Standard format

A few posts ago, I promised to refresh your memories on what precisely standard format for manuscripts is. This may seem Mickey Mouse to some of you, but honestly, in my extensive travels amongst writers looking to get published, I have discovered that more often than not, the aspiring rely primarily upon instinct and observation of works in print as formatting guides. They pick typefaces on purely aesthetic grounds, play with margins and print size to make things fit well on the printed page, and occasionally even have justified margins on both the left and right sides of the page.

They are, in short, employing formatting practices that make their work unprofessional to agents and editors. And manuscripts that look unprofessional, unfortunately, tend not to be taken seriously by people in the biz.

There is a standard format for prose manuscripts in North America; why this should not be widely known is a mystery to me. I think it is unfair to writers new to the game to expect them to learn such basic requirements by trial-and-error, so periodically, I like to state — openly and without disguise — what standard format entails. Unorthodox, I know, but I’m here to help.

A manuscript, dearly beloved, is NOT an exact replica of a published book.

It differs in many small, important ways — and to editorial eyes, these difference are screaming fire sirens about the experience level of the author. A manuscript that apes the conventions of published books does not, contrary to popular belief, make the author look more professional, at least not to professional eyes. Instead, to an agent or editor, those very ostensibly expert touches brand a manuscript irrevocably as the work of an amateur.

Why is this a problem? Well, in an environment where agents receive 500 or more unsolicited submissions per week, being able to weed out the less experienced authors automatically by tossing out any submission that does not adhere to standard format speeds up going through the mail considerably.

In other words, if your manuscript is formatted correctly, it is FAR more likely to be read than if it is not.

To be absolutely honest, most of the conventions of standard format are seriously outdated. For instance, in standard format, all numbers under 100 are written out in full. The original reason for this was simple: to prevent the typesetter from making a mistake; in longhand, a 3 can look a great deal like an 8, but a three is pretty hard to mistake for an eight. Similarly, all dashes in manuscripts should be doubled, to prevent the typesetter from mistaking them for hyphens. Now that manuscripts are transmitted whole and entire via computer program, the risk of this type of mistake is significantly lower, yet the traditions of standard format remain intact.

I find it helps to think of the rigors of standard format as the manners of the publishing world. You would not stumble into a group of foreigners whom you wanted to impress and deliberately hurt their sensibilities by refusing to comply with their rituals, would you? If you met the Queen of England, would you seize the opportunity to insult her taste in hats, or would you curtsey and murmur a few polite words, like everyone else in the receiving line?

I imagine that your mother would like think that she brought you up well enough to choose the latter. Pet the corgis, admire the Queen’s hat, and get out of the palace with your head on.

Agents and editors may not have the power to chop off your head if you displease them, but they do have the authority to pronounce your manuscript dead on arrival. So the prudent course for those new to the publishing world is to learn its manners and traditions. Honoring these traditions may not guarantee your work a sympathetic reading — but on a bad day, when an agent is trying to plow through her seventieth submission in an hour, you bet your boots that deviations from standard format provide an easy excuse to toss that manuscript aside and move onto the next.

Here are the rules of standard format:

  • All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page. No exceptions.


  • All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Yes, this is wasteful of paper. Deal with it.

  • The text should be left justified ONLY.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along the margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

  • The typeface should be 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

If you write screenplays, you may only use Courier. Seriously, most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface.

There is a very good reason for utilizing a standardized font: in Times or Times New Roman, one double-spaced page is 250 words, rendering word count estimation easy.

  • No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and typeface. Even if the manuscript features an extensive correspondence in translated Elvish. If it’s in English, it should be in a standard typeface.


  • Words in foreign languages should be italicized.


  • Every page in the manuscript should be numbered.


  • Each page contains a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #.

Thus, the third page of my memoir manuscript reads: MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3.

  • The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.

That’s twelve lines, incidentally.

  • The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s. Even if every chapter ever printed by your favorite author has used this device, you will not be in a position to explain that to an agent or editor until after he has already noted that your work is not professionally presented.

  • All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.


  • Dashes should be doubled — hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, I know that your word processing program will automatically change a doubled dash to a single one. Change it back.

  • Dashes should have spaces at each end — rather than—like this.

Yes, yes, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy. But standard format is invariable upon this point.

  • The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™

Actually, if an editor or agent is under the age of 30, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it.

Yes, I know you’ve never seen this in a finished book — that’s because the legal department at some publishing house has meticulously gone through the text of those books with a fine-toothed comb, finding brand names so they can obtain permission from their owners to use them. Save the legal department some time: flag the words.

That’s it.

I know that most of these seem petty: after all, it should be the writing that counts in a submission, not the typeface. It IS petty to privilege Times over Helvetica. Again, this is yet another of those areas where you can beat yourself bloody, railing against an illogical system, or you can just accept the status quo.

I vote for the latter. This is an industry that changes only very, very slowly: believe it or not, most NYC literary agencies still don’t even have an on-site computer wizard. It is not uncommon for e-mail attachments, the transition between Mac and PC, and the linked documents to appear as big, ugly mysteries to people who are otherwise very, very savvy. A polite person, a prudent person, a person who wants these people to like her and her work, will not rub their noses in the fact that you probably know more about computers than they do.

Trust me on this one: it’s a paper-based industry, and one that likes to see new authors respect its traditions.

Flow with it. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Don’t forget to work on your entry for the Holiday Table contest (details in my post of November 24). The deadline is December 15

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