If you read my January 8, 2020 blog you saw I said there were no rules in writing. I also said there were traditions and reasons for certain ways of formatting. Again, these aren’t rules. For one thing, many of the formatting guidelines have changed over the years.
Changes in how writing is published
I won’t go back to the stone-age when stories were chiseled in stone, but many of us still remember the formatting guidelines we followed when stories were typed on a typewriter and typeset, line by line. Back then, to make sure the printed version showed a break after the end of a sentence, the writer needed to put in two (2) spaces, and using a typewriter, when the writer reached the edge of the paper, she or he had to hit the return. To indent, the writer hit the tab or space bar, and to show the typesetter a word was to be in italics, the writer underlined the word. Also, to make sure the editor or reader knew you were starting a new chapter, most books started a third of the way down the page. Pica and Elite were the fonts writers were told to use because they were the easiest to read and were the common typeset.
The computer changed the need to hit the return (enter) at the end of each row of writing, and a vast array of fonts and font sizes became available. The common use of Times New Roman occurred, I think, because it is easy to read and is widely available. With computerized publishing, the typesetter was no longer needed, and because spacing between letters was no longer determined by the size of a dye, that extra space at the end of a sentence wasn’t needed. (And, cutting it out actually saved paper. The difficult part is we who learned on a typewriter had to retrain ourselves to only hit that space bar once.)
Electronic publishing has created new needs. Now a writer/publisher must consider how the words will appear on a variety of devices. The use of the tab to indent doesn’t always translate the same when a font is enlarged or made smaller, so it’s better to let the computer insert a first line indent so it will be consistent from one reader to the next. And even though a writer can hit the enter key multiple times to reach the end of a page and the start of the next (to show a new chapter), those multiple returns will simply leave a blank page when translated by the electronic reader. (So use Insert Page Break to start a new chapter.)
So what’s the correct formatting nowadays?
My best advice is check the publisher’s guidelines. Follow those guidelines. Most want submissions sent electronically, and most will list Times New Roman 12 point, one inch margins. Spacing may differ. Some like single spacing, others prefer double spacing. Do check your “Paragraph” menu and make sure it says 0 pt after a paragraph. If you don’t, you’ll have a large gap between paragraphs. Also, that’s where you can click “First Line” indent. The default is 5”. I have found with e-books that 3” translates nicely.
Look at published examples of what you’re writing. Do they use the flush first line throughout the piece? Is the flush first line only used at the beginning of a chapter or new scene? Or is the indent used throughout the piece? Again, there’s no rule. It’s what is commonly used by that genre or publisher.
It’s easiest if you set up your piece with the correct formatting before you start writing, but if you have to go back and change the formatting, it’s no big deal (other than taking time). Formatting is a tool. The important item is what you’ve written. If it doesn’t make sense, being beautifully formatted isn’t going to matter.