The First Novel Mambo: Print Layout

This is going to be a long one, friends. Buckle up! Writing a book can be difficult–anyone who’s tried to do it can attest to that fact. But laying out that book for print, especially if it isn’t something you do every day, can fill your soul with rage.

There are a ton of little fiddly rules that mean you’re going to have to nudge, adjust, wiggle, and poke at things until they sit just right on the page. All the way through the book, from front to back. And if you need to go back and correct something early in the book, that good ol’ butterfly effect may mean you have to make those adjustments all over again.

I’m very fortunate to have a copy of Adobe InDesign on hand, although I understand that it’s possible to lay out your book in Microsoft Word as well. It just takes a lot more work, and a lot more tinkering.

Let’s take a look at a number of headaches you’ll need to consider when laying out your book for print:


There’s a temptation, when using a print-on-demand system, to make the margins small. After all, the narrower the margins, the fewer pages you’ll use! Since POD prices are tied directly to the number of pages, it means you can charge a buck less or so!

In my first print proof, I had margins that were 0.4 inches on the outside. And the top margin was about 0.25 inches. Take a look here–compare them to the professionally laid out book underneath, and you’ll see why I re-did the entire layout with wider margins.

comparing margins

I read somewhere that the goal is for the reader to be able to hold the book and not have their thumb block any of the text. I really liked the sound of that.

You’ll also need a larger margin on top, because of the header up there. In my book, I went with the title on one side, author’s name on the other, page numbers on both (except in certain circumstances, which I’ll discuss in a moment).

Oh, and you’ll need a wider margin in the gutter, too! The gutter is the inside margin–the right side of the left-hand page, and the left side of the right-hand page. Because of the way the pages are bound together, you need some extra space in there, so the reader doesn’t have to crack the spine of your book in half in order to read the entire page.


Open up any novel you have on hand. It’ll have the author’s name, the title of the book, and page numbers on most pages. Sometimes it’ll be the chapter title instead of the title of the book or the author’s name. If it’s a collection of short stories, it might be the name of the current story instead of the title of the book. But almost every book you open up will have some sort of identifying information at the tops of the pages.

Some books will put the text (author name, book title, etc.) along the top, and page numbers on the bottom. That was one more confusing step than I wanted to take. Besides which, if page numbers on the top are good enough for Scott’s pro-printed books, they’re good enough for me. So I rolled with everything along the top, and I’m happy with that choice.

Headers like that would be easy, if they were consistent throughout the book. But of course, they aren’t. There are certain exceptions where you don’t have the headers. The exceptions are:

* Title pages and copyright pages in the front don’t have any of that header information. And the page numbering starts with the first page of the actual story.

* Blank pages don’t have header information on them.

* The first page of each chapter doesn’t have header information.

That leads us into the next thing to consider:


Did you know that new chapters should start on the right-hand page? I didn’t even think about that, but sure enough, pick up most books, and that’ll be the case.

And since your page numbering will start with the first page of the first chapter, that means that odd-numbered pages are always on the right, and chapters always start on odd-numbered pages.

If you have a chapter that ends on a right-hand page, then the very next left-hand page is left blank, so that the following chapter can start on the right.

(Some will say it’s OK to start a new chapter on the left. But if you flip through the professionally printed novels on your bookshelf, you’ll see that the majority follow this right-side method. I’m sticking with the majority on this one.)

The whole blank pages/first page of a chapter having no header is where Microsoft Word users will run into difficulties. You’ll get into having several header sections, changing to a new header section each time you go from having a header to having no header. With InDesign, at least, you can apply headers to the entire document, then delete them only on the specific pages (blank lefts or new chapter rights) that shouldn’t have them.

Also, did you know that the first paragraph of a new chapter isn’t indented? Same goes for sections within a chapter. Go ahead, look at books on your shelf. I’d never noticed it, but sure enough, it’s usually the case.


You have pretty much two choices for justification: ragged right or flush/justified.

This blog post, for example, is ragged right–all of the text is lined up neatly on the left margin, but on the right margin, it’s mayhem. Lines end wherever, nothing’s squared up. Chaos!

You could do ragged right in your novel, but I bet most of the stuff on your bookcase is flush (aka justified)–both the left side and right side have the text touching the margin, giving you a solid rectangle on each page.

