“Format guidelines were not instituted to drive you crazy. That’s just a perk.”
—Janet Reid, Literary Agent
The other day I was reading a blog post by agent-blogger Janet Reid (of Query Shark fame), who had some interesting things to say about the importance of manuscript formatting:
“I’m reading (as are all other agents and editors) a LOT of manuscripts,” she said. “When mss follow a consistent format, it helps me assess the pacing. If I get to page twenty and I haven’t yet gotten a glimmer of what’s at stake for Our Hero/ine, then I know there’s a problem. It’s essential that page twenty be about the same amount of words across the board.”
She went on to note that page 20 comes at about the 6,000-word mark if the text is formatted in Times New Roman. In Verdana, the 20-page point will come at about 5,000 words. With Courier, it’s more like 4,400 words.
Simply put, formatting matters. If you follow standard formatting conventions of font size, margin width, and so on, professional readers (including agents, editors and publishers) have an easier time gauging the pacing of your book. Even more importantly, formatting your work correctly can make you look more professional—and more “serious” as a writer.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Microsoft Word is still the number one tool writers use to, well, write. (Yes, I know there are other programs, and I know a lot of writers are migrating to Google Docs.) As I scrolled down the comments on Reid’s post, I was amazed at how many writers don’t know how to perform the simplest formatting in Word. We’re talking basic stuff: auto-indenting paragraphs, inserting chapter breaks, inserting automatic page numbers, and so on. I was flabbergasted to hear some people still indent their paragraphs by hitting the space key five times, or that anyone would manually number the pages of a manuscript. But apparently, Reid sees this all the time.
Since I’m something of a Microsoft Word ninja, I thought I might pass on some important skills to help you get your manuscript submission-ready. The post will be long, but I’m hoping it will be helpful.
First, a quick Q&A:
Q: Is there a standard industry formatting convention?
A: No, there isn’t a single, super-secret document that tells you exactly how to format your manuscript for submission. Some publishing pros still want manuscripts formatted in Courier. Others prefer a 1.5″ left margin because they spiral-bind their submissions. Check the agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines before doing your final formatting.
Q: What makes you an “expert”?
A: I edit and format documents for a living. In putting together this post, I consulted about a dozen sites on manuscript formatting, most published by authors, editors, and other industry insiders. I’ll throw a few of the more helpful links down below.
Q: Can’t I just format my manuscript any old way?
A: Absolutely! But if you want to be taken seriously, you should consider using the formatting that agents, editors and publishers prefer.
Q: But isn’t Comic Sans more “fun” than Times New Roman?
A: No. Using Comic Sans in any context other than a hastily printed “Restroom Out of Order” sign is a crime against humanity. Stop the madness!
Basic Formatting Guidelines
Most of the sources I consulted agreed on the basics:
- Pages: Pages should be letter-sized (8.5″ x 11″), oriented vertically with one-inch margins all around.
- Font: Text should be in 12-point Times New Roman. When emphasis is needed, italics (and not underlining or boldface) should be used.
- Paragraphs: Paragraphs should be aligned left (not justified) and double-spaced with no extra padding above or below the paragraphs. The first line of each paragraph should be indented by half an inch.
- Chapters: Each chapter should begin on a new page. Center “CHAPTER” (in all caps) and then the chapter number at the top of each chapter, then begin the text of the chapter four to six lines below that.
- Page Numbers/Headers: Page numbering should begin on the first page of Chapter 1, and should continue unbroken to the end of the book. Manuscripts should have a header that includes the author’s name and a shortened title of the work.
CAVEAT: I’m using Microsoft Word 2016, so if you have an older version, some of the controls and menus may show up in different places.
To configure your document in Microsoft Word, click on the Layout tab and set the overall document formatting using the first three icons.
- Margins: Click the Margins icon and select Normal (1″ on top, bottom, left and right).
- Orientation: Click the Orientation icon and make sure the document is configured for Portrait (vertical) instead of Landscape (horizontal) display.
- Size: Click the Size icon and make sure your pages are set to Letter 8.5″ x 11″.
That’s it. Once you configure these settings, they should apply to your entire document.
The preferred font for most agents and editors is 12-point Times New Roman. To format your manuscript font, first select the Home tab.
Select all of the text in your document by pressing Ctrl-A (⌘-A on a Mac). With all of the text selected, pull down the Font menu and scroll down the alphabetic list of fonts until you find Times New Roman. Click to select it.
