Formatting a Manuscript

Writers can certainly have visions of how they want their books’ interior to look when readers open them, with such things as drop caps and fancy-looking fonts for the title and chapters and body. For those who self-publish, it’s certainly up to them what design they want. However when submitting to agents and/or presses, they’ll rarely accept a manuscript that’s been elaborated as such. It needs to be easy for them to read and edit, similar to how play and film scripts must be easy for actors to read. Design for novels comes later. I’ve found it best to use a manuscript format while writing. It makes it a lot easier to focus on the story. A similar situation I think most people can relate to would be school papers; teachers and professors often give specific formatting guidelines to their students, based on their own preferences.

Agents and publishers will often have their own preferences that they specifically ask for or use later, but there are some commonalities I’ve found in advice and tips already out there, and from my own experience. What follows are some personal observations and recommendations based on some of these commonalities. Note: this discussion focuses specifically upon novels, as opposed to plays or screenplays (both of which I’ve learned have their own formatting guidelines), and using Microsoft Word.

Now, writers can go in manually and adjust, or modify text formats and headings so they can just be chosen. When it comes to the text, Left is preferred rather than Justified, and no hyphenating (both will come later, with the final layout). Tabs aren’t recommended; instead, format paragraphs so the first line is always indented. The only paragraphs which don’t have to be indented are the first in each chapter. With titles and chapter headings, I’ve learned it’s best to Center and Bold them so they stand out. Italics are used only when there’s a specific need for them, such as for internal thoughts.

When it comes to font, a small handful are generally preferred: Times New Roman, Arial, Courier New, and probably Calibri and Cambria now. Make it all size 12 (except the book title if you wish). I also turn off the Widow/Orphan Control when setting the paragraph format. Why? Say there are one or two lines left on a page for a brand new paragraph. It’ll automatically instead go over to the next page and you have an empty line. Turning off the Widow/Orphan Control prevents that, so a page’s entire space is used. 1″ margins and regular paper size (8.5″ x 11″) are also preferred. Old school would have two spaces after every sentence, but nowadays it’s just one. Some would have the book title on the same page as the first chapter. In other cases there’s a separate title page, which I personally prefer. I also make it a separate section from the chapters, so it doesn’t have page numbers like they do (which are typically centered in the footer).

In the end, I now think of manuscript formatting this way: it’s a book ready to receive edits as well as an elegant design, just as a play or script is ready to be read by actors. It’s beautiful in its own way, designed to be presented to the publishing world. If you have experiences and/or opinions of your own on formatting a manuscript, please feel free to share them.

Further Reading
  1. SMF – Standard Manuscript Formatting.
  2. Dacus, Kaye. Manuscript 101–Introduction & Basic Manuscript Format.
  3. Fogarty, Mignon. Two Spaces After a Period.
  4. Hill, Beth. Format Your Novel for Submission.
  5. Kewin, Simon. 16 Manuscript Format Guidelines.
  6. Klems, Brian A. What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript?
  7. Williamson, Jill. How to Format a Fiction Manuscript.

4 thoughts on “Formatting a Manuscript

  1. Aha ! The great one-or-two spaces after the period debate ! I’m a definite two-spacer. Two spaces makes for easier reading by giving a visual marker to the end of a sentence/thought, in addition to the tiny black period.

    After all, why one space ? What’s the advantage ? To save a keystroke ? Is there a shortage of electrons ?

    Also, I checked the link above on the subject. Most of the one-spacers merely through out histrionic rants.

    Liked by 1 person

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