Self Publish Your Novel Part 6: Getting Your Manuscript Into Shape

This post is part of a series of posts about self-publishing. I’m revising my book Self Publish Your Novel and posting the chapters as I finish them. If you’d like to be alerted when the new version of Self Publish Your Novel is available, please click here.





This isn’t a writing book, per se. I’m not going to give you a lot of advice about writing dialog, or creating dramatic tension, or any of a dozen aspects of fiction writing that have already been covered in books written by more respected authors than I. For that matter, I’m also not going to give you a lot of rah-rah motivational advice about sticking with it and overcoming your doubts. If you need a book like that, feel free to buy one. This isn’t it.

I do, however, want to cover the basics of getting your manuscript ready for publication. As a self-published author, there are a few matters to address that you wouldn’t have to worry about if you were going with a traditional publisher.


Microsoft Word

Most likely you’re going to end up using one of two Word processing applications (and possibly both) to write your novel: Microsoft Word or Scrivener.

Microsoft Word is available as a standalone application or as part of the Office suite. There are cheaper, open source alternatives to Word, like OpenOffice and LibreOffice, but none of these are very good in my opinion. Ultimately, it’s hard to get away from using Word completely, even if you use another app, like Scrivener, to do most of your actual writing.

Word isn’t really designed for novel-writing. There’s no way in MS Word, for example, to easily track your progress against an outline, or to examine one particular character’s story arc separate from the rest of the book. But there are some ways to make writing a novel easier in Word. One is to download a novel template. Most POD companies (like Createspace) have these available as free downloads. If you’ve already started your novel, don’t worry: just create a new document using the template and then copy and paste the contents of your original document. Make sure the template that you’re using uses the page size that you have selected for the book. It also helps to be somewhat familiar with styles and stylesheets. Stylesheets are a huge timesaver if you want to do something like change the font face of all the chapter headings in your novel. You can also use the auto-numbering feature to create a style for chapter headings that automatically inserts the correct chapter numbers (either spelled out or in numerals). This even works if you insert a new chapter between, say, chapters seven and eight: Word will make the new chapter number eight and renumber all the chapters after that. Very handy.

One more bit of advice, if you’re using Word: don’t worry too much about page headers, page breaks, or page numbers until you’re very close to being done. I guarantee that these are going to get screwed up somewhere along the way, so you might as well save this fight for the end. I’ll cover this more in the chapter on formatting.


Scrivener is an application specifically designed for writing novels and other long, creative works. It’s relatively inexpensive and is now available for both PC and Mac. The Word processing features aren’t as robust as Word, and when you’re done writing you’re most likely going to have to make some tweaks in Word to get the formatting right (if you’re publishing a paperback, at least; formatting ebooks is much simpler).

I appreciate the organizational aspects of Scrivener and many novelists swear by it. After writing one novel in it, however, I’ve gone back to using Word exclusively. Which one you prefer is going to depend on your particular creative style. If you can only afford one, I’d recommend Word, because its native document format is the closest thing to a universal standard for novel manuscripts.


Copyright is a form of legal protection that makes it illegal for people to sell or otherwise distribute your work without your permission. Contrary to popular belief, your work is automatically copyrighted from the moment it is created. Proving that the work is yours, however, is another matter entirely. That’s where copyright registration comes in. Copyright registration is a service offered by the Library of Congress (in the U.S., obviously. If you’re in another country, you’ll have to look into how to register a copyright.). The Library of Congress does not grant you a copyright; it simply records it. For more information on copyrights, go to

To indicate that your novel is copyrighted, you should include a copyright notice at the beginning of the book. This consists of the © symbol (or the word copyright), along with the year the content was created and your name, for example:


© 2016 Robert Kroese. All rights reserved.


You do not need to register your copyright, although it’s probably a good idea. I will admit that I haven’t bothered to register the copyrights for any of my self-published work, because I’m not particularly worried about someone trying to claim that I don’t own it. I have plenty of proof that I wrote my books, if it comes down to it. Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend that you register your own copyrights. And don’t bother to use the “poor man’s copyright” – which consists of mailing yourself the manuscript in a registered letter. Save yourself the postage; this method has no legal validity. If you want to formally register a copyright, you have to do it through the Library of Congress.

