How to format a book manuscript properly, part XII: not all truths are self-evident, or, why a sensible writer should hang onto that massive grain of salt


I’ve been making a Herculean effort not to gloat too much here at Author! Author! about being on a writing retreat in France — or at least to hold off on it until we’ve made it through this series on standard format so I can settle into a nice, luxurious series on how to apply for and what to expect from formal artists’ retreats. But I shall burst if I don’t chortle about just two things today — no, make it three.

First, this is my writing space:
I’m ALONE in that, incidentally. You can’t see the other fireplace or the wood stove, but I assure you that they’re there.

Second, this is the view from one of the four six-foot-high French windows in my writing space:
Third, when I asked the very kind proprietors if I might have another lamp in my writing space, they promptly installed what appears from here to be a early 20th century chandelier:
I’d been thinking something more along the lines of a $20 lamp from IKEA, but hey, I’ll live with it. I could throw an intimate dinner party in the armoire.

I’m just saying: La Muse is a very, very nice place to write. And yes, there are fellowships available — but you’ll be hearing more about all of this in the weeks to come.

Okay, the chortling is out of my system now, more or less. Back to business.

The last few times I have come to the end of an extended series on manuscript formatting — book manuscripts, that is; please be aware that short stories, magazine articles, theses, dissertations, and other types of writing are subject to other restrictions — I’ve ended with a rather peevish little discussion about why, in the face of so much conflicting information about submission requirements floating around these days, professional advice-givers like me don’t either:

(a) check out every other source out there to make sure that we’re all saying precisely the same thing (which would be so time-consuming that none of us would have time to give any further advice),

(b) take it upon ourselves to force every single individual who is empowered to pass judgment upon a manuscript within the confines of North America to agree upon a single (and preferably single-page) set of rules to which everyone without exception would adhere (which would require a convention so large that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would turn pale at the very thought), or

(c) shut up entirely and let those new to the biz try to figure out some genuinely counter-intuitive rules all by themselves.

I can’t speak for everyone currently giving advice on the subject, of course, but in my own case, the answer is really pretty straightforward: the norms I’ve been explaining throughout this series are in fact the ones I have used successfully myself for many, many years. Since neither I, any of my editing clients, or (as far as I know) any reader of this blog who has followed this advice to the letter has ever been asked by an agent or editor to make a single purely formatting change to his/her manuscript, I feel quite confident in continuing to give this particular set of advice.

But I will say something that one seldom hears advice-givers say: whether you choose to adhere to the rules of standard format I’ve set out here is ultimately up to you. But once you choose to follow a particular rule, you must obey it 100% of the time in your manuscript.

Let me repeat that, because it’s monumentally important: it’s not enough to adhere to a formatting rule most of the time; you must cleave to it in every single applicable instance in the text.

Why? You should know the words to the song by now: because inconsistency isn’t going to look professional to people who read manuscripts for a living.

I used to think that I didn’t actually need to state this requirement — after all, isn’t the part of the point of a rule that it should be followed on a regular basis, rather than just periodically? However, within the last year, I’ve seen enough manuscripts and contest entries (yes, I still judge from time to time) by good writers who sometimes use a single dash and sometimes a doubled one (if you’re not absolutely certain which is correct, I can only suggest that you return to the first post of this series and read through it again), or whose Chapters 1-3, 6, and 17 have a (ugh) single space after periods and colons, whereas Chs. 4, 5, and 10-12 have two, and the rest feature both…

Well, you get the picture. Apparently, the need for consistency is not as self-evident as I had previously believed.

I would point the finger at a few culprits for this astonishingly pervasive manuscript problem. First — and I’m quite positive that those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while have felt this one coming practically since the top of this post — the vast majority of aspiring writers simply do not reread their own work enough. I’m not talking about revision here (although most submissions could use more liberal helpings of that, frankly), but rather actually sitting down and scanning a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

What tips me off that very few writers actually do this before submitting their pages to an agent or a contest? Well, for starters, inconsistent formatting. And spelling errors. And repeated words. And scenes where characters do or say things that they’ve done or said half a page before.

You know, the kind of stuff that any reader would catch if s/he sat down with the actual pages and read them closely.

Often, such errors are not the result of compositional carelessness, but of repeated revision –the second culprit I’m dragging before the court in irons today. Zeroing in on the same page, paragraph, or even sentence over and over again without re-reading the entire section can easily result in what I like to call a Frankenstein manuscript, one that reads in hard copy as though it were cobbled together from the corpses of several drafts, sometimes ones written in different voices.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly. A sure narrative voice is a consistent one. That’s why writers brand-new to the writing game so often labor under the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (one assumes) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision: because a the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency.

Awfully hard. Seamlessness is no accident, you know.

So what do you think a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel the veteran contest judge thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present? Or a character named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127?

