Formatting Tips: Hidden Characters

Formatting Tips from Dog-ear Book Design

In this series, we explore common techniques for formatting manuscripts in Microsoft Word for print and e-book conversion.

Did you know…Microsoft Word and other word processing programs have a dirty little secret that can cause huge headaches when converting your manuscript to EPUB and MOBI files…Hidden Characters!!!
Queue the kitschy mystery reveal music.


Hidden Characters…What?!?
You add hidden characters to your manuscript every time you hit the space bar, the tab key or the return key. Hidden characters act just like any other letter or number you type in. In print and in final or output view, you can’t see the hidden character itself but you can see the space it creates.

Hidden characters aren’t liked very much by most conversion-on-upload programs (like Smashwords, Kindle and Kobo offer).

Luckily, you can see hidden characters in your word processor.

In Microsoft Word, it’s called “view non-printing characters” and the button with the funny-looking backwards P (called a pilcrow) will turn hidden characters on and off for you:

View non-printing character button in Microsoft Word's ribbon.

View non-printing character button
in Microsoft Word’s ribbon.
Click on the image to enlarge.
Use the back button to return to this post.

If you don’t see the button in your ribbon or toolbar, the keyboard shortcut is CTRL + SHIFT + * on a PC, CMD + 8 on a Mac.

In Apache Open Office, these are called nonprinting characters, and can be turned on and off in the VIEW dropdown menu (nonprinting characters) or by the button with the pilcrow in the toolbar along the top.

In Apple Pages, these are called Invisible characters and can be turned on and off in the VIEW dropdown menu (Show/Hide Invisibles) for by the keyboard shortcut SHIFT + CDM + I

Some common hidden characters you will see are:
Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 11.15.30 AM
Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 11.15.49 AM
Other breaks will appear similar to the page break above, including column breaks and section breaks.

Ok, I know how to see these hidden characters. Now what?
Most conversion-on-upload software ignore or don’t like these hidden characters. Using hidden characters to affect spacing may cause conversion errors or unexpected formatting.

Here’s some to watch out for:


How they are made: You create these by hitting the ‘tab’ key.
Issue: These cause a lot of grief and most conversion programs completely ignore them. I just don’t use them in ebook formatting.
Instead: Try using the first line indent feature in the paragraph styles.

Multiple spaces in a row

How they are made: You create these by hitting the space bar key multiple times in a row.
Issue: These hidden characters may or may not be ignored, so use at your own risk. I find these problematic due to the reflow of the text based on screen size and font substitution. There’s no standard screen size, so knowing how many spaces to use to get the effect you want is a crap shoot. Each reader has its own built-in fonts, and these will also affect the amount of space these take.
Instead: Try to find a way to get the job done use spacing settings in paragraph styles if you can.

Multiple paragraph breaks

How they are made: You create these by hitting the ‘return’ key multiple times in a row.
Issue: This will cause lots of grief, too. Most converters will ignore these, the cut-off of the amount of lines that will be kept seems to vary.
Instead: It’s so much faster to build in ‘space before’ or ‘space after’ measurements in paragraph styles. If you want space between your paragraphs, it’s easier (and much faster) to format the paragraph style to do it for you.

Line breaks

How they are made: You create these by hitting the ‘return’ key while holding down the ‘shift’ key.
Issue: These may be kept during conversion, but I find they cause issues when the text reflows, and really reeks havoc if you are using full justification.
Instead: Try using a hard paragraph return (using spacing in paragraph styles to balance spacing between lines if needed).

Page, column and section breaks

How they are made: You create these by selecting a break using the ‘Insert’ dropdown menu.
Issue: Happy to report that Smashwords and Kindle both like page breaks. Feel free to use them. Column and section breaks have varied results (Smashwords really doesn’t like them). Best to stay away from breaks other than the Page Break. Column breaks aren’t necessary (multiple columns aren’t supported) and section breaks aren’t relevant for ebooks.
Instead: Try using page break only, or develop another scheme to mark the end of a section/chapter. Just be consistent.

Even if you don’t do your own e-book formatting, following these tips is a good idea. If your e-book formatter needs to do extra work to remove all these hidden characters, then you’re probably paying more for your e-book formatting than you need to.

I hope you found this helps you in prepping your manuscript for e-book conversion.

Have a question or a tip? Have another formatting question you would like to see covered here? Don’t be shy. Leave a comment below, ’cause I love comments!


  1. Paula
    Aug 6, 2014

    Interesting. Those hidden characters also cause trouble in online grant applications when you are limited to a certain number of characters in a response. Drives me nuts when I’m working on deadline.

    • valeriebellamy
      Aug 6, 2014

      Thanks for the tip Paula! Hopefully this will be able to save you valuable characters for those grant applications.

      Do you notice any issues with online applications if your are cutting and pasting directly from MS Word? Word has a nasty habit of adding extra hidden code to its text which even using ‘view hidden characters’ won’t show you. If you have problems, try pasting the text in Notepad (PC) or TextEdit (Mac) and then copying it and pasting into online forms to purge your copy of this hidden code. Newer versions of Word seem to behave better than older ones.

      Same goes for content management systems for websites…some handle extra code from Word better than others. One content management system I saw (I think it was ExpressionEngine) had a “copy from MS Word” function to strip this extra hidden code.

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