See the nice, pretty Lenten roses? Aren’t they soothing to behold? Don’t they help lower the blood pressure of those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, the ones who tensed up at the very notion of going through the rigors of standard format for manuscripts again?
No? Well, how about those of you hearing about it for the first time? Or those — and I know you’re out there; I heard from one only yesterday — whose chest tighten at the very notion of writers talking about manuscript presentation amongst themselves at all?
I’ll admit it: it’s a stressful topic, enough so that each time I go over it (on average, 2-3 times per year), I ask myself at least thrice why I’m putting myself — and the rest of you — through it. Delving into the nitty-gritty of the logic behind those pesky rules is no fun by anyone’s standards. And every time I have broached the subject formally, those who have heard rumors elsewhere that something has changed leap upon my well-intentioned little gazelles of advice with the ferocity of hungry lions, demanding that I either recant my not at all heretical beliefs or, as I mentioned yesterday, to compel literally every other writing advice-giver in North America to agree to abide by precisely the same rules.
To dispel any illusions up front: neither of those things is going to happen. In my professional experience, the formatting I’m discussing here is indeed important, and not just in theory. I have sold books adhering to these rules; my editing clients have sold books using them. So I feel entirely comfortable in saying that manuscripts formatted in this manner tend to look professional to people who handle manuscripts for a living.
Does that mean every professional reader, everywhere, every time, will want to see your work formatted this way? No, of course not: should you happen to be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest that specifically asks you to do something else, obviously, you should give him, her, or it what he wants to see.
That’s just common sense, right? Not to mention basic courtesy.
In fact, I would actively encourage you not only to check the standard agency guides for expressions of these preferences, but to run an internet search on any individual agent to whom you were planning to submit, to double-check that s/he hasn’t stated loud and clear that, for instance, s/he prefers only a single space after a period or a colon. Admittedly, it requires a bit more effort on the submitter’s part, but hey, it’s worth it.
Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if an agent or editor has been kind enough to take the time to tell aspiring writers precisely what s/he wants, a savvy writer should pay attention.
Again, that’s just being both smart and polite, isn’t it?
I spot some timid hands raised out there. “But Anne,” point out some confused by conflicting advice — and who could blame them, given the multiplicity of it? “I’ve been doing my homework, and the vast majority of the guide listings and websites I’m seeing don’t talk about format at all. What should I do then?”
Glad you asked. In my opinion — and it’s just my opinion, mind — the best course is to adhere to the rules of standard format.
That’s why I revisit this topic so often. But to repeat the disclaimer I’ve run every single time I’ve run a series on formatting: these are the rules that I use myself, the ones that my lengthy experience tells me work. There are, however, other rules out there, presented by some very credible sources. If you find other guidelines that make sense to you, use them with my good wishes.
Seriously: as far as I’m concerned, what you do with your manuscript up to you; I’m only trying to be helpful here. That’s why I provide such extensive explanations for each of my suggested guidelines — so my readers may consider the various recommendations out there and form their own opinions.
You’re smart people; I know you’re up to the challenge.
I’m also confident that my readers are savvy enough to understand that paying attention to how a manuscript looks does not imply that how it is written doesn’t make a difference. Of course, writing talent, style, and originality count. Yet in order to notice any of those, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.
That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what half of you just thought, necessarily the result of mere market-mindedness on the part of the reader. After you’ve read a few hundred or thousand manuscripts, deviations from standard format leap out at you. As do spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clichÃ©s, and all of the writing problems we’ve all heard so much about at writers’ conferences.
They’re distractions from your good writing, in other words. My goal here is to help you minimize the distractions that would catch the eye first.
I hear those of you who have spent years slaving over your craft groaning out there — believe me, I sympathize. For those of you who have not already started composing your first drafts in standard format (which will save you a LOT of time in the long run, incidentally), I fully realize that many of the tiny-but-pervasive changes I am about to suggest that you make to your manuscript are going to be irksome to implement. Reformatting a manuscript is time-consuming and tedious, and I would be the first to admit that at first, some of these rules can seem arbitrary.
