The Case of the Mysterious ¶ or Things Your Creative Writing Instructor Never Told You


Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I taught creative writing despite believing then (and now) that creative writing cannot be taught. So I’m a hypocrite. And since we’re being honest here, (aren’t we?) I’ll admit it was a course in writing the romantic novel, something I’d done a lot of in those days. I needed the money, or at least the strokes, so I taught the course. And occasionally I got lucky.J

This was back in the early days of PCs, long before the evolution of e-books and POD and websites and blogs, and what I’m leading up to here with such bodice-ripping, breath-quickening suspense is that if I were to do it today, I would do it differently. And this is why.

First, because creative writing cannot be taught. It’s possible to teach grammar and it’s possible to teach structure, but creative writing—in my semantics—is storytelling and storytelling isn’t something you learn; it’s an ability one has. It’s a gift, albeit a gift that comes from exposure to stories and exposure to the love of stories and storytelling. I do not know of a storyteller who wasn’t thus exposed at a young and tender age, either by a parent or grandparent or teacher who also loved stories. I could quote Alfred Noyes’ "The Highwayman" chapter and verse before I could walk, because it was read to me in my cradle. But I digress.

The other—and more important—reason I’d change the course is that storytelling itself has changed so much, thanks (and sometimes no thanks) to technology. Not the form … but the function. Today’s aspiring writer is better off taking a course in computer sciences, or MS WORD for Beginners than creative writing.

Today, as all too many of us know (sometimes to our horror and loathing) just writing the story isn’t enough. To be a storyteller in the 21st century, you must also be a marketing expert, a promotions expert, and a publicist. Being young and good-looking doesn’t hurt, either. But—and this is the worst part—you may need to be a computer expert and a specialist in formatting manuscripts.

Because everybody in charge of determining whether the world actually reads your story seems to want things formatted differently. Truth! In far too many cases these days, a ms that isn’t formatted properly according to the publisher’s own unique, esoteric style guide risks rejection for that sin alone. And most of the time they won’t tell you ahead of the game what they do want!

Doesn’t matter how great the story. Doesn’t matter how vivid the writing, how compelling the characters. Wrong line spacing—Phfttt! Wrong font or font size—Phfttt! One space between sentences when they want two, or two spaces when they want one—Phfttt!

Bloody oath! I used to think things were tough when all the romance editors were twenty-six-year-old virgins hoping to learn something from the slush pile (a situation that hasn’t changed much, I sometimes think J).

And the problem for us as storytellers is that too many of us know as little about our computers as the aforesaid romance editors know about sex.

Which leads us to the elusive, mysterious ¶.

It’s called a Pilcrow Sign, and you should have one somewhere on your computer’s toolbar. What it does is turn on/off your ability to see on your screen the word spacing and letter spacing and indenting and paragraphing you use.

Here’s how you find it: Click on ToolsOptionsFormatting marks and make sure "all" is ticked.

Confession: I am being situation specific here. MS WORD has this facility; I do not know if other word-processing systems do, but if they don’t, they should.

And yes, Matilda, I know there are those of you who use WordPerfect and all manner of other esoteric word-processing packages, but the industry standard (if such animal exists) is MS WORD, just as the defacto font is Times New Roman 12-point with one-inch margins all-round and when you submit electronically things (usually) go best if your submission is in rich text format. Right or wrong, that’s the way things are and we have to accept them or go mad more quickly than we already are.

So: Consider your computer’s tool bar for a moment. More than a moment, actually—take some time to learn how the damned thing works. Because I know of at least one publisher who is demanding that authors (after acquisition, which usually means after the meager advance has already been spent!) format their manuscripts to specific settings, and if one publisher embarks on such a nonsense course and survives, others will be doing it before the waves of author outrage strike the already-rocky beach. Count on it. And weep.

You’re a survivor of the typewriter era and still have the habit of drumming your thumbs on the space bar? Don’t worry about dating yourself, just STOP IT BEFORE YOU GO BLIND. Failing that, check your ms before submission and the ¶ Pilcrow Sign will show you where you’ve stuck in spaces that shouldn’t be there. The first time my own transgressions were revealed to me by this handy gizmo, I nearly swooned from the shame, but we needn’t discuss that. So, moving on…

You want a half-inch indent but you don’t want "tabs" (because most electronic publishing types don’t want tabs, as such, in manuscripts)? Easiest is to set up your ms in the first place by clicking FormatParagraphIndentationFirst line … by .5" or whatever amount you want the automatic indentation to be.

It’s a bit trickier if you’re trying to change a ms that’s been tabbed through all 677 pages, but it can be done. First use "Find/Replace to get rid of the tabs, (see "More" and "Special" within that facility) and then reformat.

There are all manner of interesting features that can be accessed via your tool bar—CHECK THEM OUT. Pick a manuscript that doesn’t matter, or make a copy and play with that.

Hint: Under the vast majority of circumstances, the use of weird’n’wonderful fonts, font sizes and the like in your ms is folly. Might as well brand AMATEUR on your forehead and stamp it on your letterhead. Stick to a single font and size and whether you choose to double-space between sentences or not, at least be consistent!

So when you set up to begin your next epic—check out your tool bar. See how you can format your ms properly from the start. Find out how your computer works. Don’t be afraid of the damned thing … take control! Your computer is just a tool like that of any other tradesman and it is good for a tradesman to know his tools, understand them, even (dare I suggest this?) love them.

A writer in love with his computer … now there’s a tale…


Gordon Aalborg is the author of THE SPECIALIST (A Five Star Mystery, 2004) and a plethora of category romance. He does NOT love his computer, but he does love storytelling.

7 thoughts on “The Case of the Mysterious ¶ or Things Your Creative Writing Instructor Never Told You

  1. Naomi

    Oh, Gordon–

    I’ve broken so many of your rules. First of all, I use WordPerfect. Second of all, I like Courier.

    But I do send rich-text files. And, to some degree, I do know how to change my file to see formating marks.

    I know how to use Word, but I can’t stand it. Since I’m hopefully going to upgrade to a Mac notebook in the near future, I’ll have to deal with Word, I’m sure.

    I’m a layout person’s nightmare. But I keep churning out and selling books, so it must not all be about proper computer formats!

    Thanks for contributing. Please do again.

  2. Elaine

    Very informative, Gordon. Thanks so much. And I LOVE Word. Naomi? Try it. Honest. It’s really easy. I mean, if I think so – then it must be, huh?

  3. Pari

    Gordon,Thanks for this reminder to get to know our, um, instruments, before they force us into . . . compromising positions.

    I’m on a first-name basis with the tool bar in MS Word. However, he’s never taken me home to meet the parents.

    I’ve got a lot more to learn.


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