Hy-phen-a-tion: How a Teeny Weeny Line Can Make a Huge Impact

Almost all traditionally published books and eBooks are justified – i.e. a computer program varies the width of the spaces between the words such that the right and left edges of the text are aligned. Books that are instead aligned left are said to be “ragged right” because they are not aligned at the right.

Left-aligned books often give an impression that the work is amateurish. Many new writers do this intentionally because they don’t like the gaps that they see between words when the text is justified (others do this accidentally, simply using Word’s default settings). On the other hand, setting the alignment to left doesn’t remove the gaps – it simply puts the spaces at the end of the line instead of spreading them out between the words. Book designers and editors prefer the look of justified text.

Large spaces in justified text do pose a formatting problem. There is, however, a simple way to reduce them: hyphenation.

Manually hyphenating a word at the end of a line where the gaps are large reduces the gaps. Don’t hyphenate manually until the manuscript is complete, edited, revised, and perfected. Otherwise, after revisions to the text, words that had been hyphenated may no longer appear at the end of a line, and new lines may need to be hyphenated. Consult a dictionary to find the natural breaks between the syllables.

Watch out for Word’s AutoCorrect tool: If this tool is on, one or both fragments of the word may automatically be respelled when the hyphen is inserted. For example, if a hyphen is inserted in the word “invented” to make “inven-ted,” Word will change this to “invent-ted.” Why? Because Word sees this as two separate words, “inven” and “ted.” Word automatically corrects (so it thinks!) the spelling of “inven” to make “invent.”

It isn’t actually necessary to hyphenate manually. Microsoft Word, for example, has an automatic hyphenation feature that can be activated. In Word 2010, find this on the Page Layout tab.

When using Word’s hyphenation tool, go into Hyphenation Options and increase the Hyphenation Zone to about 0.3” to 0.4”. Otherwise, there will be hyphens all over the place (including headings that span multiple lines).

Those who have used WordPerfect and Word may be aware that WordPerfect’s hyphenation is aesthetically a little more appealing. But it’s not necessary to buy WordPerfect: Word actually has an option to hyphenate like WordPerfect. In Word 2010, go to the File tab, scroll down below Help to find Options, select Advanced, click Layout Options at the bottom of the list, and search for the line that starts, “Do full justification…”

Note that Word won’t hyphenate words that its dictionary doesn’t recognize. It’s necessary to search for lines where it may be possible to hyphenate a word at the end of a line for which Word doesn’t have a hyphenation key.

Also making an eBook? If so, it’s necessary to make a different edition of the file without hyphenation. Therefore, any manually hyphenated words must have their hyphens removed. Some eReaders actually hyphenate words for the reader, but not the Kindle. Since an eReader can have a large font and a small screen, the gaps on justified text are nicely reduced on the screen when the device automatically hyphenates it for the reader.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers