A step-by-step guide to preserving your carefully crafted poetry when moving from manuscript to design

Poetry Manuscript Preparation

So you’re a poet?! You have been carefully crafting your words, rearranging stanzas for months and years, until you’ve perfected their meaning and rhythm on the page. Every little word, space, line break and punctuation mark has been set with intention … but you’re moving into the design phase and that’s all about to be ruined when you move from your large letter sized manuscript to a much narrower page size. Let’s chat about poetry manuscript preparation to avoid this frustration.

Where a line breaks in a poem is so integral to the meaning of the poem. Poets are like designers who craft meaning on the page, but many poets don’t consider line length until it’s too late.

A graphic of a book spread showing page layout options based on line length and poetry manuscript preparation

Design difficulties facing poetry layout

You’re ready to publish your book now and are starting to think about the design of your book but you’ve been working in a 8.5” by 11” Microsoft Word or Google Document and now all of a sudden all of your carefully crafted words need to fit into a 6” by 9” book format or even smaller. Now 2 inches or more are getting shaved off of the width of your file and it’s creating havoc on your poems, re-breaking all your lines and pages, creating new unintentional meanings in your poems. 

Why line breaks are so important

Where lines break in poetry is integral to the meaning of a poem. Unlike a novel where lines flow from one to the next in as seamless a manner as possible for a smooth and unbroken reading experience, poems can force line breaks to make the reader pause and think, creating new meaning with their words based on how they are arranged. That is why I’m writing this post! As a book designer, I have worked on many poetry manuscripts where I have had to go back to the poet and notify them of many new line breaks in their work due to transitioning to a narrower trim size thus causing them the headache of rewriting lines that were already painstakingly written, to ensure their meanings are preserved. 

What poets are most affected?

If you write more prose style poems then you are likely to be less affected by this since your poems can just reflow to suit any page width. Poets of micropoetry or those that write in short lines, will also not likely be affected. The short lines will not be broken when the width of the page is reduced. But, if a poet tends to use a mix of long and short lines, or generally speaking, any full page length lines, those are going to be affected when moving the manuscript from a word document into design formatting in InDesign. If this is you, then read the steps below to learn avoid this problem with proper poetry manuscript preparation. 

What you can do about it!

Poetry manuscript preparation of your document prior to writing or while you editing your work will help you avoid the headache of rewriting lines later down the line. Margins, font choice, font size, and page size all make a huge difference on how the poems will appear on the page. To ensure the smoothest design experience, this does take some pre-editing on the part of the poet before sending their manuscript to design, if you didn’t set up your file before you started writing.

Poetry manuscript preparation, step-by-step guide

Follow these steps to ensure your line breaks will not change from your poetry manuscript to its final designed form. Be sure to contact your designer at this stage as well, to confirm that the changes you’re making are accurate for your project. They can provide you with specific page layout details in advance of preparing your manuscript. This will help make the below steps even more precise. 

  1. Determine the page size of your book
    Speak with your designer or publisher about the final trim size.
  2. Create a new version of your file
    Save this new file under a new file name. Never save over your work, as you may want to reference your old file as you’re making these new changes.
  3. Change the page size of your document to match this size
  4. Update your margins
    Set them to approximately 0.85” on the inside, outside, and top, and 1” on the bottom. Your designer will be adjusting the margins when you move into the design stage, but these values should be fairly close to the final design. This spacing helps ensure that your designer will have space for page numbers and a running header or footer if that’s necessary for your design. Note that we usually leave running headers or footers indicating the book title or author name off of poetry since it clutters up the beauty of the page. You can work with your designer to confirm these margins prior to making this change.
  5. Set the font size to 11
  6. Update your font
    Use a fairly standard body copy font like Garamond or Minion. These fonts are fairly close in scale, so size 11 should be suitable. If using other fonts, size 11 should be vastly larger or much smaller in scale thus resulting in different amounts of words that can fit on a line. 
    Don’t worry so much about the styling of the poem names for this practice. Your designer will help you with the design of those.
  7. Ensure your document is single spaced
    If a particular poem needs to be double spaced, then use an extra paragraph return between the lines. The space between lines is another consideration for how many lines can fit on a page. If a poem needs to fit on one page, it’s important to have these parameters set up so we can know early on if it is possible to fit it on a page or if a stanza needs to be pushed onto the next page. Try to ensure the line spacing isn’t too tight or very loose. You can try printing off a sample and compare it to books on your page to see if your spacing is similar to other books you own.
  8. Review your line breaks
    With all of these new parameters in place, the final step is to review your manuscript and see if these changes caused any new line breaks that you’re not happy with. Start top to bottom to see how things have shifted and begin making your edits. 
  9. You’re ready for design!

Note that this isn’t an exact science. When you work with a designer, they will be updating the fonts and margins for the most optimal (and beautiful) design and that could slightly shift things again. But, if you have done the above preparations, you will be in for a much more smooth transition from manuscript to final design with much fewer disruptions to your words. If any line breaks occur during the design process that are not in your manuscript, as your designer, I would flag these to you once I’ve laid out your full manuscript to call them to your attention. However, with all of this initial work done, there should be very few instances that need addressing.

I hope this helps you on your author journey. At fleck creative studio, I always want my authors to have a smooth journey into the world of design and publishing. Knowing the bumps in the road, before you get to them can prepare you for a much less stressful and more fun publishing process. Interested in what fleck creative studio does? Click the link to check out one of our poetry book designs.