrative, I pressed another style button and it switched style formats automatically. The styles tabs were a quick and easy way to keep the presentation consistent; I highly recommend using them.

The front matter

Typically, this includes your title page, copyright page, dedication, acknowledgments (though some do this in the back), and table of contents. The copyright page basically needs to declare the author, the year of copyright and the ISBN number. I put other information in there as well, following the lead of different authors, and tailored it to my liking, including credits for cover design, artwork and editing. The table of contents, if your headings are properly formatted, will automatically appear and you can update the fields and page numbers by right clicking somewhere inside of it. Everything else was pretty easy to put together.

What was not easy was getting the headers and page numbers to sync properly. It probably took me the longest amount of time to get this done. (More on that later.)

The elusive section break

What I learned is that in order to have control over your chapter headers, you must use section breaks. They are a maddening, yet essential tool in formatting for a book. This was a process that almost made me throw the computer across the room. Several times.

My editor had asked how I was getting the book formatted. I told her (naively) that I had a little experience with my play and that I’d probably do it myself. I asked if this was something she did, thinking I wouldn’t mind paying a little more for this service if it gave me some peace of mind. Her answer was an unequivocal no. Formatting was too computer tech-y for her and she was more comfortable sticking to the technical writing aspect of book-making. I respected that, appreciated her honesty and decided I could do it myself; it would take me a while to learn, but I had a brain and Google at my fingertips, so I could find out what I needed to know as I worked. I knew it would be a baptism-by-fire situation, but I was on summer break and I had time to make mistakes.


It took me weeks to get the formatting right. Just when I thought I had it, I’d make a little edit and throw the whole damn thing off. A change in one part can gum up the works on other pages. It’s almost like someone in the development department of Microsoft decided to make new author’s lives miserable, saying let’s make this look user friendly, but when they follow the directions, we’ll make it behave in ways they did not expect. Then they’ll feel stupid and we will celebrate their stupidity. I would press “next page” and it would turn to “continuous break” or vice versa. Eventually, “next page” seemed to just disappear altogether in deference to the “continuous break.” Often, I’d have to use a page break, then a section break. Sometimes I’d need a section break at the bottom of the last page and the top of the next chapter page. In the beginning, I tried using the odd page break function, then completely abandoned it for reasons I have since blocked from my memory. I’m sure it had something to do with my initial concept of starting new chapters on the right (that story is in the next section). There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the lack of continuity, other than the existence of some diabolical magical force programmed into the section breaks function that tracked just how many nervous breakdowns I could tolerate.

My editor, in not wanting to touch formatting, was on to something…

Bottom line, every chapter should be its own section. This includes the individual parts of the front matter (title page, acknowledgements, dedication, table of contents, etc) and the book matter. Without that, you cannot format your chapter headers properly. Which brings me to…

Headers, footers and page numbers

For the memoir, I decided not to use footers at all, and had all the necessary information at the top of the page. Eventually, I made the top margin a little bigger so that it didn’t lie too close to the header. I didn’t want things looking too crowded.

When you double click in the header area, you have some options. For page numbering, remember that the front matter uses roman numerals and the book matter uses regular numbers. My title page (post-front matter) was page 1. I made it so you would not see page numbers/headers on the first page of a new chapter, on blank pages, nor on title pages.

The headers/footers formatting was maddening. One thing that happened, randomly, was that an extra line would “suddenly” appear in the footer (that I wasn’t using), making the alignment of the bottom of the page uneven with the page next to it. I figured out that for some reason, a set of columns somehow got inserted along the way. I’m sure I clicked something to make that happen, but I had no idea how. I was able to correct it by deleting the invisible column field, but I’d invariably discover a new one somewhere else.

I was really bad at formatting this stuff and often would have to eyeball those adjustments. Not great, and I’m sure there was a more proper way to do it, but there’s just so much my brain will absorb. I’d figure something out, then not retain what I learned to then be able to easily fix the same problems later on. My memory is like aged Swiss cheese – funky and full of holes (my daughter concurred with this assessment).

Going back to the need for section breaks to make chapter headers work, there are a few essential buttons that you must familiarize yourself with: Link to Previous, Different First Page, and Different Odd and Even Pages. Link to Previous is used within a section when you want the headers to be carried over from one page to the next. The online Microsoft support instructions, while laid out fairly clearly, still made my brain hurt. Different Odd and Even Pages lets you have different header information on the left and right side of the document. I decided to have the title of the book centered on the left (even page) and the chapter on the right (odd page). Different First Page also drove me pretty crazy. Basically, if you want the actual numbering to start on a different page, you click this and the number is supposed to disappear. Sometimes that happened, sometimes it didn’t and I’d have to delete it manually. The lack of consistency (from my lack of expertise) left me reeling.

One added bonus – when you look at your document on View -> Multiple pages, something ass-backwards happens. The first page (odd) winds up on the left side of the view. It’s maddening because it’s the opposite of what you’d see in a real book layout, and you have to retrain your brain to see the page on the left, while understanding that it will actually be on the right. Read that again. Yes, it’s enough to make you throw something at your screen and wish for a lobotomy. I tried to find a “book view” function, but alas, it doesn’t exist. I had to wait until I uploaded my pdf to KDP in order to see it properly.

To blank or not to blank

My editor was really helpful with coaching me on the myriad questions I had as I went through the process. I had to think about so many things that people with a publishing contract probably never have to think about. One was the use of the blank page. When do you skip a page and when do you just move to the next page? My editor suggested that all new chapters should start on the odd (right) page, so I formatted as such. If a chapter ended on an odd page, I’d make the next even page a blank so the next would start on the right side. In Word, it seemed to look clean, consistent and organized.

However, when I uploaded it and started flipping through, there were a lot of blanks, and you pay for those in the printing. I went to my sources: Malala, Michelle, Barack, Isadora and Gloria. Granted, most of their books were much longer than mine (especially the former president – good lord, he had a lot to say), but I noticed that the only blank pages were after the title page or a new section. Otherwise, they just kept going on the next available page. I have a feeling my editor’s good counsel was perhaps a little “old school,” so I felt comfortable saving a few cents and eliminating most of the blanks.

When are you done?

At what you think is the end of your visual check, you will find more fixes to make. You will then think you are done, upload it, proof it one more time, and find another thing to fix. Expect to do this process over and over and over again. When you finally do a proof where you don’t find anything wrong, go through it again. Make sure you go through it dozens of times; maybe then it will be ready for publishing. In one of my post-upload proofreading passes, I found a stray period at the top of a chapter. Everything else was fine, but that damned period was just sitting there, mocking me. Ask someone who really loves you to proof it as well. I asked my husband to do several visual checks to make sure I didn’t miss something. You know what? He found stuff.

If there is one piece of advice I can offer, it’s this: Be meticulous in your check for done-ness. The last thing you want is for your book to be sold to customers and then you find an error. Or worse, someone else points one out to you. Sure you can just upload a corrected version when you are publishing yourself, but who wants imperfect copies out there?

Remember, your book is a public representation of you. It is your decision (and responsibility) to put forth the best possible version of your thoughts. The “end” should only be determined when you are satisfied with what other people will see. When people post pictures of themselves holding your book, you should feel proud that you did absolutely everything you could to put out the highest quality product.

Happy writing!

If you have any questions or comments, or would like me to post something else about my writing process, please let me know in the comment section.

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