Spell Check and Grammar Check

The spell check and grammar check functions built into word processors are great tools – within limits. The main problem with using them while writing a novel is that you are probably going to intentionally violate just about every rule of grammar and include scores of words that aren’t in the word processor’s dictionary. If your dialog resembles actual human speech at all, almost every line of it is going to contain a sentence fragment, double negative, incorrect verb conjugation, and any of a hundred other “errors.” And you’re probably going to use all sorts of proper names and colloquialisms (like “whassup!” or “sonofabitch!” that aren’t officially recognized words. Your manuscript is going to have so much green and red in it that you could hang it on the wall for Christmas. The other problem with grammar check in particular is that it is often just plain wrong. I have to think that the confusion about it’s and its stems at least in part from Word suggesting the wrong one. If you doubt me, try typing this sentence in word: I know its sort of mischief well. (For the record, it’s is a contraction of it is; its is possessive.)

A good rule of thumb is never to accept a suggested grammatical change unless you understand why your word processor is suggesting it. If you can’t remember whether to use its or it’s, do not take Word’s word for it! Look it up. Write down the rule. Internalize it. Yes, fiction is all about breaking rules, but there’s a huge difference between intentionally breaking a rule and breaking a rule out of sheer ignorance. Read Huck Finn sometime and ask yourself whether Twain just was a little fuzzy on the rules of grammar or whether he had an uncannily precise grasp on grammar which he then willfully disregarded. (An example of Word’s overzealous grammar correction: it wants me to correct Twain to twain, because it doesn’t understand that I’m using it as a proper noun. When does anyone use the word twain these days, Word?)

Word highlights so many spelling “errors” in my writing that I used to just ignore them or turn off spell-check, but I realized that this was causing me to miss actual errors. Now I add names and other made-up or nonstandard words to the spell checker’s dictionary as I go (just right-click the word and select Add to Dictionary). My spell check now recognizes words like Izbazel, Uzziel, and Gamaliel. So now when Word underlines a word in red, there’s a good chance that it’s an actual, unintentional misspelling.

Tricks to Catch Errors

Here are a few more tricks to catching errors: First, print out your manuscript. By the time you’re done writing you will probably have re-read most of your novel at least three or four times, and it’s going to be very difficult to force yourself to re-read it thoroughly another time on a computer screen. The transition to hard copy will help your brain think of the manuscript as something “new” that it needs to pay careful attention to, rather than something it’s already bored with.

Reading your manuscript aloud is another way to catch errors as well as awkwardly phrased sentences. If you still find yourself missing problems when reading aloud (or your spouse is giving you funny looks), another good tactic is to mark each word with a pencil tick as you read it. This is frankly an excruciating way to read, and I’ve never been able to make myself do it for very long, but you will catch mistakes this way.

Your last line of defense is your beta readers. Having several pairs of fresh eyes look over your manuscript is priceless. I usually have five or six people look over my manuscripts, and I deliberately select a wide range of readers, as different sorts of readers will give you different sorts of feedback. One of my readers, for example, is obsessed with grammar. Another is a more high-brow literary sort. Another is a sci-fi geek who gets nearly all of my obscure pop culture references (and often suggests more of his own). If all of these people like something, I know it’s gold. And if two or more of them aren’t keen on a particular passage, I know I’ve got to fix it.

Part of being an author, of course, is knowing when to fix things and when to leave them be. Call it confidence or egotism, but sometimes you just have to figure that you know better than an individual beta reader (although if two of them independently agree that something is a problem, I always fix it). You are the final authority.


This post is part of a series of posts about self-publishing. I’m revising my book Self Publish Your Novel and posting the chapters as I finish them. If you’d like to be alerted when the new version of Self Publish Your Novel is available, please click here.

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1 Comment on Self Publish Your Novel Part 6: Getting Your Manuscript Into Shape

  1. Do you also have to get an ISBN and LOC# (Library of Congress Number)?

    A tip for proofreading: Proof pages bottom to top. It works!

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