Well, like most people, I write in Microsoft Word, which despite being an incredibly bloated piece of software, is still very good as a word processor, once you can hide enough toolbars and palettes to focus on your work.
You could pretty much just open a new document and start hammering away, but if you want to make your life easier, especially if like me your next stop is Adobe Dreamweaver, you would really benefit by creating stylesheets for your Word document. I can’t stress how important stylesheets are, but it is such a complicated topic that I can only give you the briefest of explanations here. First, perhaps, I should give you an example of why stylesheets are good, even if your final destination is not an ebook. Incidentally, I tend to use the terms styles and stylesheets interchangeably, but technically stylesheets refers to all the styles in a document.
Change of scene paragraph
Let’s say you start writing your book and every time you change scene you decide the first paragraph in that scene should like visibly different. (This is not a problem if unlike me you write really short chapters, but play along with me.) You decide that you don’t want the first paragraph automatically indented (you did remember to indent your paragraphs didn’t you?). So you go to Format/Paragraph and turn off First line indentation. When you write the second paragraph, you need to remember to turn it on.
You do this again and again whenever you change a scene. And then you think it would be a good idea if you were to add a little space above a first scene paragraph to further visually separate it. Of course, you’re smart enough to know you shouldn’t just throw an extra return and instead use Format/Paragraph to change the Spacing Before. So you could find every scene change paragraph and change the Spacing Before. But later you decide you’ve added too much spacing, artificially inflating your book (and who isn’t guilty of that).
Do you see where I’m going? Every time you make a global change, it’s a lot of work because you have to find all instances of that formatting and manually change it.
If you use stylesheets however …
OK, from the very moment when you think of a need for a “first” paragraph you should go to Format/Style and create a new style — you could name it “first” — and modify it with the proper first line indent and space before. Then apply that style to the paragraph you’ve just started writing. Later on when you decide to modify the space before, you go to Format/Style and modify the style. You’re not modifying a specific paragraph, you’re modifying all paragraphs that use that style.
The Normal style and overrides
But let me back up a moment and address the dreaded (it is for me) Normal style. Without your knowing it, you’re already using a style called Normal that Word automatically creates. It’s always there and you can’t get rid of it. Most people ignore it and are always overriding it. If you write a letter to your grandmother and increase the type size to 18, you’ve just overriden the default Normal stylesheet. It would make a lot more sense to modify the Normal style to 18 point. Of course for just a quick letter, it’s not a great mistake to override a style, but for a book, you’re much better off if you redefine the Normal style to better suit your needs.
For an ebook, for instance, it would probably make a lot more sense to modify the Normal stylesheet to 12-point Times, first line indent, justified, no space before or after and single line spacing. In other words, set the Normal style to reflect the formatting of the majority of the paragraphs in your book.
First draft vs ebook
Of course when you’re writing your first draft or you’re sending out manuscripts to agents and publishers, you might prefer the Normal style to be set to 10-point Courier, no first line indent and double line spacing. But that’s the power of stylesheets. When you’re ready to turn your manuscript into an ebook (because like me you can’t find a publisher), you merely need to redefine the Normal style instead of laboriously selecting the appropriate paragraphs and reformatting them.
Paragraph vs Character styles
Everything I’ve said up to now addresses paragraph-based styles, which format entire paragraphs. In fact, you don’t need to select a paragraph in order to apply a paragraph style, you merely need to move the insertion point into a paragraph to apply the style.
Character styles, however, require you to select the text you wish to change. By default, Word always creates a character-based style that controls the appearance of hyperlinks in a document. You probably don’t need to worry about character styles unless you’re creating something like a math textbook, where you need to reapply specific character formatting, like fractions or complex equations. In Good Cop, Dead Cop, they’re used for usernames, automatically putting them in boldface.
Use stylesheets despite the pain
Stylesheets are very powerful and confusing. For instance, styles can be based on other styles, which has stepping on a butterfly implications. And styles can “call” other styles. In the “first” paragraph example, you can define the style so that the next paragraph you type will drop back to the Normal style. And stylesheets can be copied from other documents.
But despite the complexity of stylesheets, I strongly urge you to use them unless you enjoy spending a lot of time needlessly selecting paragraphs whenever you need to reformat.
And stylesheets are absolutely essential for things like generating Tables of Content (the Heading 1 style, which corresponds to the <h1> tag, should be used for all chapter heading paragraphs).
On to Dreamweaver
The styles applied in Word documents can be used in Dreamweaver HTML files if the Word stylesheets are spelled identically to the corresponding Cascading Style Sheets applied to the HTML files. I’ll address that in an upcoming article.