“Inconsistency,” they breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I’m going to be talking at greater length about the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon soon, you’ll no doubt be happy to hear. Since it’s such a natural follow-up to the standard format series, I may defer my discussion of writing retreats to attend to it first. I’ll have to give it some thought. (Don’t worry: either way, you’ll be seeing some nice pictures of France.)

The third culprit — and I have yet another excellent question from a reader to thank for reminding me to bring it to your attention — is the fact that sometimes presenting a manuscript professionally means breaking one of the standing rules.

Yes, you read that correctly. Among the many, many things that those new to submitting to agencies and publishing houses are magically expected to know is the one instance where using boldface is not only acceptable, but generally expected. No one will hurt you if you don’t use it, mind you, but your future agent may ask you to change your book proposal if you don’t.

I’m talking, in case you’re wondering, about section headings in book proposals. And sometimes in nonfiction manuscripts, but it really depends upon the agent or editor’s personal preference. Brace yourselves, because this logic is going to be a bit convoluted: boldface shouldn’t be used for emphasis, but it’s okay to use in a section heading in nonfiction; some agents actively prefer it, as did my memoir’s publisher.

But seriously, don’t use boldface anywhere else.

Confused? You’re not alone. Quoth curious reader Odin:

I’m having trouble finding a credible source which discusses how to format when there are location headings at the start of sections within a chapter. In a published book, they’d be left-justified with a blank line between it and the start of the text. After a section, there would be two or three blank lines, then the next left justified heading.

How do I do this in a manuscript? Left-justified chapter heading, then a # for the blank line, then start the section. At the end of the section, one # for the blank line, then the heading, etc? I don’t like the # between the heading and the text it heads because when the manuscript is double spaced, it tends to float all alone. I put the headings directly above the text and just used one blank line with a # between the end of one block and the next. It gets the idea across and I’m consistent with it throughout the manuscript, but I’d love to know how to do it right.

I freely admit it: I’m always a bit nonplused when I get a question like this, one that cites as law a rule that just isn’t used in professional manuscripts. But since I do hear from readers who have stumbled across advice like this quite often, I shall pass along a tip for assessing its helpfulness: if the sources you’ve been consulting are telling you to mark skipped lines with # or *, you probably haven’t been consulting sources conversant with the current book market. (The # is used for short stories and articles, not book manuscripts, and I’ve never seen a professional manuscript (as opposed to a contest entry) use * to mark a skipped line.)

It’s also — again, brace yourself, if you’ve been hobnobbing with old rule lists — not at all necessary in a current book manuscript to add any marker at all to indicate a skipped line in the text. Just hit the return key and call it good.

Before those of you who have fallen under the spell of short story and article rules start shouting, “But…but…” allow me to remind you that as we discussed earlier in this series, NOT EVERYTHING THAT FALLS UNDER THE RUBRIC OF WRITING SHOULD BE FORMATTED IDENTICALLY.

Have you happened to notice that amazingly few sources out there bother to tell aspiring writers that?

I suspect that it’s not entirely a coincidence, therefore, that so many aspiring writers assume that all writing should be formatted precisely the same way, regardless of where it will be submitted. That’s just not true — but without some fairly hefty cross-source research, how is someone new to the professional writing to know that?

Case in point: Odin’s dilemma. Pretty much any US-based agent would make her take the #s out of her manuscript, because short story formatting would imply to an editor that both the author and the agent are inexperienced in dealing with book manuscripts. In a submission process where tiny details often make an immense difference, that’s a chance that few agents are going to be willing to take.

So as you make your way through the bewildering forest of advice out there, toting your massive grain of salt, be aware of the fact that many seemingly authoritative sources out there disagree on certain points for the very simple reason that they’re talking about different things, although they often do not say so explicitly. Bear in mind that because such a high percentage of the aspiring writers’ market wants easy answers, preferably in the form of a single-page list of rules universally applicable to every writing venue, the temptation to produce a short, one-size-fits-all list of rules is considerable.

That doesn’t mean you should disregard such lists entirely, of course. Just keep in mind that any list that purports to cover every type is necessarily going to run afoul of some established standard somewhere.

Just to make it perfectly clear: if anyone is looking for terse, bullet-pointed to-do lists for writers, I think any of my long-term readers can tell you that this blog is NOT the place to start. As the thousands of pages of archived posts here can attest, I am the queen of elaboration.

Lots and lots of elaboration.

Which is why Odin’s question so delighted me, I must say: in compiling my own quite specific list, I had overlooked the section heading exception. Yet another opportunity to elaborate and clarify!

So I am pleased to present the two options for what a section heading in a nonfiction book (or proposal) should look like — first, utilizing boldface:


Quite straightforward, isn’t it? This format also — and this is important in a book proposal, as they are often read very quickly — renders skimming easy.

