How to format a book manuscript properly, part III: yes, the details matter. Really, really matter.


Fair warning, campers: today’s is going to be a long, long post, even by my standards. Yes, I could have chopped it in half, but for the sake of readers in the months to come who will be tracking down the rules-only part of this series on standard format for manuscripts in the archives, I wanted to cram the list of rules into as few posts as possible.

While the applying these rules to a manuscript already in progress may seem like a pain, remember, practice makes habitual. After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature. Trust me, it’s a learned instinct that can save a writer oodles of time and misery come deadline time.

How, you ask? Well, to a writer for whom proper formatting has become automatic, there is no last-minute scramble to change the text. It came into the world correct — which, in turn, saves a writer revision time.

And sometimes, those conserved minutes and hours can save the writer’s proverbial backside as well. Scoff not: even a psychic with a very, very poor track record for predictions could tell you that there will be times in your career when you don’t have the time to proofread as closely as you would like. At some point, that half an hour it would take to reformat will make the difference between making and missing your deadline.

Perversely, this is a kind of stress that will probably make you happy — perhaps not in the moment you are experiencing it, but in general. The more successful you are as a writer — ANY kind of writer — the more often you will be in a hurry, predictably. No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract…just ask any author whose agent is breathing down her neck after a deadline has passed. Or about which neither the editor nor agent remembered to tell her in the first place.

Oh, how I wish I were kidding about that. And don’t even get me started on the phenomenon of one’s agent calling the day after Thanksgiving to announce, “I told the editor that you could have the last third of the book completely reworked by Christmas — that’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

Think you’re going to want to be worrying about your formatting at that juncture? (And no, I wasn’t making up that last example, either; I had a lousy holiday season that year, as long-term readers of this blog may recall.) Believe me, you’re going to be kissing yourself in retrospect for learning how to handle the rote matters right the first time, so you can concentrate on the hard stuff.

That’s the good news about how easily standard format sinks into one’s very bones. The down side, is that once people — like, say, the average agent, editor, or Millicent — have spent enough time staring at professionally-formatted manuscripts, anything else starts to look, well, unprofessional.

The implications of this mindset are vast. First, it means that IF AN AGENT OR EDITOR REQUESTED YOU TO SEND PAGES, S/HE IS EXPECTING THEM TO BE IN STANDARD FORMAT, unless s/he SPECIFICALLY tells you otherwise.

Translation: it’s so much assumed that s/he probably won’t even mention it, because most agents and editors believe that these rules are already part of every serious book-writer’s MO.

So much so, in fact, that agents who’ve read my blog sometimes ask me why I go over these rules so often. Doesn’t everyone already know them? Isn’t this information already widely available? Aren’t there, you know, books on how to put a manuscript together?

I’ll leave those of you reading this post to answer those for yourselves. Suffice it to say that our old pal Millicent the agency screener believes the answers to be: because I like it, yes, yes, and yes.

Second, this mindset means that seemingly little choices like font and whether to use a doubled dash or an emdash — of which more below — can make a HUGE difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript. (Yes, I know: I point this out with some frequency. However, as it still seems to come as a great surprise to the vast majority aspiring writers; I can only assume that my voice hasn’t been carrying very far when I’ve said it the last 700 times.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but professional-level critique is HARSH; it’s like having your unmade-up face examined under a very, very bright light by someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings by pointing out flaws. In the industry, this level of scrutiny is not considered even remotely mean. Actually, if your work generates tell-it-like-it-is feedback from a pro, you should be a bit flattered — it’s how they habitually treat professional authors.

Yet the aforementioned vast majority of submitting writers seem to assume, at least implicitly, that agents and their staffs will be hugely sympathetic readers of their submissions, willing to overlook technical problems because of the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.

I’m not going to lie to you — every once in a very, very long while, the odd exception that justifies this belief does in fact occur. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, or the story is drool-worthy, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer.

You could also have a Horatio Alger moment where you find a billionaire’s wallet, return it to him still stuffed with thousand-dollar bills, and he adopts you as his new-found son or daughter.

Anything is possible, of course. But it’s probably prudent to assume, when your writing’s at stake, that yours is not going to be the one in 10,000,000 exception.

Virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to an improperly-formatted manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: speedy rejection.

Yes, from a writerly point of view, this is indeed trying. Yet as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, I do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules.

Sorry. No matter how much I would like to absolve you from some of them, it is outside my power. Take it up with the fairy godmother who neglected to endow me with that gift at birth, okay?

Until you have successfully made your case with her, I’m going to stick to using the skills that she DID grant me, a childhood filled with professional writers who made me learn to do it the right way the first time. Let’s recap some of the habits they inculcated, shall we?

(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.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

(6) Do NOT use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

(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.

(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.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

Everyone clear on all that? Good. Let’s move on.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph of text should be indented five spaces. No exceptions, EVER.

To put it another way: NOTHING you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format. And for a pretty good reason: despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena has been known to use block format from time to time(and blogs are set up to use nothing else), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose.

Period. Don’t bother quibbling about it — and don’t skip lines between paragraphs, either. (The logic for that last bit follows in a moment, never fear.)

That loud clicking sound that some of you may have found distracting was the sound of light bulbs going on over the heads of all of those readers who have been submitting their manuscripts (and probably their queries as well) in block paragraphs. Yes, what all of you newly well-lit souls are thinking right now is quite true: those queries and submissions may well have been rejected at first glance by a Millicent in a bad mood. (And when, really, is she not?)

Yes, even if you submitted those manuscripts via e-mail. (See why I’m always harping on how submitting in hard copy, or at the very worst as a Word attachment, is inherently better for a submitter?)

Why the knee-jerk response? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large, the people who have devoted themselves to bringing good writing to publications still tend to take it awfully darned seriously. To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence — and that’s definitely not good.

Why, you ask? Well, do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder about your literacy?

I thought not. And which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page, no skipped line between paragraphs)?

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

Trust me on this one: indent your paragraphs in any document that’s ever going to pass under the nose of anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Including the first paragraph of every chapter, incidentally. Yes, published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. But again, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying it in a submission, no matter to whom it is intended as an homage, might get your work knocked out of consideration.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

I’m serious about that being the ONLY exception: skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text, and for no other reason.

Really, this guideline is just common sense — so it’s a continual surprise to professional readers how often we see manuscripts that are single-spaced with a line skipped between paragraphs (much like blog format, seen here in all of its glory).

Why surprising? Well, since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. (Which is, in case you were not aware of it, what a skipped line between paragraph means in a single-spaced or non-indented document.) In a double-spaced document, a skipped line means a section break, period.

Also — and this is far from insignificant, from a professional reader’s point of view — it’s COMPLETELY impossible to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on screen. The eye skips between lines too easily, and in hard copy, there’s nowhere to scrawl comments like Mr. Dickens, was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could hardly have been both!

So why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise? My guess would be for one of two reasons: either they think business format is proper English formatting (which it isn’t) or they’re used to seeing skipped lines in print. Magazine articles, mostly.

But — feel free to shout it along with me now; you know the words — A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT RESEMBLE A PUBLISHED PIECE OF WRITING.

The * * * section break is obsolete, as is the #; no one will fault you for using either — although most Millicents will roll their eyes upon seeing one of these old-fashioned formats, the latter is in fact proper for short story format. However, every agent I know makes old-fashioned writers take them out of book manuscripts prior to submission — but still, these throwbacks to the age of typewriters are no longer necessary in a submission to an agency or publishing house.

Why were they ever used at all? To alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional.

One caveat to contest-entrants: do check contest rules carefully, because some competitions still require * or #. You’d be amazed at how seldom long-running contests update their rules.

(14) NOTHING in a manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

Fair warning: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline the words and phrases mentioned above. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. As will anyone who learned how to format a manuscript before the home computer became common, for the exceedingly simple reason that the average typewriter doesn’t feature italic keys as well as regular type; underlining used to be the only option.

DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards. And although I remain fond of typewriters — growing up in a house filled with writers, the sound used to lull me to sleep as a child — the fact is, the publishing industry now assumes that all manuscripts are produced on computers. In Word, even.

So DO NOT BE TEMPTED. In a submission for the book industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Ever.

Professional readers are AMAZED at how often otherwise perfectly-formatted manuscripts get this backwards — seriously, many’s the time that a bunch of us has sat around and talked about it at the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. According to this informal and often not entirely sober polling data, an aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.

Or, to put it another way: since your future agent is going to make you change all of that underlining to italics anyway, you might as well get out of the habit of underlining now. Like, say, before submitting your manuscript — because if Millicent happens to be having a bad day (again, what’s the probability?) when she happens upon underlining in a submission, she is very, very likely to roll her eyes and think, “Oh, God, not another one.”

Italics are one of the few concessions manuscript format has made to the computer age — again, for practical reasons: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper. So when should you use them and why?

(a) The logic behind italicizing foreign words is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(b) The logic behind using italics for emphasis, as we’ve all seen a million times in print, is even more straightforward: writers used to use underlining for this. So did hand-writers.

(c) Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, but there is no hard-and-fast rule on this. Before you make the choice, do be aware that many agents and editors actively dislike this practice. Their logic, as I understand it: a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.

I have to confess, as a reader, I’m with them on that last one, but that’s just my personal preference.

However, there are many other agents and editors who think it is perfectly fine — but you are unlikely to learn which is which until after you have sent in your manuscript, alas. You submit your work, you take your chances.

There is no fail-safe for this choice. Sorry.

(15) All numbers (except for dates) under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. But numbers over 100 should be written as numbers: 1,243, not one thousand, two hundred and forty-three.

I’m surprised how often otherwise industry-savvy writers are unaware of this one, but the instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in professional readers. Translation: NOT doing it will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses.

Like pointing out foreign-language words with special formatting, this formatting rule was originally 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 who adhere to the AP style: they will tell you to write out only numbers under 10.

Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but in a book manuscript, it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this particular issue? More than once? And within the year?

(16) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash — with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces at either end, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, yes, I know: you’ve probably heard that this rule is obsolete, too, gone the way of underlining. The usual argument for its demise: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy, so many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned. Standard format is invariable upon this point: a doubled dash with a space on either end is correct; anything else is not. And yes, it is indeed a common enough pet peeve that the pros will complain to one another about how often submitters do it.

They also whine about how often they see manuscripts where this rule is applied inconsistently: two-thirds of the dashes doubled, perhaps, sometimes with a space at either end and sometimes not, with the odd emdash and single dash dotting the text as well. It may seem like a minor, easily-fixable phenomenon from the writer’s side of the submission envelope, but believe me, inconsistency drives people trained to spot minor errors nuts.

Your word-processing program probably changes a double dash to an emdash automatically, but CHANGE IT BACK. Any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

(17) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, not what it being done on the moment in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet — including the rule calling for TWO spaces after every period and colon.

In other words, do as Strunk & White say, not what others do. Assume that Millicent graduated with honors from the best undergraduate English department in the country, taught by the grumpiest, meanest, least tolerant stickler for grammar that ever snarled at a student unfortunate enough to have made a typo, and you’ll be fine.

Imagining half the adults around me in my formative years who on the slightest hint of grammatical impropriety even in spoken English will work, too.

The primary deviation from proper grammar I’ve been seeing in recent years is leaving only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period. Yes, printed books often do this, to save paper (the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it, right?). A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of the future — and that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look obsolete.

At the risk of sounding like the harsh grammar-mongers of my youth, poppycock.

There is a very, very practical reason to preserve that extra space after each sentence in a manuscript: ease of reading and thus editing. As anyone who has ever edited a long piece of writing can tell you, the white space on the page is where the comments — grammatical changes, pointing out flow problems, asking, “Does the brother really need to die here?” — go.

Less white space, less room to comment. It really is that simple.

Translation: until everyone in the industry makes the transition editing in soft copy — which is, as I have pointed out many times in this forum, both harder and less efficient than scanning a printed page — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change.

However, as some of you are probably already gearing up to tell me in the comments, one does hear differing opinions on this subject; it’s not all that uncommon, for instance, for an agent relatively new to the game to announce at conferences that NOBODY still expects that single space. If you’re planning to submit to her, by all means, listen to her — but I would advise against assuming that she is speaking for everybody in the industry.

Why? Well, the agents and editors who still edit in hard copy feel pretty strongly about the two-space rule — which is, incidentally, still the norm for typing in the English language; I’ve literally never heard an editor at a conference insist that the norm is a single space, for instance, although that will probably change over time as the industry becomes more computer-savvy. So whenever I hear a young agent telling a roomful of eager aspiring writers that absolutely nobody in publishing wants to see the second space after the period anymore, I always think, “I wonder if he’ll still be giving that advice after the first time submits to an old-school senior editor who lectures him for fifteen minutes on the rules of the English language.”

