There is an abundance of book design software on the market these days. Authors, publishers, and book designers have many options, with each option representing a different set of tools and processes for getting a manuscript ready for production. But in a publishing industry that is increasingly digital first and born accessible, book design software needs to go beyond perfecting the “look” of a finished product. It has to address a fundamental element that ensures a book can reach the widest audience possible: semantic structure.
Semantic structure is a way of describing the different pieces of your text and their relationship to one another. It’s a digital map of a book that can be interpreted by computers—for example, by ebook reading software or by a web browser. It’s a way of saying “this is a chapter, this is a chapter title, this is a plain text paragraph,” so that the computer knows how to present your text.
You might wonder, “if my chapter titles are bigger than the body text, isn’t it obvious that it’s a title? Is that semantic structure?” Well, the answer is…No! Semantic structure is completely separate from design. Think about a vision-impaired person using screen-reading software to read your book: they can’t see that your titles are bigger than the body text, so relying on design to convey semantic structure has the unintended effect of creating barriers between this user and the meaning of your text.
What semantic structure looks like and consists of
Most people use tags or styles to label each text element in a book. In plain text, it could look something like this:
<Chapter Title>Down the Rabbit Hole
<Body Text>Alice was beginning to get very tired…
Think back to fourth grade, when you had to write a five-paragraph essay and your teacher made you outline each section. You had your introduction, three topic sentences and the three reasons within each topic, and a conclusion—that’s semantic structure! Each label of text locates you in the essay and tells you its purpose.
Many publishing houses have pre-defined sets of tag names that they use for all of their books, so that they have a consistent semantic language for talking about any of their books. Regardless of each book’s unique design and writing style, someone (or some software program) will always be able to know what elements are titles or which paragraphs are block quotes by looking at these consistent semantic labels. These labels also make it really easy to design interiors. (If you’ve ever worked with HTML and CSS, it’s a very similar experience, but don’t worry if you haven’t—we won’t be doing any HTML coding in this tutorial.)
Almost all layout programs are created to work with semantic styles. When you use consistent semantic styles in a Word manuscript then import that text into a layout program like InDesign or Hederis, these programs are set up to automatically apply the same design settings to paragraphs that use the same type of semantic label. For example, you can set the design for one chapter title to look a certain way, and if all the other chapter titles in your book share the same semantic style name, they will inherit that same design. Instead of having to hunt down every quote paragraph in your text and design them one by one, you just have to do it once.
So why does this matter for authors? The short answer is that adding semantic labels makes it easy for any person (or computer, or piece of software) who is looking at your manuscript to understand what the different elements of your text are. They won’t need to guess whether an indented paragraph is supposed to be a quote, or whether a heading using an 18-point font is supposed to be an A-head or a B-head. Semantic labeling speeds up the process of turning a manuscript into a finished book and reduces the possibility for error, ultimately helping to preserve your authorial intent. Even if you aren’t planning to hire a designer and instead want to upload your manuscript into a book design program that offers preset templates or automated styling, having these structural elements in place will make the process much easier and lead to a better final product.
Using Microsoft Word to add semantic structure
Applying semantic structure is fairly easy, especially in Word, if at times a little time consuming. Out of the box, Word provides a tool called “Styles” that allows you to label all the text in your book. In fact, Word automatically applies styles to your book even if you don’t actively create any—most text paragraphs will use the “Normal” style by default, and you might even have used some of Word’s heading styles to tag your book and chapter titles.
But again, you may be saying to yourself, “I already add my own styles; I bold or italicize my headings and change the text size. Why doesn’t this translate into the layout software?”
This goes back to the difference between semantic labels and design: you might be changing the size and appearance of your text, but unless you save these changes under a “style” in Word, it’ll still classify these as Normal text paragraphs with some overrides applied. When you import your Word document into a design program like InDesign, all your paragraphs—regardless of the design changes you made—will have the same style name of “Normal” (with a “+” indicating where you’ve overridden the baseline formatting).
The appearance of your text may transfer depending on how the file is imported, but there will be no style names attached to it, so if a book designer wants to change the font or size of your headings, they have to go through the entire document and change each heading individually or do search and replace based on formatting. This can prove very time intensive depending on the size and/or complexity of a manuscript. If you would like to see this in action, there are screenshots of styled and unstyled documents imported into InDesign further on in this article.
Now that we’ve established why semantics are good and the basic way that they can be applied in Word, let’s dive into exactly how to add them to your manuscript.
How to view the “Style area” in Word 365
One of the best ways to view your document when you are planning to add semantic styles is through the “Style area.” This will allow you to see at a glance which styles have been added to each text element and give you a holistic view of the structure of your manuscript.
One note: I’m using a PC for this tutorial, but all of these tools exist for Mac as well—the steps or menu options will just be slightly different. You can find a simplified version of the Style Area steps for Mac in our documentation here.
Step 1: Navigate to the File tab—it should be on the far left. (If you’re on a Mac, go to Word > Preferences > View, then skip to step 3.)
Step 2: Under File, select “Options” in the bottom left corner of the screen. A window will appear at the center of the screen, as shown in the next step.
Step 3: Go to the “Advanced” settings and scroll down until you reach “Display.” Find the option titled “Style Area Width in Draft and Outline Views”—this is where you can view your styles. (On a Mac, this is the box called “Style area width.”) In order to see the styles in use in your book, you’ll need to set a measurement of how large this pane will appear on your screen. 2.5” is a pretty good option, and you can always come back and try different widths here.
Step 4: Press Ok.
The final step is to make sure you are in either “Draft” or “Outline” view mode.
Go to the “View” option on your main menu, then choose either “Draft” or “Outline” from the submenu.
You should now see a sidebar to the left of your text showing you what styles have been added to each text element in your document—this is the Styles Area. You can easily hide this sidebar at any time by viewing your book in “Print Layout” view mode.
Open the Styles List
We’ve figured out how to see what styles are already applied by showing the Style Area, but now how do you apply new styles? For this, we’ll use the Styles List (different from the Style Area), and make sure we have that list close at hand. Let’s go ahead and open that up.
Go to your home menu and find the “Styles” section. In the right corner there is a tiny “expand window” icon —press it.
Your screen should now look like the image below with all your word styles on the left-hand side of the screen (on a Mac they’ll be on the right).
Once you have your styles area and styles list set up, applying styles is as easy as clicking inside or highlighting the text and then choosing the style you want to apply from the styles list. There are two types of styles available: paragraph and character. Paragraph styles will have the “P” icon or ⁋ (a pilcrow sign) next to them, and will apply to an entire paragraph of text. Character styles will have an “a” icon and will only apply to the specific text you have selected.
If you want to apply a style to a whole paragraph, then all you have to do is click anywhere inside the paragraph, and then select the paragraph style you want to apply from your list of styles.
Character styles can be applied to a word or phrase inside a paragraph. Simply click and drag to select the words/sentences, and then choose the character style you want to apply.
One of the benefits of applying styles to your own manuscript is that you are the content expert. At this point in the publishing process, you are the person most familiar with your writing, so you know how to label each element: heading, subheading, blockquote, dialogue, etc.
The most important guideline when applying styles is to be consistent. For each type of element in your manuscript, use the same style to label it. For example, use the “Heading 1” style for every chapter title, use “Heading 2” for every A-head, use “Quote” for every excerpt, etc. Figure out what types of elements you have in your text, pick the styles to use for those elements, and apply them consistently.
Word has a lot of styles out of the box, and it’s perfectly fine to use those styles in your book. However, you may find that Word doesn’t have a style that describes one of the elements in your book. For example, maybe you want to clearly distinguish the text of a letter from the text of an extract. In that case, you can create your own style names. The easiest way to do that is as follows.
- Find an instance in your manuscript where you’ll want to apply your new style.
For example, let’s say you want to add a style for the text of a letter. Find at least one letter text paragraph in your manuscript and highlight it.
- Make it look the way you want. If you are planning to work with a designer or a program other than Word (for example, InDesign or Hederis), the style name is the end goal—the appearance is less important. If this is the case for you, you can simply indent the text and call it a day for your creative endeavors.
- Create the new style. With the text still highlighted, navigate to the bottom of the style menu, there should be a button with a capital “A” with a plus sign underneath it. Click that button and a new window should pop up. From here you can name your new style. Once you OK this you will want to apply the new style to the highlighted paragraph. Then apply it to all other instances of letter text in your manuscript.
When naming your styles, make sure to choose names that make some reference to where or what kind of text this style would be applied to, but also keep the description short. In our example above, you might choose the name “Letter Text” or “Extract Text.” It’s best not to name the style based on how the text looks (e.g. “Large Bold”) but rather what it inherently is (e.g. “Heading”).
If you’ve chosen a name but decide you want to change it, Word will let you do that. In your styles list, right click the style you want to change and a drop down menu will come up; the “modify” option is usually the second one down; on a Mac this option is called “rename” and is usually the fourth option down.
Styled versus unstyled document in InDesign
Semantic styles make a world of difference when you go to import your file into a program like InDesign. This styled document below has been imported into InDesign straight from the Word file. All of the Styles have been imported from Word, are attached to the correct elements, and are available for use by the book designer. If you look closely at the image below you will see that the cursor is in the “Chapter” text at the top of the first page, which comes up in the Paragraph Styles as using the “HED Chap” style name.
The unstyled document below has been imported into InDesign straight from the Word file. All of the text elements are overridden versions of “Normal” text. This is why when my cursor is on the same chapter text, in the Paragraph Styles it shows that it is using the “Normal+” style (the “+” means an override is applied—in this case the bolded text).
To make this a styled document, the first task would be to go through the entire unstyled text and style each text element. This could take anywhere from one to three hours depending on the length and complexity of your manuscript.
Styled versus unstyled document in Hederis
Hederis has a preset list of styles that you can use streamlined to work with the app. This styled document has been uploaded into Hederis straight from the Word file, using styles from that preset list. All of the styles are available for use by the book designer and are attached to the correct text element. You will notice some text styles seem to be missing in the list on the left—this is because Hederis shows only the styles in each section by default. This section of the book is labeled as a “chapter,” and contains a number of styled elements as shown, including at least one image. Other chapters may contain different types of text, and so the list on the left might look slightly different. (You can always add new styles to the text in a section, too, either via Word or using the Hederis text editing tools.)
The unstyled document below has been imported into Hederis straight from the Word file. The main difference between this example and the InDesign example of an unstyled manuscript is that when Hederis detects that an unstyled manuscript has been uploaded, the first thing it does is try to predict text styles based on the text size, position, placement, and even the words being used—that’s why in the image below, you still see style names very similar to the styles in the previous example. This means you’ll have a few styles automatically added to your manuscript, to help you on your way to applying the semantic labeling that you’ll need.
Semantic styles are a fundamental tool for helping your publishing team understand how to handle each piece of the book text—how to edit it, how to proofread it, how to market it, and how to design it. Word Styles are a great way to help convey this information, and are a standard tool in the publishing industry. And while Word Styles alone won’t give you a fully accessible ebook, they’re a step in the direction of mapping the parts of your book text to highly semantic HTML code (that’s a job for a compositor or layout specialist if you’re using InDesign, though it generally gets added out-of-the-box with automated apps like Hederis).
Note from Jane: Curious about Hederis? Visit the Hederis website to learn more about their publishing tools and start your free Hederis project.
Tiffany Watson is a Portland-based publishing professional. Her love of small press publishing and passion for the decentralization of the industry alight her interest in Hederis as a tool for inciting necessary change. Her article on semantic structure was written in collaboration with the entire Hederis Team who have over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry combined. Learn more about our team. Launched in July 2020, Hederis is a cloud-based book production and design platform, providing state-of-the-art tools to publishers of every size.