My class on — you guessed it! — manuscript format

As those of you who read yesterday’s post already know, I spent this last weekend at the Flathead River Writers’ Conference — a big hello to those of you whom I met there who are checking in to the Author! Author! blog for the first time. And to everyone else, too, of course.

For those of you new to the blog, the rules of this little online community are very simple: since the primary purpose of this forum is to help writers navigate the often difficult and confusing waters of the publishing industry, I have tried to make it as easy for writers to find answers to their questions as possible. Since there is a LOT of information on this site, please feel free to peruse the category headings at right (and for those, thanks to the fabulous Brian Tanaka, who set up this lovely website in record time this summer!) or send me questions via the COMMENT link at the bottom of every post.

Seriously, I DO want you to post questions — I would MUCH rather that you asked me, say, a vexing formatting question BEFORE you sent out a submission to an agent than after. My readers post such good questions that I often write entire blogs — or even series of blogs — in response to them, so it honestly is true that this blog runs on reader input. Also, feel free to engage in discussions via the COMMENT link — I want this to be a community where far-flung writers may exchange views on our common craft.

Since I have harped so much on standard format for manuscripts in this forum, it was rather a surprise to me to realize when I was prepping for my conference class that I actually had not posted on it since June! High time for me to revisit it, then.

Every time I teach a class on manuscript formatting, I am amazed afresh at how few writers — good ones, well-educated ones, the kind who are very conscientious about learning as much as they can about what agents and editors like to see in a submission — have been taught that there IS a standard format for manuscripts, much less what it entails. Properly formatting a manuscript is yet another one of those magical skills that the industry just seems to assume that every writer is born possessing.

But we’re not, and I, for one, don’t think it’s fair to judge writers by standards that are not widely known. So please, long-time readers, think of my incessant (okay, once every few months) harping on the subject my own small effort to make these standards as widely known as possible.

So, for those of you who do not already know: standard manuscript for manuscripts is NOT the same as standard format for books, and agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges are fairly uniformly taught to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not). In either case, an improperly-formatted manuscript seldom gets a fair reading by the aforementioned, and often is not read at all.

And why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that their PRIMARY goal is to weed out the one they are reading at the moment. The faster they can do that, the better for them.

Don’t give ’em half a chance. The more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by people within the industry. Period.

Here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable:

(1) All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page, on 20-lb paper or better.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise.

The reason for the nice paper is that a submission often passes through three or four hands in the course of its road to acceptance. Lower-quality paper will wilt after a reading or two; 20-lb or better will not. Bright white, please, and use a new printer cartridge: you want the black-white contrast to be as sharp as possible.

(2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.
Again, unless you are asked to do otherwise — and yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper. The entire publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise, and there doesn’t seem to be much that we writers can do about it. To make matters worse, most agencies do not even recycle…

I assure you, if I ran the universe, this would not be the case. Also, writers would all be awarded seven extra hours in a week, be given free domestic help, and a freshly-baked pie on Truman Capote’s birthday every year. But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe, we all just have to live with it.

(3) The text should be left justified ONLY.
A lot of writers squirm about this one. They want to believe that a professional manuscript looks exactly like a printed book, but the fact is, it shouldn’t. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side 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.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.
These are plain, not-too-pretty fonts, but they are in fact the standards of the publishing industry; it’s a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent) and elite (Times). As I’ve explained before, queries and manuscripts printed in other fonts are simply not taken as seriously.

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. The typeface ultimately used in the published book is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor — or, even more frequently, a decision made by the publishing house without the author’s input at all. If you try to illustrate the fabulousness of your desired typeface now, you run the risk of your manuscript being dismissed as unprofessional.

If you write screenplays, you may ONLY use Courier. Most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface — which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

(5) 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.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions, INCLUDING YOUR TITLE PAGE.
There is literally no reason, short of including words in languages like Greek that have different scripts, to deviate from this. If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Sorry. (See disclaimer above about proprietorship of the universe.)

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page.
You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be in bold.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered.
This one is generally an automatic rejection offense, if violated. Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission — it ranks up there on their rudeness scale with kicking someone’s grandmother and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.”

Why do they hate it so much? Gravity, my friends, gravity. Because manuscripts are not bound, and they have been known to get dropped from time to time.

Trust me, no employee currently working within any aspect of the publishing industry is going to be willing to waste twenty minutes figuring out from context which unnumbered page you wanted to follow which.

The standard way to paginate is in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page… of which, see point 8.

(8) Each page should a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/page #.
The safest place for this is left-justified, but you can get away with right-justifying it as well. And the header, for those of you who don’t know (hey, I’m trying to cram as much information into this as possible), is the 1-inch margin at the top of the page.

(9) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.
That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the first line of the first page, but then nothing should appear until a third of the way down the page.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.
A surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (I’m told it’s around 92%) seem to be unaware that ANY submission of ANY length (including contest entries) should include a title page. On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope.

If you do not know how to format a proper title page (and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for manuscripts), please see the Your Title Page category at right.

(11) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.
Yes, I know that published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style here might get your work knocked out of consideration.

Why? Well, to people in the publishing industry, non-indented paragraphs are the hallmark of (ugh) business correspondence, which is to say that they regard it as a symptom of creeping illiteracy. Just don’t do it.

So, pop quiz, to see if all of you are getting just how seriously folks in the industry take formatting choices: which do you think is going to strike them as more literate, a query letter in business format (no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, the whole shebang left-justified) or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page)?

Uh-huh. Don’t you wish that someone had told you that before you sent out your first query letter?

(12) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.
This one is for all of you bloggers and business letter-writers out there. The whole darned manuscript should be double-spaced, and paragraphs are all indented, so there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. The ONLY exception is that you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text.

(13) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.
Including Elvish. You don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

You may also use italics for emphasis, book titles, song titles, etc. — and just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards.

In a submission for the book publishing industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Why? The reason is actually very practical: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper.

(14) All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.
Here is how charmingly archaic the industry is: this was for the benefit of the manual typesetters. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

Again, be warned, those of you who have been taught by teachers schooled in the AP style: what they will tell you to do is write out only numbers under 10. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG in a manuscript.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that I have seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this particular issue?

(15) Dashes should be doubled — hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory.
Dashes should also have spaces at each end — rather than—like this.
Again, I know: an AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style. However, both are incorrect, as far as standard format for submissions to the publishing industry are concerned.

I fully admit that doubling the dashes is a monumental pain. Books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy; many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them, and any Microsoft product will automatically change a doubled dash to the longer emdash.

But standard format is invariable upon this point — and heck, MS Word’s grammar checker has more than once told me to replace the correct form of there, their, or they’re with an incorrect one. Who are you gonna believe, me or Bill Gates?

Assuming you decided to believe me, go back and change it. It’s a pain, true, but is it really worth annoying an agent over?

(16) The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™.
If you catch an agent under the age of 30, or one who doesn’t have a graduate degree, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it. Writers — yes, and publishing houses, too — have actually been sued over this within the last couple of years, so be careful about it.

There you have it: literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest (yes, including the synopsis) should be in standard format. Trust me, your work will be treated better if you follow these rules. Think of it as a gesture of courtesy to the new community you hope to join, an indication that you have taken the time to learn their strange ways and traditions and are making the effort to adhere to them.

And in an industry where accept/reject decisions are often made on a split-second basis, courtesy definitely pays. A manuscript in standard format looks to the critical eye like a couple dressed in formal wear for a black-tie event: yes, it is possible that the hosts will be too nice to toss them out if they show up in a run-of-the-mill casual suits or jeans, but the properly-attired couple will be admitted happily. By dressing as the hosts wished, the couple is showing respect to the event and the people who asked them to attend.

Yes, I know that I sound like your mother, but nevertheless, it’s true. Dress your work appropriately, and it will be a welcome guest at an agency or publishing house.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

10 Replies to “My class on — you guessed it! — manuscript format”

  1. Wow! It never occurred to me that a query would be written in any format other than business style. All the tips are great but that one really stands out for me.

    When you say to number every page, does that include the title page?


  2. Thanks, Anne! The only lingering questions I have are: how should dashes be typed when indicating interrupted dialog? Two dashes with a space on either side, e.g., “That’s the last time I lis — ” looks odd to me.

    Do short stories need a title page? I’ve read that standard format for short stories included contact info and word count on the first page of the story.

    I appreciate the review!

  3. I’m always glad when people have follow-up questions! It makes me feel like I’m doing my job, getting writers to question the way they have submitted in the past.

    Glad you brought the title page issue up, Moo, because this is a question I got when I was teaching this weekend, too: no, it should not be numbered. Numbering should begin on pg. 1 of the chapter.

    And it’s really a matter of personal preference on short stories, Serenissima, unless the publication to which you’re submitting has a preferred format. (Always follow their format if they do, of course.) I have seen short stories submitted both way, and frankly, I’ve never heard anyone in an editorial office murmur about it one way or the other. The only times I’ve heard complaints are when the information isn’t instantly discernible.

    The place where it really will make a difference is in a book manuscript. I never submit ANYTHING ANYWHERE without a title page, because I think it’s always in the author’s best interest to make it as easy as possible for publishers to contact her (or, in my case, my agent).

    The interrupted dialogue question is an interesting one — personally, I favor the ellipse method (“What the he…”), so the dash issue hasn’t come up for me.

    It should be doubled, though, even though it looks funny. However, there should not be a space between the interrupted word and the dash. To use your example, “That’s the last time I lis–” would be correct.

  4. Thought I sent something on this yesterday. Evidently not! Noticed the comment about the computer grammar checker wanting the wrong “there, their, or they’re.” Mine constantly wants “Your Majesty” to be changed to “You’re Majesty!” And it has fits over repeated words. “Aye aye, sir!” Walla Walla, and so on.

  5. Okay, what’s the answer to the query letter formatting pop quiz? Is business format not preferred? Did I fail the quiz? 😉

    1. “Fail” is such a harsh word….I have always preferred “Will be kept after class to review the material while clapping the chalk off the erasers.”

  6. Dear Anne,

    I tend to read your blog as if it were the Bible, but as I’ve seen conflicting formatting advice on the use of italics and font all over the Internet from equally wonderful writers, I find myself having a crisis of faith. I’ve heard it preached that only Courier will do because it’s not mono-spaced as is Times New Roman, and that only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized. I guess I need reassurance that your advice is what belongs in the canon. As for the life changing news that query letters should be in correspondance format, I am truly grateful. Thanks for opening the doors of the temple to the unititiated.


    1. Dear Claire –

      I wrote a long answer to your questions, and actually posted it, but took it down again. I had been reacting primarily to the idea of taking ANY advice as if God had handed it to the giver pre-scrawled on stone tablets. Thus, my initial response was really about issues of credibility (although, obviously, it would be impossible for me to assess whether my own advice is more to be trusted than an unnamed alternative source), rather than how to know when to take a piece of writing advice as a hard-and-fast rule, and when to regard it as, well, advice. I think the latter issues are the more interesting ones for us here, and probably the crux of your quite understandable crisis of faith.

      Probably, quite a few readers out there who share your bewilderment — you are quite right that the web hosts a plethora of conflicting opinions on what does and does not fly in the industry — so I am going to post a blog on the subject tomorrow, and address your formatting concerns the next.

      So keep an eye on Author! Author! over the next couple of days, try not to give in to the hobgoblins of doubt, and thanks for raising the issues!

  7. I see that book manuscript format is different from AP format. What about a submission of a nonfiction essay to a literary magazine. Would that be best in book format?

    1. For a literary magazine, I would stick to book format — but it’s always a good idea to check the magazine’s guidelines, just in case a former journalist has snuck onto the editorial board. If they DON’T want it in standard book format, they’ll generally tell you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *