Part 01. White-space characters and formatting

The first step to take to understand the structure of your document is to enable or show white-space characters, also referred to as hidden/formatting/nonprinting/invisible characters.

What they are: invisible characters that your word processor places in your document to give it its format and that don’t appear when printing.

They exist whether you want them or not, but seeing them when editing is invaluable. Usually, they are the thin blue symbols that appear everywhere. You might find them distracting at first, but they can help you figure out what’s making your text behave in odd ways.

Enabling white-space characters

Not all word processing applications will give you the option to enable white-space characters, and they’re referred to differently in menu options: hidden characters, formatting characters, nonprinting characters, invisible characters.

We all use different apps for writing. Different apps offer different functionality, and it entirely depends on your needs and circumstances. For many of us, Microsoft Word or Google Docs are the tools used inside your organization, and therefore become the default.

My writing app of choice is Scrivener. For publishing documents, I use InDesign or sometimes simply Sketch. I’ve used Word and Pages in the past very successfully. All these writing apps feature the option to enable white-space characters, and they’ve been incredibly useful.

However, most of my work is done with Google Docs, as it’s the standard used at my workplace. White space characters aren’t (yet) included in the feature set for this app, and I often have more trouble formatting documents due to being unable to understand what is happening with the layout.

Formatting and Style Guides

The Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Styleguide, the MLA handbook, and the APA Publication Manual are all examples of large bodies of work that go over thousands of details concerning formatting, punctuation and referencing. They’re not free, however, although higher learning institutions may have these available to students and alumni.

Otherwise, the following ressources are available on the Web and can be incredibly useful for your publications.

Butterick’s Practical Typography: an incredible collection of typography, formatting and layout principles

Termium Canada: a chapter on punctuation in Canadian English.

The Punctuation Guide: detailed explanations on how to correctly use punctuation in English.

Whatever your professor or employer says…

Follow it.

It’s not worth using these chapters or other style guides to argue with them about proper formatting and punctuation. Especially if you have something to lose from doing so. Discuss it with them prior to writing. Ask about precisions and which style guide to follow.