Hard return, soft return… still not my fault.


Today I would like to address all of you clients out there: you wonderful, creative people that pay my bills and keep me happily busy. I need to talk to you about an issue that often gets confused as a formatting one, and I need to show you that you’re wrong. It’s not a formatting issue. It’s a grammatical issue. And I need to tell you this so as to avoid future arguments, misunderstandings, and demands for reimbursement. Oh, and hard feelings. I hate the hard feelings the most.

I’m talking about paragraph returns.

1. What exactly *is* a paragraph return? Well, it’s that handy little thing that happens when you hit the enter or return button on your keyboard after typing a sentence, a word, or just a string of gibberish. If you are trained to type the way I was, you’ll usually hit it with your right pinky. Go ahead, reach that pinky over… find it yet? Yeah. It’s right there.

Try typing something and hit the button. Your cursor jumped to the next line, didn’t it! Just like that you suddenly went from one line to another: this is how paragraph returns – and thus paragraphs in themselves – are born. Happy birthday little paragraph!

2. So what are paragraph returns for anyway? They break up monotonous thoughts and are the reason why when you are reading something by L. Ron Hubbard, his books don’t read like an untranslated version of the Holy Bible. It is considered good grammar to know when and where to break your paragraphs up.

For example: let’s just say that I’m typing along here and I want to talk to you about llamas. Well I know llamas are fluffy, and I know that their coats are used in the making of cashmere. Cashmere is considered a luxury item by some, especially poor people like myself. I can only think of one time in my life that I ever had anything cashmere. It was a cashmere sweater given to me by my boyfriend’s mother. I got to wear it one time, and then my mother – who knew nothing about cashmere – washed it and threw it in the dryer. When she was done with my sweater, I gave it to the little girl who lived across the street. It turns out that Bugs Bunny was right. Cashmere really does shrink a lot when washed wrong, and once that happens you can never wear your clothes again. These days I try not to buy any wool, and when I get cotton it’s always preshrunk. I like blue in cotton. That’s pretty.

That paragraph is a mess isn’t it. And even though I paid attention to my periods, proper usage of verbs, nouns and other such articles it’s still a mess. Why? Because the thoughts weren’t broken up properly into paragraphs. Like some nightmare blog filled with run-on sentences, this paragraph doesn’t know when to end.  So let me enter my paragraph returns and see what happens.

Well I know llamas are fluffy, and I know that their coats are used in the making of cashmere. Cashmere is considered a luxury item by some, especially poor people like myself. I can only think of one time in my life that I ever had anything cashmere.

It was a cashmere sweater given to me by my boyfriend’s mother. I got to wear it one time, and then my mother – who knew nothing about cashmere – washed it and threw it in the dryer. When she was done with my sweater, I gave it to the little girl who lived across the street.

It turns out that Bugs Bunny was right. Cashmere really does shrink a lot when washed wrong, and once that happens you can never wear your clothes again.

These days I try not to buy any wool, and when I get cotton it’s always preshrunk. I like blue in cotton. That’s pretty.

And you see, the thoughts were easier to keep track off, follow, and either enjoy or be bored with. The final choice is yours.

3. So what do paragraph returns have to do with formatting? They don’t, usually, and that’s my point. They are a proper grammar device. But they can fool you, those tricksy little paragraph returns, simply by the look of the thing. After all, formatting has to do with determining the final look of the book someone is going to read. And breaking up those paragraphs does indeed change the look of the thing. Why I got four separate paragraphs from one run-on monstrosity.

But even though that bit of the look was affected, the parts that I touch are only slightly dictated by the use of a paragraph return. For example, if you have one paragraph in Gil Sans bold type and the following paragraph in Times New Roman italics and I want it to stay that way, the existence of that paragraph returns enables me to tell the computer to keep things like that. It gets a little complicated from here and I won’t go into it. Just know that in formatting I will rarely add a return when I want to change the look of something.

You would not believe the books I get with hard returns where they don’t belong. I get books with dozens of hard returns in a row so as to move the title of a book to the next page. I get books with extra hard returns in the middle of sentences, at the end of the book, and sometimes it seems those returns are there because someone liked the enter button a little too much.

4. Which brings me to the issue we need to understand about each other. As a formatter, I sometimes end up returning books with paragraph returns in the wrong place. And I’m afraid this isn’t my fault. I’m sorry it happens. I wish it could be avoided. I hate it when it does. But it’s not my fault. Here is why.

I won’t add a return in the middle of a sentence. I won’t add a return just for the sake of adding. I won’t change your grammar at all if possible. I just don’t add returns unnecessarily. I will, however, remove returns from a book.

I remove them when there is a string of them to move text to a new page. I will remove them when they stand between paragraphs. I will remove them from the end of your book.

I will not remove them from the middle of a broken sentence. Why? The biggest reason is because I’m not reading your book while I format. I’m scanning it, I’m making it look pretty, but I am not reading your book. If I stopped to read your book when I formatted, I’d have to charge ten times the amount I charge now to compensate for the lost time. This is why you always have to have your book edited before you sent it for formatting.

The second biggest reason is that I’m not editing your book. Sometimes if I find a paragraph that’s broken in half with a hard return, I’ll do you the favor of fixing the problem. But I am not getting paid to look for those problems, and I’m certainly not getting paid to edit your book.  It’s nothing personal against you or your book, it’s just that as a formatter I often am approached with “Can you get this done within 24 hours?” – which hardly leaves me time to even think about looking for your grammatical errors much less time to fix them all. (Incidentally the rush jobs are usually the ones with the most grammatical errors. Food for thought.)

The third reason is because it’s in my best interest to get your book formatted as quickly as possible. I don’t like to cut corners, and I always will try to do a good job. But I’m not going to do things that will slow me down necessarily. You want your book back before you die of old age. I want to make a decent amount an hour. It’s a win-win situation.

So dear clients, I once again find myself asking you to please – please – get your books edited before you send them to me for formatting.  It’s okay if you miss these little things. It doesn’t make you a bad writer. My own first novel took me ten years of editing to fix, and in the end I had to beg my husband to go through it for me. That’s ten years of going over the thing repeatedly – because as the writer I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. There’s nothing wrong with missing a thing or two. It’s normal. It’s expected. It’s okay.

It does create conflict when you come to your formatter accusing them of not correcting those grammatical mistakes after the fact and expecting them to reformat your entire book for free because you finally took the time to have those mistakes fixed. I know hard returns look like a formatting error, but I promise you they’re not.

In the end it’s all about grammar. Much like the back point of my post.

Thanks for listening.

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