Because the old-schoolers are, if anything, more vehement than the advocates for change, I would not allow any of my editing clients submit with a single space. Nor have any of them (or I) ever been asked to change their two spaces after periods and colons to a single space. I just mention.

All of which is to say: make your own choice and be consistent about it throughout your manuscript; don’t kid yourself that an experienced professional reader isn’t going to notice if you sometimes use one format, sometimes the other. (Later in this series, I will show you the same page of text both ways, so you may see why it’s pretty obvious which is being used.)

There you have it: the rules. Practice them until they are imbedded into your very bones, my friends: literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest (yes, including the synopsis) for the rest of your professional life should be in standard format.

Oh, and it’s a good idea to make sure everything is spelled correctly, too, and to turn off the widow/orphan control; it makes pages into an uneven number of lines.

If you’re having a hard time absorbing all of these rules in one fell swoop, don’t despair: for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be observing them in their natural habitat, the manuscript.

Tomorrow, though, I’m going to take a break in this rather breathless series to bring you a treat: another post in our episodic series on various aspects of censorship. Make sure to tune in; this one’s going to be especially fascinating for any of you who ever gave even passing thought to whether your work could possibly fit comfortably within a single book category.

In the meantime, keep pondering your entries for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence — and, as always, keep up the good work!

31 Replies to “How to format a book manuscript properly, part III: yes, the details matter. Really, really matter.”

  1. I’m glad to read the definitive pronouncement on the great underline/italic debate. I will suggest that the reason people still underline is that many of the results of googling “manuscript format” state most firmly that to italicize is to err. Here’s hoping this series rises above those results. (they may be outdated, but they’re prevalent!)

  2. Hi Anne,

    I have a question: One of my WIPs is in 1st person from three different narrators. Each has their own section of narration. How do I mark that?

    1st Speaker: Chapters 1-4
    2nd Speaker: Chapters 4-7
    3rd Speaker: Chatpers 7-10
    Then the remainder is a mix of the order up until the final chapter which is 14 or 15, the 1st Speaker.

    Should the speaker’s name come before “Chapter #” or after?


    1. Isn’t that fascinating, Rene? It only goes to prove what my learned father used to say: popularity (which is how Google rankings are organized) is not a very good indicator of how one should act. I thought it was pretty terrible advice when I was eight years old, but I have to say, it’s grown on me as an adult.

      In this case, the popularity of the incorrect advice is seems partially a function of rumor — you’d be amazed at how quickly an agent or editor’s offhand comment at a conference can get interpreted (or, as is often the case, misinterpreted) as divine law and spread as such all over the Internet. But doing a search (you inspired me!) on manuscript formatting, I notice that many, many seemingly authoritative sites do indeed mistakenly ban italics. How confusing for everybody.

      The former phenomenon I can easily understand — this is a puzzling business to those new to it, one where even writers submitting for the very first time are expected to know the rules of the game. The latter phenomenon, where advice givers appear to be experts, is a trifle more puzzling; all I can think is that the authors of these bits of advice have successfully submitted only short stories, where the formatting rules are indeed quite different.

    2. How I have missed your very, very specific questions, Ken!

      The classic way to do it (say, in a manuscript like THE POISONWOOD BIBLE) is to use the narrator-du-chapter’s name precisely as if it were the chapter title — so on the line below the chapter number.

      That can get confusing, obviously, if there is also a chapter title. However, if you either list the narrator’s name on the line below the chapter title or (and I like this option less, but it would work) as
      Chapter Three
      The Dogs of War

      That should get the point across. Once the reader is used to the device, of course, it will all be perfectly comprehensible.

      1. Thanks for the answer, I’m sure I’ll have more quite specific questions.

        Being reared up by Grammar and Formatting Sergeants, most formatting I’m quite familiar with. I still go crazy (saying the light version here) when there is only 1 space after a period on something that doesn’t call for it.

        I could go on and on. I’ll stop now.

        1. Having grown up in circles where the adults would routinely ask after one spoke a sentence, “Do you mind telling me how you would punctuate that?” I sympathize wholeheartedly, Ken. One does develop a visceral reaction to the incorrect.

  3. I guess the italics rule is the one that will force me out of Courier New into Tms New Roman, because in any other standard font, the italicizing just doesn’t work. It’s hard to distinguish.

    1. Oh, that’s quite true, Patricia; I hadn’t thought of that. I must admit, I’ve been working with Times New Roman for so long that everything else looks slightly funny to me.

  4. I can attest to the wisdom contained in the second paragraph of this post. When I began writing my first book, I selected a font entirely for it’s look and set line spacing, margins, and other parameters entirely at my own arbitrary whims. As I began to understand the need for “standard format,” I changed and re-changed the entire manuscript as I learned just what “standard” should be. As the story was as yet unedited and a great deal longer than it is now, those changes entailed a great deal of time. Time that could have been better spent reworking the story itself. It’s so much easier to start out in STANDARD FORMAT!

    1. Quite right, Dave! It is INFINITELY easier to format a manuscript correctly from the very beginning than to change it later. Also true of query letters and synopses, I notice.

  5. Oh, such a wonderful and useful blog, thank you so much Anne! I’ll definitely be passing this along.

    I have a question. I am preparing a short story manuscript. Do I format each story separately, or do I put it together as as a single document (i.e. page 1 – 250 or whatever)?

    1. Thank you, Sandra! That’s nice to hear.

      Normally, one formats each short story separately, but from the way you ask the question, I’m assuming that we’re talking about a book made up of short stories here. If so, it should be formatted like a book manuscript, with each short story forming a chapter.

  6. I am truly sorry to bother you with punctuation questions, but I’ve decided to go with your formatting style rather than the Chicago manual of style, and I’d like to make sure my instincts are correct. I’ve looked through your site and haven’t found anything that addresses the situations below. My apologies if I’ve somehow missed it.

    (1) I have a spot or two of dialogue where the speaker is cut off abruptly: e.g., “But Millicent, you can’t mean that you’d –” Have I done the dashes correctly in that example (in other words, space, two dashes, then the quotation mark? How about if the speaker abruptly starts up again in the middle of the sentence, interrupting the interrupter? E.g., “– reject my manuscript just because I used an em-dash?” Or should I just use an ellipses in that spot and be done with it, even though the first part of the speaker’s sentence was cut off abruptly with dashes?

    (2) I am delighted that I should be using two spaces after a period, question mark, etc. I’m old-fashioned and I like it that way. But there is one situation I’m not 100% sure how to handle:
    “Peter, are you serious?” she said. Should there be two spaces after that quotation mark and before “she said”? I’ve been assuming the answer is yes, but am feeling a teeny bit insecure.

    (3) While I’m at it, unless there’s a question mark or an exclamation point, I’m usually using a comma when “she said” is stuck into the middle of the dialogue, even if the piece of dialogue before the comma is a full sentence. E.g.:
    “I don’t like you,” Millicent said. “I don’t like your manuscript, either.”
    In that instance, I’ve been using one space after the comma-quotation mark combination (and of course, two spaces after the period and before the next quotation mark).

    If it were one sentence interrupted by “Millicent said”, I’ve been doing this:

    “I don’t like you,” Millicent said, “and I don’t like your manuscript.” (One space after comma/quotation mark in the first instance, and one after the comma and before the quotation mark in the second.)

    Is that all kosher with Millicent? Again, I am so sorry to bother you with these questions, but I’m quite anxious to do it right.

    1. No need to apologize, Gayton; I’d certainly rather that you ask me than run afoul of Millicent.

      (1) Yes, you did it correctly in both examples. Some writers do use an ellipsis for any cut-off speech, but the dashes indicate a more abrupt break.

      (2) No, there should only be one, because technically, it’s all the same sentence.

      (3) Using a comma in that instance (“I don’t like you,” Millicent said.) is mandatory, so I’m not certain that I understand the question. But in any case, both examples you gave were correct.

      However, tag lines (he said, she asked) are often unnecessary in two-character dialogue. If there’s no doubt about who is speaking when, editors tend to cut them, so it’s not a bad idea to try to minimize them in your manuscript.

  7. My, oh my! I’m so glad I found your blog. I was intending to make my first submission tomorrow, and I’ve been working for the past two years using obsolete information! Time to transform those underlines , excise those pound signs, and indent those first paragraphs! At least I’ve been using two spaces after my periods!

    1. I’m glad you found it, too, Horton! If I had my way, every high school in the English-speaking world would spend a week on these rules, because I am perpetually meeting good writers who aren’t aware of them. Rather stacks the submissions deck.

      1. Speaking of good writiers, after reading your blog I ran into Hugo Award winner Robert J. Sawyer’s Web site. He claims there is but one way to submit a manuscript (unless given other instructions), and he lays it all out at his site . He still doggedly clings to his pound signs and his underlines. What I have decided to do is to keep my pound signs in my original so that I can easily see my scene changes when I’m editing, then either mass-change each one to a blank, or, as the publisher I submitted to requested, change them to page breaks (I sent only about the first thirty pages of my book). I have a special black portfolio set aside to begin my collection of rejection letters 😉

        1. Well, bless him for trying to help, but what a strangely specific yet incomplete list! His advice re. the pound signs actually isn’t all that surprising, since he started out as a short story writer — but since he also writes novels, it is a trifle astonishing that he doesn’t mention that the format is different. But then, I find it odd that he specifically says he owns the copyright to it at the top of the page, as if that weren’t inherently the case, since he wrote it and it is published on his website.

          I feel a trifle sorry for his agent — s/he must spend a lot of time telling new clients, “Yes, I KNOW that his website told you to format it like a short story, but…” But live and let live.

  8. A question on section breaks. I presume that if the *** and # indicators are obsolete, the replacement is simply a blank line.

    If that blank line happens to fall at the beginning or end of the page, wouldn’t the section break possibly be missed?

    1. Yes, a skipped, double-spaced line is used to indicate a section break — and you’re quite right that at the beginning or end of a page, it’s very likely to be missed. Especially since (and thank you for prompting me to mention this; I don’t think I have before) the convention is that if such a break occurs between pages, the new section begins at the top of the next page, rather than having a skipped line open the page. So, for example, if the last line of page 37 just happens to be the last line of a section, the next section would begin on the first line of page 38, rather than a line down from that.

      The convention presents less of a problem in practice than one would think, though. At the submission stage, Millicent and her boss are aware of how this kind of section break works, so any confusion would be momentary. Believe me, if Millicent makes it far enough into a manuscript to reach the end of a section, the writer’s done very well, so she’s likely to give the book the benefit of the doubt for a few lines. That’s generally long enough to figure out whether there’s been a temporal, place, or point of view shift from what’s come before. (And if it isn’t clear by then, that’s its own problem.)

      On the publishing house end, a LOT of people read a manuscript before it goes to press — at minimum, the acquiring editor, sometimes other editors and higher-ups, a copyeditor, a proofreader — so if the break is going to be confusing on the printing end, someone will ask the author about it. Manuscripts shrink so much between the submitted page and the printed form (about 2/3rds, on average) that it’s not as though the original pagination would have stuck with the book all the way through the process, anyway.

      1. Argh. So we need to find a way to keep Word (or whatever) from putting a section break’s blank line as the first text line of a page.

        Either that, or just before printing for submittal we need to scan the manuscript and remove the offending blank lines, starting at the beginning of each chapter and working toward the end.

        Is it correct to assume that we do want to keep the blank lines in our original copies in the event that we’re asked for the electronic version? (I could only hope to get that far.)

        1. That’s right: usually, all you have to do is hit the delete key, but it does require pre-submission scanning. I’m a great fan of re-reading a manuscript just before submission in any case, though, to catch any last-minute problems. They’re a lot easier to see in hard copy.

          That’s an interesting question about whether to keep the blank lines in a private version. I don’t do it, personally, but it’s quite a good idea. Since pretty much every manuscript goes through at least one revision between submission and publication (and often several, both at the agency and publishing house levels), it would save some time if you knew where the breaks should come.

          1. I found the following setup to work for dealing with the section breaks on my Word 97 (!) on Windows.

            Font: Times New Roman 12 pt

            Normal style: Spacing Double

            Section Break style: Spacing Exactly 0.7 pt Space After 27 pt

            I use the Section Break style for the blank line of the Section Break (I’ll bet you saw that coming).

            The combined 27.7 pt height is exactly the height of a double-spaced blank line (on my configuration). Thus, it looks exactly like a blank double-spaced line unless you try to put some text in there.

            If the previous line is actually the last line of the page, the 0.7pt blank line still has room to fit on that page, and Word won’t carry the “space after” onto the next page. Thus the new section starts on line 1 of the next page.

            One other thing that I’ve done is to set my bottom margin at 1.1″. With normal 1″ bottom margin the last line (#23) usually ends up well above that point, but every once in a while Word sees fit to cram in a 24th line on a page. By slightly increasing the bottom margin I assure that all pages have 23 lines of Times New Roman 12 pt.

            Later versions of Word (especially Word 2007) may need adjustments to this because of different ideas about what “double-spaced” means for Times New Roman.

  9. Hello again,
    I received my first rejection (From Edge Publishing, via email) today, and after I give myself time to work through the emotional progressions, I’m going to polish my synopsis. We’ll be taking a beach vacation fairly soon, so I should have some time to dig into your articles–although I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the information.
    I do have a question, though, which you may have already addressed: If submission guidelines don’t state the length of the synopsis, what should I assume? Five pages, or one? I’ve also seen the term, “two-page treatment.”

    1. I’m sorry to hear about the rejection, Horton. It’s important to work through the feelings, of course, but I would STRONGLY recommend sending out another query TODAY. Yes, even if you still have manuscripts with others — rejection tends to grow in the mind over time, making too many aspiring writers just give up. I know that it sounds trite, but the best antidote to rejection-induced glumness is to get right back on the proverbial horse.

      As it happens, the top post on my blog right now touches on the length issue, and a reader asked precisely this question in the post prior to that. However, you’re the third reader who has brought it up within the last few weeks, so keep an eye out for a brand-new post entirely devoted to this subject.

      1. The beach vacation was great, as evidenced by the fact that I got very little writing accomplished. But I’m very close to being ready to make my first agent query/partial manuscript submission. I had several items on my defect spreadsheet to address, and I still need to see if I need to improve my synopsis and check the formatting.

        I keep coming back to your manuscript guidelines after googling to see what others have to say, and although there are a number of opinions out there, but it seems only you have a rationale to go with a rule. The others just say, “This be da rule. Don’t you be breakin’ it.”

        You may already know this, but just in case I can shed some small light — I noticed that your text doesn’t display two spaces after the periods, even though when I look at the source for your page they are actually there. This happens because the browser renders multiple spaces into single spaces. It is a pain in the posterior to do anything about that, I know, but it is possible using one of a couple of methods. One is to use the html code for a non-breaking space character (my real job is that of a software engineer, in case you were wondering, but I’m hoping my second career will be writing). This is done with six character which I’ll show here with blanks between each, since I think they will be rendered into a space as they are posted if I do not: & n b s p ;

        So, you could put several blanks together if needed, like this:
        Big separation

        Boy! Finding SF agents is sooo difficult!

        1. Glad to hear the vacation was nice! And hooray for being close to sending out those queries. A couple of the mid-sized SF imprints accept direct submissions from writers (in other words, they’ll read submissions without an agent’s intervention), so you might want to consider that route, too.

          I used to be mystified by how few other writing advisors — or conference speakers, or writing teachers — explain the logic behind the rules, but after many, many years and many, many conversations with my compatriots at many, many conferences, my conclusion is that it’s easier just to lay down the law. And for a reader in a hurry, I can see where it might well be preferable.

          I still worry about what happens when writers run into problems. I give the rationale so they can try to figure out what they’re doing wrong — or if they are indeed doing anything wrong.

          Thanks for explaining about the spacing. It honestly does drive me nuts, but like so much else, dealing with it awaits the mythical week when I’m not working on a deadline!

  10. Hi, Anne,
    I took your advice and just now sealed the #5 envelope containing my submission to the NY agent with the initials, “E.E,” so I am trying to remount the evasive equine.

    After seeing that my post does indeed get parsed as html, I began to get a smidge concerned for the well-being of your site. I don’t want some rapscallion taking it down when I’ve barely scratched the surface of all your valuable and plenteous advice.


    And if I haven’t said, “Thanks for this blog,” then, “Thanks for this blog.”

    1. I did delete it, but I’ll pass it along to my webmaster, pronto! He’s most clever, so I’m hoping that he’s set up all kinds of nifty protective devices that I cannot begin to picture.

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