That being said, there are anti-boldface hard-liners who might object to this; they’re rare, but they exist. So here is an alternate, bold-free version:


Again: simple, elegant, non-confrontational. And — again, important — it would be clear what is happening where, even to a rapidly-skimming eye.

I must confess, however, that I don’t like it as much as the first. Why? Pull out your hymnals, everyone: because it just doesn’t look right.

While I’m on the subject of unnecessary doohickeys writers are sometimes told to shoehorn into their book manuscripts and proposals, let’s talk about what should happen on the last page. For a BOOK manuscript, the proper way to end it is simply to end it.

No bells, no whistles, no # # #, no -86-. Just stop writing.

Even the ever-popular THE END is not needed. In fact, I know plenty of Millicents (and their bosses, and editors, and contest judges) who routinely giggle at the use of THE END to indicate that a manuscript is not, in fact, going to continue. “What is this writer thinking?” they ask one another, amused. “That I’m going to keep reading all of that blank space after the last paragraph, wondering where all of the ink went? That I’m incapable of understanding why there aren’t any more pages in the submission? Please!”

Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about professional critique being harsh? Don’t even get me started on professional ridicule.

Personally, I have sympathy for how confusing all of the various advice out there must be for those who have never seen a professional manuscript up close and personal — that is, as I have said many times, why I revisit this decidedly unsexy topic so often. But honestly, some of the rules that commenters have asked about over the last three years must be from sources that predate World War II, or perhaps the Boer War. I’ve been editing book manuscripts for most of my adult life (and proofing galleys since early junior high school), and I have to say, I’ve literally never seen a single one that ended with “-86-”

So truth compels me to admit that I can sort of see where Millicent might find it amusing to see in a submission.

But you can sort of see her point of view here, can’t you? To people who read book manuscripts for a living in the US, the very notion of there NOT being a consensus is downright odd: why, the evidence that there is a consensus is sitting right in front of them. The mailman brings stacks of it, every single day.

“Oh, come on — everyone doesn’t already know these rules?” Millicent asks, incredulous. “This information is widely available, isn’t it?”

That’s a QUOTE, people — but as someone who regularly works with folks on both sides of the submission aisle, I have come to believe that the wide availability of the information is actually part of the problem here. The rules governing book manuscripts haven’t changed all that much over the years, from an insider’s perspective, but from the POV of someone new to the game, the fact that they have changed at all, ever — coupled with these rules not being applicable to every conceivable type of professional writing — can look an awful lot like inconsistency.

And we all know how Millie, Maury, and Mehitabel feel about that, don’t we?

Which is why, in case you have been wondering, I always spend so much time and space here explaining the logic behind each rule I advise using. I’m just not a fan of the do-it-because-I-say-so school of teaching, and besides, I want the right way to sink into your bones, so it may save you time for the rest of your writing career.

If the flurry of rules starts to seem overwhelming, remind yourself that although submissions do indeed get rejected for very small reasons all the time, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only ONE problem. They seldom travel alone.

So I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the ONLY reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem — which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written. The notion that changing only ONE thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof is not particularly easy for a professional reader to swallow.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know. While it would indeed be dandy if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent out there, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much.

This is vital to understand about standard format: it’s not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it.

But it is a basic means of presenting your writing professionally, so your garden-variety Millicent will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits. All I can claim for standard format — and this isn’t insignificant — is that adhering to it will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis.

However, I’m not going to lie to you: even a perfectly-formatted manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough. Why? Because every agent out there, just like every editor, harbors quirky, individuated ideas about how the perfect book should be written.

Sorry. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest.

Whatever set of rules you decide to embrace, though, make it YOUR decision — and stick to it. Don’t leap to make every change you hear rumored to be an agent’s pet peeve unless you are relatively certain in your heart of hearts that implementing it will make your manuscript a better book.

Yes, even if the suggestion in question came from yours truly. It’s your manuscript, not mine.

Keep up the good work!

11 Replies to “How to format a book manuscript properly, part XII: not all truths are self-evident, or, why a sensible writer should hang onto that massive grain of salt”

  1. Apologies if you’ve already covered these areas of manuscript formatting, but I couldn’t find them in your archives:
    1) What’s the proper way to indicate a shift in time at the beginning of a chapter or section? For example, I have a chapter which is set ten days after the end of the previous chapter. Can I simply add “Ten days later” centered directly underneath the chapter title? Same question for specifying a year and place, such as “English Channel, 1066 A.D.” — do I treat it akin to a subtitle?
    2) I have a scene in my manuscript where a person is reading aloud from a letter they’ve received. How should I format the content from the letter to make it obvious to the reader what is part of the letter and what isn’t? I expect I mustn’t get fancy and switch fonts, so if I stick to my requisite Times 12 point, how do I differentiate the letter segment? Simply double-indent it? