Formatting of a play can be both the least important and most important part of the text. On one hand, it’s the content that really matters. At the same time, how the play looks on the page is a real tool you can use to let your collaborators know what’s actually happening on the stage. How the play reads does matter. I want my plays to be a pleasure to read. I want readers to feel comfortable when they see my text. I want them to think I know what I’m doing. And I want the shape of the play, the way it cascades down a page, to be part and parcel with the actual dramaturgy. It’s all related.
I’ve been thinking about formatting more and more in the past few years. For a long time, I was using Final Draft. It is great, for the most part, and served me well for the early part of my playwriting journey. But as my writing evolved, I started creating plays that felt like they required more specific formatting needs, and I got frustrated with the limitations of Final Draft as an actual word processor. (Not to mention it’s expensive and more than a little buggy.)
A couple years ago, I started using Microsoft Word – and their powerful and underrated “Styles” – to create my own custom playwriting templates, and I haven’t looked back. It’s simple, it’s fairly intuitive (once you know what you’re doing), and best of all it didn’t require me to purchase any new software. (For you teachers and students out there, you can get it for free with a school email address.)
In this video, I take you through my process for creating a custom template in Word. Once it’s done, I can adjust these styles every time I start a new play, depending on what that play’s specific needs are. This only covers the basics. There are a lot of great tools hidden in MS Word that I’m still discovering. But for now, if you’re frustrated with the dedicated software you’ve been using, this may be the thing that allows you to make the jump to the good, old classic application that you may have been overlooking.