A few weeks ago, I cringed when I opened a manuscript from the submission pile. The font was flowery and difficult to read, the spacing was narrow, and design flourishes had been added everywhere—in the header and footer, at scene and chapter breaks, etc.
Why is this a problem? Because it’s not the writer’s job to design the interior of the manuscript. It actually creates more work for the editor or agent—if I decided to accept that manuscript, all of those formatting flourishes would have to be removed so that our in-house design team could have a clean manuscript to work with. It also made the manuscript more difficult for me to read, and the submission-sorting software we use doesn’t allow me to change the spacing or font. In order to make it more readable, I had to download the file onto a different device and open it in a new program, just so that I could make the font easier to read.
This is why editors and agents generally prefer certain manuscript formatting standards–they make our jobs easier. If you intend to submit your manuscript to editors or agents, it’s important to know what these standards are and make sure your manuscript is properly formatted. While you won’t necessarily be rejected for improper formatting, it does make the manuscript look unprofessional and, as the example above demonstrates, can be a headache for the agent or editor. I still took a look at that manuscript, but I already had a negative impression of it before I ever read a word.
So, what are the standards you should follow? First, always check the agent or editor’s guidelines. But if they don’t list specifics? Here are some manuscript formatting basics:
Manuscripts should be typed and double-spaced, in black ink on white paper. No alternate font colors, no electronic files with colored backgrounds, no colored paper. With hard copies, print single-sided only, and don’t staple or bind pages together.
There’s some debate here. Courier used to be the most common, because monospaced fonts—where all the letters are the same width—are the easiest to read. This was the industry standard for a long time, so many guides will recommend Courier. However, it’s become more and more common to see Times New Roman as the standard font. I use it myself, as do most of the manuscripts currently in my submission pile. But there are still some editors and agents who swear by Courier, and most don’t mind it. You should be perfectly fine with either. It’s best not to deviate from either of those two fonts, unless the agent or editor has instructed otherwise. Regardless of whether you choose Courier or Times New Roman, it should be 12 point in size. There are very few exceptions to this; 12 point is standard pretty much everywhere.
Margins should be 1” on all sides. It’s easy to read and leaves room for editorial notes if necessary. 1.25” is also fine—this is a holdover from older editions of MS Word—but usually not necessary.
Indent the first line of each paragraph by 0.5” (or five spaces). The only exception is the first line of each chapter (or a scene following a scene break), which is not indented. No extra spacing between paragraphs. Also, don’t use justified alignment, as it changes the spacing between words.
- Only one space after a period
Traditionally, typists would insert an extra space after each period (or colon). However, this practice is no longer standard (mostly because it wastes space) and will make the manuscript look outdated. If you’re used to typing this way and can’t break the habit, consider removing the extra spaces before submission.
Include a header on every page except the title page. Place the page number in the upper right hand corner (again, don’t number the title page). To the left of the number, put your name and the title of the manuscript (or a shortened version). For example: Austen/Sense 53. This is so that, if the manuscript is in hard copy, the pages don’t get out of order or mixed with other manuscripts.
- Chapter breaks
Start each chapter on its own page. Center the chapter number or name a third of the way down the page (usually 6-8 lines). Don’t be tempted to use fancy fonts or different sizing here; keep it standard. Begin the chapter two lines down from the title.
- Scene breaks
Indicate a blank line by placing a # in the center of the line, which indicates space to a typesetter. I’ve seen a single asterisk (*) used, or a series of three symbols: ### or ***. Any of these should be fine.
- Title page
Include a title page at the start of the manuscript. Center the book’s title halfway down the page, and place “By” and the author’s name (or pen name) beneath that. Include your legal name and contact details (and your agent’s contact details, if you have one) on the left, and place the word count either in the upper right corner or two lines down from the author’s name.
- No copyright notice
It’s unnecessary to include a copyright notice anywhere on the manuscript. In fact, it’s unnecessary to file copyright at this point in the process, and doing so may actually be a hindrance. (The SFWA explains all of this very well here.)
- The End
Include “The End” or “End” on the last page of the manuscript, so that we know there are no pages missing.
And that’s it! Don’t include any other fancy formatting. Now, to be clear, these are not the only industry standards; that’s why it’s important to follow an agent or editor’s guidelines whenever possible. But, in my experience, this is all fairly standard formatting that will make your manuscript look professional.
What are your formatting preferences? Do you use nonstandard formats? What other formatting standards have you seen? Let me know in the comments!
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This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For more info about submitting your work to publishers and agents, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!