At least on their faces. Quite a few of these restrictions remain beloved even in the age of electronic submissions because they render a manuscript a heck of a lot easier to edit — and to read, in either hard or soft copy. As I will show later in this series, a lot of these rules exist for completely practical purposes — designed, for instance, to maximize white space in which the editor may scrawl trenchant comments like, “Wait, wasn’t the protagonist’s sister named Maeve in the last chapter? Why is she Belinda here?”
One last, quick caveat before I launch back into the list: the standard format restrictions I’m listing here are not intended to be applied to short stories, poetry, journalistic articles, academic articles, or indeed any other form of writing. The guidelines in this series are for BOOK manuscripts and proposals, and thus should not be applied to other kinds of writing. Similarly, the standards applicable to magazine articles, short stories, dissertations, etc. should not be applied to book proposals and manuscripts.
For the guidelines for these, you may — and should — seek elsewhere. (See my earlier disclaimer of omniscience.)
Everyone clear on that and ready to dive back into the matter at hand? Excellent. To recap from yesterday:
(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.
(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.
(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.
(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.
Is everyone happy with those? PLEASE pipe up with questions, if not. In the meantime, let’s move on.
(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.
No exceptions, please. No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type.
Yes, even on the title page, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out. No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. (If you don’t know how to format a title page professionally, please see the TITLE PAGE category on the list at right.)
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.
It’s high school book report. Need I say more?
(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, it’s not mandatory.
Yes, you read that correctly: you may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but thatâ€™s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be bolded. (Unless it’s a section heading in a nonfiction proposal or manuscript — but don’t worry about that for now; I’ll be showing you how to format both a book proposal and a section break later on in this series, I promise.)
This seems like an odd one, right? Actually, the no-bolding rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. So historically, using bold in-text is considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: itâ€™s a subtle display of wealth.
You didnâ€™t think all of those white shoes the Victorians wore cleaned themselves, did you? Shiny white shoes equaled scads of busily-polishing staff.
(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered — EXCEPT the title page.
This may seem like a little thing, but you’d be surprised how often violating this rule results in instantaneous rejection. Even if you take no other advice from this series, please remember to number your pages.
Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if Iâ€™m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission or contest entry. It ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, â€œDear Agent.â€
Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down — and if the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper…
Did that seem like an abstract metaphor? Not at all. Picture, if you will, two manuscript-bearing interns colliding in an agency hallway.
You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of this, as well as what comes next: after the blizzard of flying papers dies down, and the two combatants rehash that old Reeseâ€™s Peanut Butter Cup commercialâ€™s dialogue (â€œYou got romance novel in my literary fiction!â€ â€œYou got literary fiction in my romance novel!â€), what needs to happen?
Yup. Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in the proper order. Put yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?
Number your pages. Trust me, it is far, far, FAR easier for Millicent to toss the entire thing into the reject pile than to spend the hours required to guess which bite-sized piece of storyline belongs before which.
FYI, the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such. If your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of THAT is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1.
Why, you ask? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: BECAUSE A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT LOOK IDENTICAL TO A PUBLISHED BOOK.
The title page is not the only one commonly mislabeled as page one, by the way: epigraphs — those quotations from other authors’ books so dear to the hearts of writers everywhere — should not appear on their own page in a manuscript, as they sometimes do in published books. If you feel you must include one (considering that 99.9999% of the time, Millicent will just skip over it), include it between the chapter title and text on page 1.
If that last sentence left your head in a whirl, don’t worry — I’ll show you how to format epigraphs properly later in this series. (Yes, including some discussion of that cryptic comment about Millicent. All in the fullness of time, my friends.)
(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.
Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it. The slug line should appear in the upper left-hand margin (although no one will sue you if you put it in the upper right-hand margin, left is the time-honored location) of every page of the text EXCEPT the title page (which should have nothing in the header or footer at all).
A trifle confused by all that terminology? I’m not entirely surprised. Most writing handbooks and courses tend to be a trifle vague about this particular requirement, so allow me to define the relevant terms: a well-constructed slug line includes the authorâ€™s last name, book title, and page number, to deal with that intern-collision problem I mentioned earlier. (The slug line allows the aforementioned luckless individual to tell the romance novel from the literary fiction.) And the header, for those of you who have not yet surrendered to Microsoft Word’s lexicon, is the 1-inch margin at the top of each page.
Traditionally, the slug line appears all in capital letters, but itâ€™s not strictly necessary. Being something of a traditionalist, the third page of my memoir has a slug line that looks like this:
MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3
Since the ONLY place a page number should appear on a page of text is in the slug line, if you are in the habit of placing numbers wacky places like the middle of the footer, do be aware that it does not look strictly professional to, well, professionals. Double-check that your word processing program is not automatically adding extraneous page markers.
Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word “page.”
If that news strikes you as a disappointing barrier to your self-expression, remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as conveyers of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative style, but for your manuscript’s pages to look exactly like every other professional writer’s.
And yes, I AM going to keep making that point over and over until you are murmuring it in your sleep. Why do you ask?
If you have a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. The goal here is to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.
Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. (A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type. Aren’t you glad you asked?)
Keep it brief. For instance. my agent is currently circulating a novel of mine entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:
MINI/THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB/1
If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters all by itself, including dash — I might well feel compelled to abbreviate:
Incidentally, should anyone out there come up with a bright idea for a category heading on the archive list for this issue other than slug line — a category that already exists, but is unlikely to be found by anyone not already familiar with the term — I’d be delighted to hear suggestions. I’ve called it a slug line ever since I first clapped eyes on a professional manuscript (an event that took place so long ago my response to the sight was not, “What’s that at the top of the page, Daddy?” but “Goo!”), so I’m not coming up with a good alternative. Thanks.
(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title appearing on the FIRST line of the page, NOT on the line immediately above where the text begins.
Thatâ€™s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. Don’t panic if you’re having trouble visualizing this — I’ll be giving concrete examples of what the first page of a chapter should look like later in this series.
The chapter title (or merely â€œChapter Oneâ€) may appear on the FIRST line of the first page — not on the last line before the text, as so many writers mistakenly do. The chapter title or number should be centered, and it should NOT be in boldface or underlined.
Why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text, as one so often sees — and, frankly, as some other writing sites advise? Because that’s where the title of a short story lives, not a book’s.
Very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that include the title of the book, “by Author’s Name,” and/or the writerâ€™s contact information in the space above the text. This is classic rookie mistake. To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems term paper-ish.
So where does all of that necessary contact information go, you ask? Read on.
(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.
This is one of the main differences between a short story submission (say, to a literary journal) and a novel submission. To submit a manuscript — or contest entry, for that matter — with this information on page 1 is roughly the equivalent of taking a great big red marker and scrawling, “I don’t know much about the business of publishing,” across it.
Just don’t do it.
“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “I need a title page? Since when?”
Funny you should mention that, because…
(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.
This one seems to come as a surprise to a lot of aspiring writers. You should ALWAYS include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages.
Why, you ask? Because it is genuinely unheard-of for a professional manuscript not to have a title page: literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor in hard copy will include one, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s the page that includes the agent’s contact information. Yet, astonishingly, a good 95% of writers submitting to agencies seem to be unaware that including it is industry standard.
On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment itâ€™s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?
If you do not know how to format a proper title page — and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for it, too — please see the TITLE PAGE category at right. Or wait a few days until I cover it later in this series.
Again, it’s entirely up to you. No pressure here.
Before anyone who currently has a submission languishing at an agency begins to panic: you’re almost certainly not going to get rejected SOLELY for forgetting to include a title page. Omitting a title page is too common a mistake to be an automatic deal-breaker for most Millicents. Ditto with improperly-formatted ones. And yes, one does occasionally run into an agent at a conference or one blogging online who says she doesnâ€™t care one way or the other about whether a submission has a title page resting on top at all.
Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I point out roughly 127,342 times per year in this forum, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it isn’t a stickler for professionalism?
I sense some shoulders sagging at the very notion of all the work it’s going to be to alter your pages before you send them out. Please believe me when I tell you that, as tedious as it is to change these things in your manuscript now, by the time youâ€™re on your third or fourth book, it will be second nature to you. Why, Iâ€™ll bet that the next time you sit down to begin a new writing project, you will automatically format it correctly. Think of all of the time THAT will save you down the line.
Hey, in this business, you learn to take joy in the small victories.
Next time, I’m going to finish going through the guidelines, so we may move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice — because, again, I’m not asking you to embrace these guidelines just because I say so. I want you to have enough information on the subject to be able to understand why following them might be a good idea.
I’m funny that way. Keep up the good work!