(The exception is the ending of a paragraph, which ends wherever it is. Especially if it’s a short last line–stretching it all the way over to the right would be really weird-looking.)


You can set either Word or InDesign to take long words and break them into two if they show up at the end of a line. I personally don’t like hyphenation, so I always leave it turned off.

That’s not to say you won’t find some hyphen breaks in my book, but they always occur in a word that already has a hyphen. “Self-assured,” “pre-sorted,” that sort of thing. What I’m turning off is the kind of break like “justifi-cation.”

This one could really go either way. I’ve read some professionals who insist on hyphenation. I’ve read others who hate it. Those who use it don’t like the “rivers of white” that can appear when the spacing between words gets too large. On the flip side, one of the big arguments against hyphenation is that it can feel like every other line of text (or sometimes several in a row) all end in a hyphen, which distracts the eye as well.

I personally can’t stand the look of hyphens, and find they interrupt my reading much more than rivers of white, so I turned hyphenation off. I think my line spacing and font size keep the white space to a minimum.

Font, Font Size, and Line Spacing

This is a toughie, and there’s a lot of personal choice involved. What font should you use? What size should it be? And bear in mind, a size 12 in one font can be significantly larger or smaller than a size 12 in another.

Culled from various sources on the internet, it appears that some of the most frequently-used fonts in publishing include: Garamond, Minion, Caslon, Dante, Palatino, and Electra. Most of those are in the 10-12 point size range. (I chose Minion for my novel, because it’s a book with superheroes. Seemed the obvious choice.)

You don’t often see books set in sans-serif fonts, even though they can be easier to read for a lot of people. I can only recall a couple of books I’ve read in the last few years printed in sans-serif, and they were both young adult novels. If you want to be safe, stick with a good serif font (and probably not Times New Roman, which has a reputation as the font of choice for self-publishers. Plus, I feel like it gives the impression of being a report for work, not a novel.)

Line spacing is how much white space appears between the lines of text. It’s usually around 120 to 130 percent of the font size, so if you have a font size of 12 points, line spacing of 15 points (125%) would mean three points of blank white space between the bottom of one line and the top of the next.

Even though you could use a smaller font and tighter line spacing to make your novel take up fewer pages (and in turn, cost less), you run the chance of it being harder to read. I’d rather have 10 more pages than have a book that you have to squint at to read.

The best thing you can do is print out a test page and see how easy it is to read. And compare it to books on your bookshelf that you find especially easy on the eyes, to see what kind of adjustments you need to make.

Widows and Orphans

I’d never heard of widows and orphans until I started researching book layout. And the funny thing is, people are divided as to what particular problems are called what.

There are three things that fall under the widows/orphans names: the first line of a new paragraph at the very bottom of the page (with the rest of the paragraph on the next page); the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page (with the rest of the paragraph on the previous page); and a paragraph that ends with a single short word.

Of those three, the first two are kind of lumped together. And it goes back and forth as to which is a widow and which is an orphan. The last one isn’t mentioned by everyone, but when it is, it’s called an orphan (and the first two are both called widows).

Really, you could call them whatever you want to. (We could refer to them as Firsties, Lasties, and Teenies if we so choose.) Here are examples:

widows and orphans - first line of a paragraph

The first line of a new paragraph ending a page. Sometimes called a widow, sometimes an orphan.

widows and orphans - last line of a paragraph

The last line of a paragraph starting a page. Sometimes called a widow, sometimes an orphan.

orphans - tiny final word of a paragraph

A paragraph that ends with a short single word. Sometimes called an orphan. These aren’t necessarily always bad; it depends on the size of the word. A two- or three-letter word stands out a lot more (and makes it look like you’ve double-spaced between paragraphs), while a longer word might not be a problem at all. Most opinions are to only deal with them if the word is shorter than the indentation on the next line.

Now, some will say that widows are OK, but orphans must go. Others will say that orphans are OK, but widows must go. I say: they can all be kind of weird-looking. And if you’re laying out your own work, odds are you can make adjustments within your text so that you can get rid of all of your problems. Changing a couple of words here or there can make all the difference–replace “automobile” with “car,” or “dog” with “German shepherd,” and you might be able to add or subtract enough from a sentence to bump a line up or down.

Both InDesign and Word have settings for automatically avoiding orphans and widows. In Word, there’s a checkbox for “Widow/Oprhan Control”. In InDesign, I believe there’s a “Keep” setting–change it to 2, and it will always keep at least 2 lines together at the top or bottom of a page.

But I don’t trust either of those, primarily because they’ll both then result in an imbalance between facing pages (which, to my eye, is a much worse sin than orphans or widows). The automatic settings might shove the first line of a new paragraph to the next page, so that if you open the book and look, the left-hand page will have 32 lines of text, and the right-hand page will have 31 lines. Most sources agree that looks pretty unprofessional, and is something to avoid.

So, possible fixes for widows and orphans:

* Rewriting bits of text to change the length of sentences
* Breaking larger paragraphs into two smaller paragraphs (or combining two smaller paragraphs into one larger)
* Bumping a line from BOTH facing pages, so that the left and right both have 31 lines, then on the next page they both have 32
* Tightening or loosening the space between lines (could make things look wonky)
* Tightening or loosening the space between letters in a line (could also make things look wonky)

This was the part of they layout that had the most trial and error for me. I used the first three options in my list, because when you make your letters and lines closer together, they can make the whole page appear darker than the facing page, because there’s more text crammed in there.

(I will point out here that a paragraph that’s actually just a single line, like a short line of dialog, is perfectly OK as either the last line of a page or the first line of a page. It doesn’t count as a widow/orphan. Like the cheese, it can stand alone.)

Now let’s take a look at the same text on two sample pages, and the changes from the one to the other:

Layout with errors

layout corrected

1. This is the first page of a new chapter, so it shouldn’t have the header information there.

2. Since this is the first page of a new chapter, it would appear in the printed book on the right-hand side. And all right-hand side pages should be odd-numbered. So the numbering is off somewhere in this book.

2.5: Not numbered, but I did that header in Comic Sans. Please, please, don’t use Comic Sans inside your book or on the cover.

3. The first line of a new chapter shouldn’t be indented. (Ditto the first line after a section break.)

4. This one uses ragged right justification. Comparing the two, the flush text on the adjusted page looks much more professional.

5. Something I didn’t cover above: two different speakers having dialog in the same paragraph can be confusing. Always start a new paragraph when someone new is speaking.

6. Going back to dialog attribution in a previous post, I changed “said Bob” and “replied Jane” to “Bob said” and “Jane said.” The name should almost always go first (because if you change it to a pronoun, “said he” sounds like a pirate is narrating) and Jane is clearly already replying. No novel ever tanked because the word “said” was used in most of the dialog attribution.

7. Sometimes called an orphan, here’s a tiny word making up the last line of a paragraph. It makes it feel like there’s a double-space between paragraphs. I deleted one three-letter word earlier in the paragraph, and it pulled this lonely teenie guy up.

8. This is either a widow or an orphan, depending on who you’re talking to: the first line of a new paragraph at the bottom of a page. Fortunately, in dealing with #7, it automatically pulled another line of text up and solved the problem for us!

WHEW! That’s a LOT of information I’ve just thrown at you. I’m sure I’ve missed some things, but I think I’ve touched on most of the stuff that I had to learn about in order to put together the inside of my novel. Was it a huge pain in the butt? You bet it was. But I’m satisfied with the end product, and that’s the most important thing.

Are there any other parts of self-publishing you’d like to know more about? Let me know, and I’ll write up my experience with them.

We Could Be Villains
Check out my new novel, We Could Be Villains!

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  1. omg – in the 90s I was a typographer/interior book designer for Hazelden (yes the drug rehab place) Publishing. I interned under their Art Director. Because of all of that, I generally shudder when I see self-published/typeset stuff. Because no one knows what makes a page readable. You’ve done your work! It’s exciting to see to a nerdy-type like me!

    Good job on the book as well.

    I rediscovered you little missy. I read you a while back and saw your url in my stats so wandered on over! You are now in my Feedly.


    missy Reply:

    Thanks, Deborah! Yeah, I’ve seen some terribly formatted self-pubbed stuff. I figured if I was going to do it, I’d learn as much as I could before I did.


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