How To Clean Up Your Manuscript Formatting In MS Word

If you want to submit your manuscript to an editor, an agent, or a publisher,


If you want to self-publish, and want to be ready for all the ebook & print formatting that come next,

I’ve got some good news!

You can stop googling and ripping your hair out now. Just follow these simple steps to clean up your manuscript.


1. The following things have no place in a manuscript, and must be removed

  1. Tabs
    Many people use Tabs to indent paragraphs, completely unaware that Word has an automatic setting for paragraph indentation to do that for you. They also don’t know that an inserted Tab is like an extra character, a transparent brick that smacks the reader in the head before each paragraph. All ebook & print book formatters will reject your manuscript if you have Tabs inside.
  2. Double spaces
    A remnant of old-school formatting akin to typewriters. Some writers still insert a double space after each sentence. Stop that. We’re in the 21st century now.
  3. Empty lines between paragraphs
    You’ve probably read too many hideously formatted company newsletters to want that extra line there.
    If you want your paragraphs to be spaced out while you’re getting your creative groove on, fine, but use Word’s paragraph spacing function, don’t just hit [return] like a spastic monkey.
  4. Multiple punctuation
    Why would you even do that?! It’s fucking annoying!!!!! It’s also a pain to clean up……

If your document is riddled with those, it might look something like this (Comic Sans font intentional; paragraph marks shown to make Tabs & extra spaces visible):

Vero Formatting - 1

How do you go about removing all this dead wook from your document?

Find & Replace

I love this little function.

Copy paste the thing you want to remove* (like a Tab, a double space, a tripple hyphen (what? I use those instead of em-dashes in Scrivener because that’s why, shut up)) and paste it into the Find field, using Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V on your keyboard.

Enter nothing in the Replace field if you want the pesky item removed.

Hit Replace All.

Rinse and repeat if need be.

* You can also use special characters as stand-ins for Tabs & empty paragraphs in the Find & Replace function.
– for Tab, type ^t in the Find field, and leave the Replace field empty;
– for an empty paragraph, type ^p^p in the Find field, and ^p in the Replace field.


2. Strip all wonky formatting from your text without losing your italics

I’ve read dozens of articles online telling writers to copy-paste their entire novel into a plain text editor (like Notepad) to remove unwanted formatting, then to paste it back. DON’T DO THIS! It will also remove your italics, and going through a 100K manuscript to italicize names again, or swearwords or whatever, is insanely hard. You don’t need that migraine.

The easiest way to clean all wonky formatting from your text, is to use Word’s “Clear Formatting” function, in the Home tab, under Font settings. It looks something like this:

Vero Formatting - Clear Formatting

Here’s how you avoid losing your italics along with everything else.

Word’s Clear Formatting function erases all formatting from a text, ALL of it, except highlights. So all you have to do is replace all your italics with highlights. How?

Find & Replace

Told you I love this function. πŸ™‚

1. Open the Find & Replace dialog, and click on >>More. You’ll see something like this:

Vero Formatting - Find and Replace

2. Click into the Find field, and now tell Word what to find for you, i.e. all italicised words. For that, click on Format / Font at the bottom, in the “Replace” section. Now you’ll see this:
Vero Formatting - Find and Replace - Font

3. In the Font style section, select Italic. The AaBbCcYyZz thingy at the bottom will now be italicised. Click OK. You’ll be returned to the Find & Replace dialog.

4. Now click into the Replace field, and tell Word what to replace your italics with, i.e. highlights. Click on Format / Highlight at the bottom. Click OK.  You’ll be returned to the Find & Replace dialog, but now, under the Find field you’ll see “Format: Font: Italic,” and under the Replace field you’ll see “Format: Highlight.”

5. Hit Replace All.

All your previously italicized words are now also highlighted*.

* If you want to remove the italics in the same move, you must select Format / Font / Font style = regular in the Replace field. It’s unnecessary though, because the next stept will un-italicize your manuscript anyway.

NEXT, select your entire manuscript text by hitting Ctrl+A and click that magic button I told you about: Clear Formatting.

Your manuscript will now look like this (remember we removed all the dead wood like Tabs and multiple punctuation in the previous step):

Vero Formatting - 2

6. Now you open Find & Replace again, and, following the steps above, replace all your highlights with italics again.

VoilΓ !


3. Clean up Word’s annoying in-house paragraph formatting

Oh, Microsoft, Microsoft. Why you be such a pain, eh?

The Clear Formatting fucntion does indeed remove all our formatting, but then it slaps Word’s in-house formatting preference on top of our text. To eliminate it, we must reset the paragraph formatting by hand.

No, not by using Find & Replace! What are you smoking?

Select your entire text using Ctrl+A. Then go to your Home tab, and open the Paragraph Formatting dialog. It should look something like this:

Vero Formatting - Paragraph Formatting


Now make sure paragraph spacing before & after are both zero; line spacing is Single, there’s no special indentation, no checkbox selected, no anvils lying around and no naked ogres. Hit OK.

Your manuscript is now all clean and shiny, and ready to be formatted for submission & publication.


Vero Formatting - 3

You’re welcome. πŸ™‚


Published by Veronica Sicoe

Science Fiction Author β€” I deliver the aliens.

33 thoughts on “How To Clean Up Your Manuscript Formatting In MS Word

  1. That is one of the best lists I have seen. Most go into such detail you spend an hour just on the tabs corrections section. Thank you.
    I wanted to add, all of these tips work equally as well in Libreoffice for those of us who prefer writing in that instead.


    1. If you look online, the information is all over the place, mixed with really bad advice, useless steps, etc…. Having it all in one place is super useful.
      That’s why I wrote this post, really. For my own reference . πŸ˜€


  2. Brilliant! Thank you, Vero! Now I have to think of a good place to save this. I know this list can save me and others a lot of work (and headaches.)


  3. Why not have a set up template which will automatically have a lot of the above automatically set up? You can either have it set as default (open each times you use word) or as a template that opens up without affecting the original document.
    Hmm … methinks I may do a blog entry on this.
    Best, IDS.


    1. Of course it’s easier if you use a ready-formatted template from the start. But most writers don’t. Or they use other word processors and export their project into Word at the end for ebook conversion. This post is meant to describe how to clean up a MS that’s already messy. πŸ™‚


  4. It brings me back to the memories of University time. Using LaTeX for writing reports. All formatting was defined and wherever you refereed to it, the definition was used.
    Any editor could be used. You didn’t think about formatting at all, you just defined what you where writing. At the end the text was formatted according to your definitions. Simply brilliant. Of course this was before Word and Microsoft.

    Anyway, thanks for the tips. I don’t use LaTeX anymore – not at university.


  5. Veronica

    You’re kinda brilliant. Thanks for this and the companion post on Smashwords formatting. Just the rest of the internet to bring up to this standard now. Power to your elbow.


  6. Thank you so much for this. I’d been paying to have my manuscripts formatted. I don’t mind paying for something I don’t how to do-but I just knew there had to be a way to do this myself. This has been a god send.


  7. Hi Veronica
    Thank you for the tips. Sounds like something I can do myself instead of paying somebody else to do the formatting. Does the above formatting work for publishing via Amazon Kindle? I want to go through Amazon first, then Smashwords later. Thank you.
    – First time author


    1. Hi Margaret! I’m glad you liked my post. You can totally use this how-to guide to get your manuscript ready for publication with Amazon. However, you still have fo format it, as this is just a means to clean it before formatting.
      I’ve written a how-to post for formatting as well, and it’s really not that hard.

      The final step after you format it, is to save your manuscript as a “Web Page, filtered (htm, html)” file β€” right from your Word’s “Save as” function. Just select the folder you want to save it in, and change the format from the format dropdown below the naming field.
      Upload the resulting HTML file to Amazon > and you’re done. πŸ™‚

      Of course there’s tons more you could do with it, but this should cover the basics.

      Wish you luck!


  8. The clear formatting option to save italics didn’t work for me. The highlights didn’t show, either in the setup box or in the document. When i searched for highlights is showed NONE. ??anyone know why this might happen??


    1. Sorry to hear it didn’t work out right away, Kelli. Did you make sure it says “italics” under the FIND field, and “highlights” under the REPLACE field before you hit Replace All? That’s the tricky part – making sure Word knows exactly what to replace with what. Test it out a few times in a test document (not your MS) until you get the hang of this pesky software. It will work eventually, I promise! (there are also a bunch of tutorial about the Replace function on youtube, perhaps you find one suited for your version of Word) GOOD LUCK!


  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I tried in vain to get my first short story (The Visitor) posted to Smashwords last year and I received so many error notices that I finally gave up and kept it on Amazon exclusively.

    I am now in the process of preparing to publish my second short story (Alibi Interrupted) in August and again I dabbled with Smashwords. As soon as I received the first error message I threw up my hands, searched for help online, found this blog post, applied your advice, and guess what? It worked!!!!!!!!!!!!

    But of course, you already know it works.

    I can’t thank you enough for your helpful advice so I thought I’d give you a dozen exclamation points (see above) since you like them so much. Don’t worry, I don’t use them in the stories I write. Just consider them to be like a bouquet of grammar roses (upside down of course).

    Seriously though, thanks for this article. It helped tremendously.

    J.L. Pattison


      1. Ok, Veronica, I’ve encountered a quandary that I’m having difficulty finding an answer to.

        Here’s my problem: I see a million and one articles and blog posts claiming to help authors format their manuscript for Smashwords, all of which say that Smashwords doesn’t accept tabs (or a myriad of other MS Word formatting) but no one is giving advice to authors on how to then add indents, add page breaks, center titles/chapters numbers, etc. to their manuscripts after all these things have been stripped out.

        Once I remove all the sinister Word formatting from my document, I’m now left without any paragraph separations and page breaks, and all my titles and chapter numbers are on the left side of my page. It looks like a jumbled mess.

        And since following your advice from this article, I’m now afraid to mess with my manuscript as I don’t want to accidentally add an errant tab somewhere and meet with the ire of the Smashwords formatting gatekeepers.

        Any advice? I’m willing to send two-dozen exclamation roses.

        – Writer pulling out his hair
        (formerly known as J.L. Pattison)


      2. Hey J.L. Don’t panic, it’s all going to work out just fine, with a little digging into the settings.
        You should find all you need to do the basic formatting for your MS here > How To Format Your Novel For Smashwords, including how to define your indents.

        Keep your cool, and make plenty of backups. That’s my motto, anyway. πŸ˜›

        Good luck!


  10. I got everything done and it worked great, but the highlight color stayed at the end. No idea how to get rid of it. I thought it would vanish when I was done. Any ideas?


  11. OMG! Thanks so much! My manuscript has been driving me crazy for months now. I had no idea just how wrong I was doing things in Word- using tabs throughout. You made the instructions easy. Again my many thanks.


  12. Thank you for this! I’ve submitted three different works to Smash and two of them keep getting bounced back πŸ˜›

    Let’s see what happens THIS time around!


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