Friday, April 5, 2013

How to Identify and Remove Tabs

There are a few thing that many authors do to try to make their work look nice, but ends up causing problems. One of those things is using the tab key to indent. This works fine for word processing files. It would also be okay if you plan on creating a PDF of your book. However, this does not work out if you plan on created an ePub or mobi eBook.

The tab key is evil! Do not use the tab key to indent your text!

How do you know if this is how your paragraphs are indented? The easiest way is to turn on the show/hide non-printing characters.
On the tool bar of your chosen word processing program there will be a symbol.

Here it is in Microsoft Word:

You can now see all the non-printing characters like spaces, paragraphs, and tabs. Here's an example:
Do you see those little arrows at the beginning of each paragraph? Those are the tabs.

Here is it in Open Office: 

And here's what you will see:

And finally it's a little different in Apple's Pages. In Pages it's called Show/Hide Invisibles and you have to access it through the menu:

And here's how things look in Pages:

So, what's the problem?

There are no devices or formats that I know of that support tabs. There are a few things that could happen to your tabs depending on what converter or format you use. In most cases they will simply disappear. The converter program/format/reader doesn't know what to do with tabs so they ignore them. In some instances I've seen tabs turn into spaces. Which, again, isn't ideal.

Oh no! I have tabs? What do I do?

So, you've written your book, but you used tabs instead of paragraph styling. You don't want to go back through the whole document and remove the tabs one at a time. That would be far too time consuming. Luckily there is a way to use each program's 'find/replace' feature to remove all the tabs from your document.

Here's the process for Microsoft Word:
Go to the 'Edit' menu, then 'Find', then 'Advanced Find and Replace'

Go to 'Replace' and note the small downward pointing arrow in the bottom left corner.
You can either type in "^t" in the find field (without the quotes). Or you can click that small arrow to bring up more options. From there select the drop down menu that says 'Special', then select 'Tab Character'.
Leave the 'Replace' field empty and hit 'Replace All'. Now all your tabs should be gone!

Here's the process for Open Office:
Go to the 'Edit' menu, and select 'Find & Replace'.
Now select the 'More Options' button in the lower left corner.
Make sure that 'Regular expressions' is checked. In the 'Search for' field enter "\t" (without the quotes) and leave the 'Replace with' field blank.
Now hit 'Replace All' and all your tabs should now be gone.

Finally, here's the process in Pages:
Go to the 'Edit' menu, select 'Find', then select 'Find'.
Go to 'Advanced'. Beside the 'Find' field there is a drop down menu that says 'Insert', click that and select 'Tab'.
A tab character is inserted into the 'Find' field, leave the 'Replace' field blank. Now hit 'Replace All' and all your tabs should disappear!

But I still want my text indented! What should I do?

Use paragraph styles! There are many different indent types that you can use. I find that a first line indent of between 0.2in - 0.33in looks best.

I will go through exactly how to add indents using paragraph styles with all three word processors (along with screencaps like I did in this post) in a future post.


  1. Thank you very, very much for this article, Megan!!! You saved me a ton of work.
    From the bottom of my heart I thank you!

    -Hamburger Fry

    1. Thank you for commenting! I'm glad that I could help!

  2. I'm glad I saved this to favorites, Megan. I needed to look at it again. This little post is a real Gem! :-)

  3. Mega-thanks, Megan! My YA sci-fi novel looks a lot prettier in the Kindle Online Previewer now that I've slain every last tab. Nearly ready for blastoff. If I have further formatting issues, I'll contact you forthwith. -A

    1. I'm glad that this was a help to you! And if you ever need someone to help format a book, I'd be happy to help.

  4. I want to make sure that it is very important to see whether or not his is something that is going to improve in many way.

  5. Hi Megan, this was very clear, you are a great teacher.

    But I put in this symbol \t but it didnt recognize it on the newest version of Open office.

    Do you have any suggestions? Thanks so much, Mary

    1. Thanks, it's nice to know that this is helpful.

      Are you sure you have "Regular Expressions" checked? If not it will search the document for the exact text "/t", with it checked it will search for tabs.

      But I will look to see if there have been any changed between versions of OpenOffice.

  6. I agree with Megan, this is so clear! But I also do not get the desired result. Any luck on finding the reason?

    1. Which program are you using?

      I also noticed in my reply I used the wrong search term. It is correct in the article though. It's an easy mistake, just make sure you use the backslash (\t) and not the forward slash (/t). Perhaps that's the problem? Also, as I mentioned, "Regular Expressions" must be checked.

      I also did check to make sure, and it does works across the different versions.

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  9. Okay, here's my issue (and please bare in mind I'm mostly computer illiterate). The arrows are gone but the paragraph symbol is still at the end of each line and there's a period where every space goes. Are those supposed to be there? Wouldn't that be just as big a headache as the arrow? Also, when I remove the arrow I also lose the actual paragraph indent altogether. Does that mean I have to re-indent all?

    1. Yes, those paragraph symbols and dots between words are normal (they are the non-printing symbols for paragraphs and spaces respectively). You can turn off the "show non-printing characters" and you won't see them anymore. Either way, with the non-printing character shown or not, they won't end up in the final product.

      And, yes, when you remove the arrows (tabs) you will lose the indents. The better way to indent paragraphs is to use styles. The exact process is slightly different depending on which program you're using, but can generally be done by going to a "Format" menu, then selecting "Paragraph". In there you can set the First Line Indent to whatever you like (I generally use between 0.2in-0.33in).

  10. Hi Megan, thank you for a great tutorial. I'm not sure if you can help me with this issue I'm having please.
    I have articles that I copy from an Email, paste into Open Office, format it to be Arial 12, zero line spacing.
    Then I need to copy this text and paste it into an online forum.
    The problem I'm having is that because of all the Unprintable Characters, the spacing between the headings and paragraphs are huge.
    I tried your instructions above, but I guess these are not Tabs but rather Spacing that I need to delete.
    Everything I've tried to delete the spacing between the headings and paragraphs is not working.
    I've also tried in Formatting Styles, Formatting paragraphs and setting everything at zero.
    I can see the problem is the unprintable characters between the paragraphs, is there an easier way that you might know of please? Or a different style that I should be choosing?
    I really hate to think I would have to manually delete all the unprintable spaces :)

    1. If it's something in the paragraph style try setting the Line Spacing to Single. And make sure Spacing Above Paragraph and Below Paragraph are both set to 0.

      Try setting it to a different style like "Default" or "Text body" and see if the spacing goes away.

      If it's extra paragraph returns between the paragraphs (if you have non-printing characters showing they are the symbols that look like a backwards P. In the images above they're at the end of each paragraph, and between paragraphs.)

      If that's the problem you can use Find/Replace to get rid of them. In the Search field enter "^$" (without the quotes). That will find empty paragraphs. Then leave Replace empty. And make sure under More Option that Regular expressions is checked.

      If all fails...
      You might consider what many call the "nuclear method". It will get rid of all the unwanted formatting, but it also gets rid of *all* the formatting.

      Copy everything (or maybe try just the section that's giving you problems) and paste it into Notepad (or TextEdit on Mac, but make sure it's in plain text mode). Then copy it again from there and paste it back into OpenOffice. That will remove all the text and paragraph styling.

      I recently had to do this for a book I was formatting. It got rid of the trouble formatting but I had to redo all the styling.

      Hope this helps!

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