On formatting poems for e-readers — Part IV. Using the tools.

Click here to open the previous post.

This post offers suggestions on two topics:  How you might choose a form for a poem so that it will display well on e-readers, and how to use Microsoft Word as an editor to format poetry for e-reader display.


Poets have long been aware of how poems appear on a printed page, and surely they often choose a poetic form with the poem’s printed appearance in mind.  If it becomes common for a poet’s audience to encounter poems on e-readers, the poet may want to choose a poetic form that will display well in this environment.

Because the PDF and RTF formats faithfully reproduce the appearance of a printed page, the formal choices for displaying poems in these formats are essentially the same as for poems that are to be presented in print.  However, for other formats commonly used on e-readers, there are formal constraints that are of less concern in print.

Line length. As discussed in previous posts, the author and publisher of a text can lose control of line length when the text is presented in an e-reader.  The displayed line length can vary according to the size of the e-reader’s screen, the orientation of the device (portrait versus landscape) and the user’s choice of font size.   The  author or publisher may want to offer the reader advice on these settings.

A common problem may be that the display screen is small.  For PDF documents, this may result in a display with a font that is so small that it is difficult to read, or a display that shows only a portion of the page (vignetting).  For many other e-reader formats, the device deals with a small screen by shortening the displayed line length, with the result that text flows from one line to the next, wreaking havoc with the layout of a poem into lines.

These problems can be partly forestalled by the following measures:

  • Keep line lengths short.
  • Use minimal indents.  For example, in the novel Farewell Rio, the poem fragments at the head of each chapter were indented, but only by a small amount.
  • Use a small font.  For example, in the novel Farewell Rio, the poem fragments at the head of each chapter were set in a smaller font than the body of the text in order to keep the longer lines within the limits set by the display width.

Pagination. Most e-readers respect page breaks.  If you want your poem to be displayed on one page, optimize your chances by using a page break to start the poem on a new page.  Even with this precaution you may fail if the poem is long or the e-reader displays only a few lines per page.   In a long poem, you can put your own page breaks in the source document that will be converted to e-reader format.

Indents. When possible, keep indents small in order to reduce the likelihood that an e-reader will make a long line flow onto the following line.  Most e-reader formats do support indents, but care is required in coding indents in order to get good results.  Methods for coding indents are discussed in the preceding posting, and in the document Smashwords Poetry Test.   You will find below advice on the use of Microsoft Word to code indents to get favorable results from the conversion routines that I discussed in the previous posting.

Diacritical marks and special characters. Most, but not all, e-readers support diacritical marks and accented characters.  Use them as appropriate, but take care to choose a font that supports accented characters.  Otherwise, a conversion routine is likely either to garble the accents or change the font, with unpredictable results.  Be careful also in your use of special characters such as the em dash (—).  Some e-readers do not handle them well, and I found that some conversion routines were prone to strange behavior when em dashes were present.  The successful use of special characters may require some trial and error experimentation and extra efforts to purify the source document of hidden codes.

Choice of fonts. Avoid exotic fonts.  If you use one, one of the routines for converting your source document to e-reader format is likely to substitute another font, with unpredictable results.  Avoid varying fonts.  Using multiple fonts increases the likelihood that one of the conversion routines will get confused and produce strange results.  The Times New Roman font used in this posting is probably a safe choice.

Font size. Avoid large fonts to reduce the likelihood that your lines will be long enough to flow onto a succeeding line.  Avoid changing font sizes to reduce the likelihood that one of the conversion routines will get confused.


Microsoft Word is likely to be your first choice for an editor to lay out your text for subsequent conversion to e-reader format for two reasons:  (1)  It has a dominant market share, so it is likely that you already own it.  (2)  Many conversion routines for creating e-reader documents are designed to accept MSWord documents as their input.

MSWord is paragraph-oriented — the paragraph is its major unit of formatting and editing. You will get best results from MSWord if you use it as its designers intended, setting up a style for each type of paragraph. I suggest that you set up one paragraph style for each different amount of line indentation.  You may also want to set up a separate style for the first line of a stanza or a separate style for the last line of a stanza.  The remarks below are illustrated using MSWord 2007, but they should be applicable to subsequent versions as well.

Set up paragraph styles. In MSWord 2007, controls are located on  the “ribbon” at the top of the screen.  There are several tabs for choosing a ribbon appropriate for a task.  The “Home” tab chooses a ribbon appropriate for basic formatting tasks, including formatting paragraphs.  By clicking the lower right corner of the paragraph control on the Home ribbon, the following control can be made to pop up:

The picture illustrates the paragraph control with settings appropriate for displaying a line of poetry that is indented 0.15″ from the left margin.

Comments. The Alignment is set to Left.  In some cases, it could be appropriate to use Centered alignment.

The Outline level is set to  Body Text.  Any other choice runs the risk of producing unpredictable results when the document is converted to e-reader format.

The Left Indentation setting should be used to control line indents.  In this illustration, the setting is for an 0.15″ indentation.  If the line is flush with the left margin, this setting should be 0.0″.   You are not likely to have a reason to set Right Indentation to anything other than 0.0″.

In formatting poems, there is probably no reason to set Special Indentation to anything other than “(none)”  However, for ordinary paragraphs of exposition, this setting is commonly used to specify a First line indentation (say of 0.5″), which causes the first line of the paragraph to be indented by the specified amount.  There are also some situations (such as outlines) in which it is desirable to specify a Hanging indentation, in which the first line of the paragraph is not indented, but subsequent lines are indented.

