Oh, the crazy things I see when prospective authors share their manuscripts with me. Dingbats. Fun with fonts. Huge margins. Tabs, tabs, tabs. Odd line spacing.

When you’re submitting a manuscript to an editor, you need not be creative with the look of it. Indeed, most editors want to see a simple, clean manuscript devoid of frills and embellishments.

With that, a few pointers on how to format a manuscript:

  • The order of your manuscript should go roughly like this:
    —Title page, which features the title and subtitle and your byline. And that’s it.
    —Contents, which features chapter titles (complex or technical manuscripts might also require subheads). No page numbers.
    —Foreword. (Please note it is a foreword. Not a forward or a foreward or a forword.) Not every manuscript requires a foreword, but if you have one, it goes here.
    —Introduction/preface/prologue. The typical manuscript uses just one of these, of course.
    —Main text. Chapter by chapter. Each chapter should start on a new page, which is created by using “insert new page,” not by hitting return return return return until you get to the next page. Chapter titles can be centered or flush left, and the text can start two lines below or about a quarter of a page below.
    —Conclusion/epilogue. Note that if your front material was called a prologue, the back material should be called an epilogue.
    —Notes, bibliography, resources. Of course, fiction manuscripts typically do not include this backmatter, although some novelists do include a bibliography or list of resources.
    —Index. Again, typically for nonfiction titles; not for fiction.
    —Acknowledgements. The space you use to thank everyone who helped you with the manuscript usually goes at the back of the book, although it’s also appropriate to include it between the Contents and Foreword or after the Introduction. Some authors elect to incorporate their acknowledgements in the Introduction.
  • Your manuscript should be formatted with 1″ margins all around—top, bottom, left, and right. Line spacing should be double-spaced throughout, with no points above or below. Paragraphs should be indented 0.5″ at the first line.
  • Most editors prefer a simple typeface, such as 12-point Times New Roman. A serif font like this is much easier to read than a sans serif face such as Arial or Helvetica. Do not mix and match fonts.
  • Chapter titles and subheads should be in bold, and they can be centered or flush left, but be sure to be consistent with usage. Make clear whether a subhead is an A-, B-, or C- level head (sometimes called 1-, 2-, or 3-level heads) by using different font sizes—e.g., chapter titles at 16 points, A-level heads at 14 points, B-level heads at 12 points, and C-level heads at 12 points italicized.
  • Primary text should be ragged right rather than justified. Pull quotes (usually extracts from other sources that are more than 50 or 75 words) can be set off as justified text with narrower margins and tighter line spacing.
  • For the love of Pete: one space after a period!
  • Also: serial commas! Whether you call this an Oxford comma, a Chicago comma, or a serial comma, please use it. (See that? I used a serial comma right there!)
  • For footnotes, use the handy footnotes tool in Word, which automatically numbers the notes for you and drops them at the bottom of the correct page. If you prefer endnotes, that’s completely fine, but still use that tool. Use Cardinal numerals instead of Roman numerals. Notes should be formatted in 10-point Times New Roman, single-spaced, with a hanging indent of 0.25″.
  • Tabs are best saved for tables and charts. You can center titles, headlines, and subheads using the centering tool. You can indent paragraphs using the first-line indent tool. Don’t tab tab tab tab tab over to wherever you want to place an element. That’s annoying and can screw up your formatters/typesetters later on down the line once the manuscript goes into production.
  • If you’re going to open a chapter with a quote, make sure that all chapters open with quotes. Be consistent!
  • Page numbers should be inserted at the bottom of the page in the footer, flush right. It can be helpful to include your name and the book title in the footer as well; these should go flush left.

Of course, if you are already working with a publisher, the style and formatting guidelines required by that publisher rule above all else. Too, the field for which you are writing might have a preferred style guide, such as Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, or American Psychological Association. Whether you use CMS, MLA, APA, or some other style guide, be sure to be consistent with usage throughout the manuscript.

Why is any of this important?
For at least a couple of reasons.

For starters, although it might seem mundane or finicky, a properly formatted manuscript is easier to read. A messy, goofy, dolled-up manuscript can be annoying, which doesn’t exactly predispose your editor to read your manuscript with a charitable eye. Editing is as much art as science, and if your sloppy manuscript sets the wrong tone, it might not end up well for you.

In addition, if you’re paying out of pocket for an editor to work on your manuscript, it might cost you less in the long run if that editor doesn’t need to spend a lot of time reformatting your manuscript. I’ve worked on projects that required many hours of formatting. If the author had taken the time to format the manuscript correctly in the first place, he could have saved himself hundreds of dollars.

In the end, remember that a manuscript isn’t a printed book. A manuscript isn’t even typeset pages. There is no reason for any writer to play “Fun with Formatting,” because any design elements will be settled on later in the production process when the internal design of the book is determined. The manuscript should be clean and easy to read. You’re much better spending your time being creative with your writing than being creative with the appearance of your manuscript.

September 12, 2017



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