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By Walt Shiel
The short answer is…yes, of course. However, there are numerous cautions you really need to understand. Although Microsoft Word is a great word processing program (although not necessarily the best and certainly not the least expensive), it is a mediocre book layout and typesetting program.
The first caution is that, regardless of the software tool you use, you must take some time to study typesetting and its “rules.” Sure, rules can be stretched and even broken, but if you don’t understand them, you won’t realize when you’re making amateurish mistakes. There are several excellent books on the subject of typography. Two of the best are:
- The Complete Manual of Typography
by James Felici
- The Elements of Typographic Style
by Robert Bringhurst
Felici’s book is an easier read with less esoteric background information. Bringhurst’s book is more suitable for those who really want to understand why professional typographers do things the way they do and how the common rules and standards have evolved (he does, however, tend to cling to some “rules” that are far from standard practice today). You can probably find at least one of these books in your local library, although I think Felici’s book would be a great addition to your publishing library and one to which you will likely refer regularly.
Another really important caution concerning MS Word as a typesetting tool is that you’re going to have to delve deeply into its options and preferences to make it yield a final product even close to a professionally typeset book. Why? Because Word’s default settings simply will not do the job.
Here are just a few examples of Word’s poor default settings:
- Font (more properly called typeface) — Times New Roman is a really poor choice for a printed book (it was designed for the narrow columns of a newspaper, but even they rarely use it anymore), it’s too narrow and thin and is particularly poor when printed digitally (like all the print-on-demand book printers). And it’s default 10 pt size is probably going to be too small.
- Hyphenation — Word’s default settings tend to result in too many words split at the end of lines, which quickly becomes annoying to a reader (even if they don’t recognize why they’re finding it annoying).
- Letter Spacing — Although Word can adjust spacing between letters on-the-fly to achieve your settings for hyphenation and such, it only does it on a line-by-line basis. Professional typesetting programs do this on a paragraph basis, scanning back to previous lines in the paragraph to make minute adjustments that will help with the rest of the paragraph.
The result of those last two problems (hyphenation and letter spacing) is that paragraphs tend to develop what are called “rivers of white” running through them, something that professional typesetting software rarely produces. You can make manual adjustments to correct that problem by inserting optional hyphens and/or soft line breaks, but it can become tedious. (Even with professional software, I always go through the completed book looking for those rivers…but almost never find them.)
If your book is almost exclusively text (like a novel, for example), you can make MS Word suffice, but not until you study one of the books on typography and then experiment with it. If your book has more than a few graphics of any kind (or tables or charts, for that matter), you will soon find some of Word’s little idiosyncrasies frustrating.
For most books, you may find that you are ahead of the game by paying a professional to do the layout and typesetting. Yes, it will cost you — usually in the hundreds of dollars (but could easily exceed $1,000). You will have a more professional product (that will enhance the reader’s experience rather than detract from it) and will have saved yourself a lot of time and headaches. I know, I typeset one novel using MS Word (hey, many of us have to learn the hard way) and vowed never to do it again. Before tackling the next book, I spent the time to read and study typography and book design best-practices and then spent a few months learning to use Adobe InDesign (a phenomenal typesetting and layout program that is just about the industry standard now).
If you really must typeset your book yourself using MS Word, please buy and study Aaron Shepard’s bible on the subject — Perfect Pages — as you will save yourself a lot of false starts. I know and respect Aaron and his expertise, but I don’t agree with him that most people can get professional results from MS Word. But, if you insist, please do follow his advice.
The real answer to the question of whether MS Word is a satisfactory solution for typesetting and layout of a book is that it depends on:
- Your book and its contents
- Your willingness to learn as much as possible about typesetting and MS Word
- How important a “good” reading experience is to your book and its intended audience
As always, the choice is yours. Just make certain you understand the ramifications of that choice.
Walt Shiel is the Managing Partner and Publishing Mentor at Five Rainbows Services for Authors & Publishers, a subsidiary of Slipdown Mountain Publications where he serves as Publisher. Besides offering a full range of affordable publishing solutions, Five Rainbows can tailor a mentoring program to help you achieve your specific goals for your book! And be sure to check out Walt’s View From the Publishing Trenches blog.