Next, with the text still selected, click on the Font Size menu (it’s right beside the font menu) and select 12.
Now here’s a trick a lot of people don’t know about. Select one of your paragraphs, either by clicking in the left margin of the document or by triple-clicking somewhere in the paragraph. If you consult the Styles menu, you’ll see that your paragraph is probably defined as “Normal” (default) style. The styles show up as rectangular tiles on the menu, and you know the style of the current selection because it’s outlined in gray. To ensure that Word doesn’t default back to Calibri (or some other font) at random, right-click on the “Normal” style tile and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.”
One of the biggest mistakes some writers make with manuscripts is with paragraph indenting. As Reid mentioned in her post, some writers still use the “five spaces” method to create an indent. Others tab over to the 0.5-inch tab stop. If you’re doing either of these things, stop now! You’ll have no excuse once you know how to indent your paragraphs the right way.
To get started, select one of your “Normal” paragraphs by clicking in the left margin or triple-clicking somewhere in the paragraph. Once you’ve done this, look for the Ruler (it should literally look like a ruler) above the text, right below the menu ribbon. If you don’t see it, click to the View tab and check the box next to “Ruler” in the “Show” section of the ribbon menu. At the zero position on the ruler you’ll see a widget that looks like an hourglass with a rectangle at the bottom. Click and drag the top half of the hourglass over to the tick mark at exactly between the left margin and the 1″ mark. The first line of your selected paragraph should now be indented by exactly half an inch.
Of course, that’s just one paragraph. You’ve got lots, right? Make sure the Home tab is selected, then right-click on the “Normal” style tile and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.” This will automatically indent all the paragraphs in your document.
“But wait!” you may be thinking. “I don’t want my chapter headings or section breaks indented!” Don’t worry. We’ll fix that.
Now let’s make sure the other paragraph settings are correct. With a paragraph selected, click the “Align Left” button on the “Paragraph” menu of the Home Ribbon. You can also press Ctrl-L (⌘-L on a Mac). Please resist the urge to justify your right margin. Though justified text looks nice and polished (published, even), professional readers hate justification because the variable spacing makes the copy hard to edit.
Right beside the “Justified button,” though, is the line-spacing icon. Pull down this menu and select “2.0” to double-space your text. If the “Remove Space Before Paragraph” option shows up at the bottom of this menu, pull it down again and click it. Do the same thing is “Remove Space After Paragraph” appears on the menu. You don’t want this extra padding.
Once you’ve aligned your paragraph and fine-tuned the line spacing, right-click on the “Normal” style in the style menu again and select “Update Normal to Match Selection.” This will apply the formatting changes to all of your “Normal” paragraphs.
Fixing What You Broke
What if you’re reformatting a work in progress that uses tabs (or, deity forbid, spaces) to indent each paragraph?
First of all, AAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH! Second of all, it’s easy to fix.
Press Ctrl-H (⌘-H on a Mac) to open the “Find and Replace” dialog box. This box is movable, so you can drag it off to one side if you have enough screen real estate. The window opens in its default configuration, but you’ll want the “Word ninja” version. Click the “More>>” button to expand the box to maximum ninja power.
First, click the “Find what” field. Find the “Special” menu at the bottom of the dialog and select “Paragraph Mark.” Word will insert “^p” into the “Find what” field.
Second, if you’ve been using five spaces to indent, click directly after “^p” and type five spaces. (Since they’re spaces, you won’t see them in the box. But they’re there.) If you’ve been using a manual tab to indent, Select the “Special” menu again and select “Tab character.” After you do this, you’ll see “^p^t” in the “Find what” field.
Third, click the “Replace with” field. Pull down the “Special” menu (at the bottom of the box) and select “Paragraph Mark.” Word will insert “^p” into the “Replace with” field.
What you’re telling Word is to look for a tab character (or five spaces), but only at the beginning of a paragraph (right after a paragraph mark). When Word finds this pattern, it will replace it with just a paragraph mark, effectively deleting the stuff you don’t want.
If you’re feeling cocky, click the “Replace All” button and let ‘er rip. If not, click “Find Next” and then “Replace” again and again until you feel brave enough to just click “Replace All.”
Now, repent and never use tabs or spaces again to indent your paragraphs.
Now it’s time to put some structure into your manuscript. I know a lot of people don’t bother using styles, but in my opinion, you can’t afford not to use them.
Each chapter in your novel should begin on a new page. You can create a page break two different ways. The clunky way is to click the Insert tab, then click the “Page Break” icon. The easier way is to press Ctrl-Enter (⌘-Enter on a Mac). If you’re editing with white space hidden—that is, if the document looks like one continuous strip of white—the page break will show up as a horizontal gray line across the document window. If white space is being displayed, and the text is broken into discrete pages, you’ll see an actual new page.
Now let’s create a chapter heading. Type “CHAPTER,” followed by a space, followed by your chapter number. Right now, the heading is probably formatted like all of your other text: 12-point Times New Roman, indented half an inch. Select the heading, either by clicking in the left margin or by triple-clicking on the heading itself. Then center the heading, either by clicking the “center” icon on the Home ribbon, or by pressing Ctrl-E (⌘-E on a Mac). Then, with the heading still selected, drag the top of the ruler’ “hourglass” widget to the zero position so your chapter heading isn’t indented.
Now let’s style the heading as a heading. Find the “Heading 1” tile on the Styles menu, but don’t click it! Instead, right-click on the tile and select “Update Heading 1 to Match Selection.” Boom—this updates the style and applies the style to the heading.
Here’s the awesome part. When you style chapter headings as “Heading 1,” they show up on the “Headings” list on the Navigation Pane. (If you don’t see the Navigation Pane on the left side of your document window, click the View tab and check the box next to “Navigation Pane.” It also shows up when you press Ctrl-F or ⌘-F to Find text.) Now scroll down through your document, styling each of your chapter headings as “Heading 1.” As you do this, they’ll appear in the Navigation Pane. This menu of headings is interactive, so when you click on a heading, Word takes you straight to that chapter in your document. As you edit, Word highlights the heading of the chapter you’re working on, helping you keep track on where you are in your book.
This is one of the most indispensable features in Microsoft Word. Use it to your advantage!
The text of your chapter should begin four to six lines below your chapter heading. Since both your “Normal” and “Heading 1” styles are double-spaced, this means you should leave either one or two blank paragraphs between the heading and beginning of your chapter. Now go through your manuscript and make sure everything is consistent.
While you’re drafting, you can make your life even easier by adding a brief description to your chapter headings. For example: “CHAPTER 1 – Sally meets Billy at the park,” “CHAPTER 2 – Sally goes to school,” and “CHAPTER 3 – Billy loses his socks.” These descriptions show up on your Navigation Pane, forming a clickable quick-reference outline of your entire story as you go. (If the Navigation Pane truncates the heading, just hover your mouse over it and the entire thing will be displayed.)
Obviously, you’ll want to go through and delete these descriptions before you send your manuscript to an agent, editor or publisher. But while you’re actively drafting and editing, they’re really helpful.
Formatting Scene Breaks
Scene breaks, also known as section breaks or blank-line breaks, are those separators within chapters that usually appear in published novels as an extra space between blocks of paragraphs. When they fall at the bottom or top of a page, they’re sometimes indicated by a short line, a row of asterisks, or sometimes an ornamental glyph.
In your manuscript, scene breaks should be set off as a separate, double-spaced paragraph, with either a number sign “#” (or “hashtag” if you’re under 20) or a row of three asterisks “***” centered between the margins. You shouldn’t include any additional blank lines before or after the scene breaks.
The easiest way to manage scene breaks is to set up a style to handle them. To do this, type your “#” (or “***”) and format it correctly by centering the paragraph and eliminating the indent. Then right-click the selected paragraph and find the “Styles” icon on the pop-up menu. (It should be on the top one, at the far right.) Pull this down and click on “Create a style.” This will open a dialog box called “Create New Style from Formatting.” Name your style “Scene Break” and click “OK.”
The “Scene Break” style will appear as a new tile on the “Styles” menu on the Home ribbon. Now, when you want to create a scene break, just type “#” or “***” and click on “Scene Break” and Word will format it for you. Easy peasy.
Title Page and Table of Contents
Do you need a title page? Yes. Do you need a table of contents? Not necessarily, but if you’re going to export your manuscript as an e-book for alpha or beta readers, a table of contents can really come in handy.
Title page format is one of the least standardized manuscript elements. Opinions vary, but most everyone agrees that the following elements must be included:
- Title of the work
- Author’s contact information
- Word count
Some sources suggest that you include the work’s genre as well as information about your agent, if you have one.
Here’s a good template for a title page, based on an analysis of a number of industry recommendations. Beginning at the top of the page, at the left margin, type your name (on one line), your address (on two lines) and your phone number and email address (on separate lines). Single-space this block of text.
Skip down to roughly the middle of the page and type the title of your work, in all caps, centered on the page. Skip a line and type “by,” then skip a line and type your name. Skip two lines and type “### Words,” replacing “###” with the word count of your manuscript, rounded to the nearest hundred. (Some guides say to the nearest 1,000.)
You can add your genre if you want, though if an agent or publisher has requested a manuscript they probably already know the genre of the work.
One thing you shouldn’t bother putting on your cover page is a copyright notice. But don’t take it from me; take it from Janet Reid:
Your work is protected by copyright law as soon as you write it.
Once your work is sold to a publisher, there’s a clause in your publishing contract that says the publisher will register the work with the US Copyright office.
You should not register something with the copyright office at the query stage. And you also don’t need to put the (c) notice on your manuscript.
Basically, including a copyright notice in your manuscript makes you look like a newb, and you don’t want that, do you?
Table of Contents
Sure, you can create a manual table of contents, but why would you want to do that when it’s so easy to have Word create one for you?
The table of contents should come directly after the title page. First, create a new page by pressing Ctrl-Enter (⌘-Enter on a Mac). Type “Contents” or “Table of Contents” and format as a heading by clicking the “Heading 1” style. Then hit Enter a couple of times.
Now click to the References tab. (In some previous versions of Word, this feature was in the Insert tab under “References.”) Click on the “Table of Contents” icon and select “Custom Table of Contents…” In the dialog box that opens, make sure that “Tab leader” is selected to a row of dots, and click the down arrow beside the “Show levels” setting until the number is “1.” Then click “OK.”
You should now have a table of contents containing the names and page numbers of all of the chapters you’ve marked using the “Heading 1” style. To make sure the table is formatted correctly, select it by clicking on the table and then un-indent the lines using the top-hourglass slider in the Ruler. Make sure the font, font size, and other settings are consistent with the rest of your document. When you’ve done this, right-click on one of the lines, pull down the “Styles” menu and click “Create a Style.” Call this style “Table of Contents” and click “OK.”
The table of contents doesn’t track your content in real time, so you’ll have to tell Word when you want it to update. To do this, right-click on the table and select “Update Field.” An “Update Table of Contents” dialog box will open. Click the radio button beside “Update entire table” and click “OK.” Voila! All of your chapters, chapter headings, and page numbers will synch up with what’s in your manuscript.
Formatting Headings and Page Numbers
Remember Janet Reid’s comment about the crucial page 20? The only way readers will know when they arrive on page 20 is if the pages are numbered. What really blew me away was when Reid said, “Recently I’ve had several authors who have inserted page numbers by hand….” Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? This actually happens? Yes, and apparently it’s not uncommon. This means, of course, that one little change to the text on page one can throw off the pagination for the rest of the manuscript. For the love of Mike, don’t do this!
Besides page numbers, another key aspect of manuscript formatting conventions is the inclusion of a header at the top of every page. Imagine a busy agent carrying a stack of five unbound manuscripts. She drops the stack and the pages get mixed up. Without a header on each page, the agent wouldn’t be able to sort the identically formatted manuscripts back into proper order.
Here’s another tricky part. The cover page should not have a header on it. Any pages before the first content page of your book should use lower-case Roman numerals. The actual numbering should restart at chapter one (or your prologue, if you have one), so that page 20 comes at the actual 20th page of the text of your book. We’ll call this point the “story beginning.”
Here’s how to make that all happen.
To get started, go to the View tab and make sure “Print Layout” is selected under “Views.” (The other options are “Read Mode” and “Web Layout.” You don’t want either.) Now, look at the page breaks in your document. If you see just a gray line (and not actual page boundaries), position your cursor over the gray line. It will change to the “Show white space” cursor, which looks like a capital H with up/down arrows in the pockets. Double-click on the line and you’ll expand the continuous page to individual pages.
You can collapse this later in the same way: just point to the break and double-click.
Now we need to convert the page break before your first chapter or prologue to a section break. Click to the Layout tab and click right before your first chapter heading. The insertion point should be right to the left of the word “CHAPTER” (or “PROLOGUE”) at the story beginning.
Now find the “Breaks” option in the “Page Setup” section of the Layout tab. Pull down the menu and click on the “Next Page” option under “Section Breaks.” Nothing will look different, but this is a crucial change.
Click over to Word’s Insert tab. Click the “Header” icon and select “Edit Header.” (You can also double-click directly on the header to edit it.) The ribbon will change to include some new options only available when working with headers. (“Header and Footer Tools” under the Design Tab.)
First, find the “Navigation” section of the Design tab. You’ll see an option called “Link to Previous” that is probably selected (grayed out). Click on it to deselect it. The “Same as Previous” message at the bottom, left of the header will go away. You should now just see “Header -Section 2-.”
Click on the header area and type the following: Your last name, a slash, a shortened title of your book, a slash, then the word “Page.” For example, if your name is Smith and your book is called “The Short, Happy Life of Wendell Jones,” you might type something like, “Smith/Wendell Jones/Page.” If word is indenting the heading, move the top-hourglass widget back to the zero position to make it stop.
With your cursor still at the end of the header line, press Ctrl-R (⌘-R on a Mac) to right-align the text. (You could also click back to Home and click on the Align Right icon in the Paragraph menu, but this is quicker.) Now, with your insertion point to the right of “Page,” type a space and then click the “Page Number” icon on the Design ribbon. From the menus, select “Current Position” and then “Plain Number.” The number you see will likely be 2 or 3 or even higher.
Click on the “Page Number” icon again and select “Format Page Numbers.” The “Page Number Format” dialog box will open. Make sure the number format is set to “1, 2, 3, …” Down where it says “Page numbering,” Click the radio button next to “Start at” and make sure the number next to it is “1.” When you click “OK,” you should see the page number at the story beginning change to “1.”
What you do next depends on how much “stuff” you have before the first actual page of your story.
If you just have a title page…
Scroll back to your title page. The label beneath it should say “Header -Section 1-.” You’ll probably see a duplication of the header you used for your main chapters. Select the whole header by triple-clicking on the text and hit delete. Click “Close Header and Footer” and you’re done!
If you have a title page and other stuff…
If you’ve added a table of contents or other pages before your story beginning (like a dedication page), you’ll want to retain the header, except for on the title page, but change the numbering before the story beginning.
Scroll up to the page right after your title page. This is likely where your table of contents or acknowledgments page is. If the header isn’t selected for editing, double-click on it to edit.
Click on the “Page Number” icon and select “Format Page Numbers.” The “Page Number Format” dialog box will open. Click on the “Number format” menu and set to “i, ii, iii, …” then click “OK.” Now click on the checkbox next to “Different First page” under the “Options” section of the ribbon. Then click “Close Header and Footer.”
If you did everything correctly, the title page should display no header at all, and the first page after that (but before the story beginning) will have the “Name/Title/Page ii” combination on it. The header at your story beginning should be “Name/Title/Page 1.” Mission accomplished! Once you set this up, you shouldn’t ever have to mess with the headers again … unless you change your title (or your name).
A Few More Formatting Conventions
Spaces Between Sentences
If you know what a “typewriter” is, you were probably taught at some point to hit the space bar twice after sentence-final punctuation (periods, question marks, exclamation points, close quotes). If this old practice is still fossilized in your mind, it’s time to re-train your brain. If you can’t get out of the habit, use “Find and Replace” (Ctrl-H or ⌘-H on a Mac) to find all of your double-spaces and replace them with single spaces.
Formatting for Chapter Beginnings
Published novels will oven employ drop caps or a line of words in small caps at the beginning of chapters. Resist the urge to so this in your manuscripts. Agents and editors don’t want manuscripts that look frou-frou and professionally typeset—they just want a clean, simple copy they can read quickly.
Italics, Underlining and Boldface
Most formatting guides indicate that you shouldn’t use underlining or boldface anywhere in your manuscript. If you need to emphasize a word or phrase, use italics. Back when typewriters were the state of the art, underlining was the norm. Today, italics are standard. To quickly set text into italics, press Ctrl-I (⌘-I on a Mac).
Manuscript Format Links
16 Manuscript Format Guidelines (Daily Writing Tips)
How to Format a Novel Manuscript (Scribophile)
Correctly Formatting Your Novel Manuscript (Advanced Fiction Writing)
Format Your Novel for Submission (The Editor’s Blog)
What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript? (Writer’s Digest)
Proper Manuscript Format for a Novel (First Manuscript)
David Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.