The Spacing controls determine how much extra spacing will be added before or after the paragraph to set it off from the preceding and subsequent paragraphs.  In using the paragraph control to format a line of poetry, the spacing amounts should be 0 points for any lines of a stanza other than the first or the last, and the line spacing should be Single spacing.  Double spacing is likely to waste space on the display screen and increase the likelihood that your poem will not fit on a page.   You may want to add extra spacing Before the first line of a stanza or After the last line of a stanza to set it off from the preceding stanza or from the next one.

In formatting paragraphs of expository text, it is a good practice to use one of the following methods, but not both:  (1)  Use a Special First Line Indentation (of 0.25″ or 0.5″, for example) to indent the first line of each paragraph, and set the extra Spacing Before each paragraph and the extra Spacing After each paragraph to 0 points.  (2)  Set the Special Indentation to (none), and set the extra Spacing Before each paragraph or the extra Spacing After each paragraph to some number of points (such as 6 points or 8 points).

You should check the box labeled Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style to prevent MSWord from gratuitously adding space between successive lines of a poem.

The Home ribbon in MSWord 2007 displays a list of available paragraph styles, the first of which is called Normal.  By clicking the lower right-hand corner of the Styles portion of the ribbon, you can pop up a control that allows you to edit styles.  At the bottom left-hand corner of this Style-Editing Control is a button that allows you to define a new style.  Use this facility to define a set of styles for your poem, with one style for each amount of indentation and (perhaps) a special style for the first or the last line of a stanza.

The newly created styles should appear on your ribbon.  There is another button at the bottom of the Style-Editing Control that allows you to Manage Styles, including changing the order in which they appear on the ribbon.

Each line of the poem should end with a [Line-Feed]/[Carriage Return] which you place in the document by pressing the Enter key.  That causes each line to be treated as a separate paragraph.  Once you have your styles on the ribbon, place the cursor on a line of the poem and click the appropriate style on the ribbon.  The assignment of style to each line should give it an appropriate indentation, and, where necessary, and appropriate separation from the next line.

Blank lines. If you attempt to add blank lines by inserting extra paragraph breaks, some e-reader formats, such as HTML, will ignore them.  There are two safe ways to introduce blank lines into a text.  (1) Use the extra Spacing Before or extra Spacing After settings in a paragraph style.  (2)  Begin the next line with a New Line character, which you place in the document by holding down the Shift key while you press the Enter key.

Avoidance of hidden codes. Formatting of an MSWord document is indicated by hidden codes that ordinarily are not displayed.  You can cause some of them to show in the display by pressing a button on the Paragraph Control on the Home Ribbon.  This button is located in the top left corner of the Paragraph Control and is marked with a ¶ symbol.

You can also control the display of some hidden codes by pressing the Office Button in the top left corner of the MSWord window, which pops open a control.  At the bottom of this control is a button for Word Options that pops open a control for adjusting the behavior of MSWord.  From the left-hand side of this control, select Display and use the resulting control to check off which hidden codes you want to display.

However, these methods do not suffice because there are many hidden codes that they do not allow you to display, including some codes that control the choice of fonts.  You can get a sense of what they are by opening your MSWord document in Word Perfect and using Word Perfect’s Reveal Codes feature to examine all the hidden codes.  Even this method is imperfect, because some details are lost in the conversion from MSWord format to Word Perfect format.

In the course of editing an MSWord document, unwanted hidden codes can become embedded in the text.  Ideally, MSWord would remove them, but it does not.  They may have no effect on the way the document is displayed in MSWord, or the way it is printed by MSWord, but they can have surprising and dismaying effects on the way it is converted into e-reader formats by conversion routines.  An example is shown in the preceding posting.

I have used two methods to get rid of unwanted hidden codes:

  • Conversion to TEXT format and back again. Have MSWord save the MSWord source document as a TEXT document.  Then open the TEXT document in MSWord.  Some of your formatting may have been lost.  Restore it carefully.  Try to restore as efficiently as possible, because each time you take a step and undo it you risk introducing new unwanted hidden codes.
  • Use of the Word Perfect Reveal Codes feature. Open the MSWord document in Word Perfect, which will convert it to Word Perfect format.  Use the Reveal Codes feature of Word Perfect to display all the hidden codes.  When Reveal Codes is turned on, hidden codes can be deleted directly — just put the cursor on a hidden code and delete it.  When the document has been cleaned up, save it as a Word Perfect document.  Then open the Word Perfect document in MSWord, which will convert it back to MSWord format.  Some manual clean-up may be required.  I found that the conversion back and forth changed the font selection, which I had to restore.  I also sometimes got strange results from converting em dashes back and forth.

The last post in this series will discuss some techniques for the use of TeXnicCenter to prepare a PDF document for print publication.


About corcovadopress

I am the manager of Corcovado Press, which publishes works in English on Brazilian themes. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
This entry was posted in E-readers, Poetry and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On formatting poems for e-readers — Part IV. Using the tools.

  1. Max Soucia says:

    All this is fine and dandy, but I have no intention of becoming a programmer. It is incumbent on the developers of text editors, and the makers of ereaders to make products that are poetry friendly, ie express and display poems as they were written and intended to be viewed by the author.

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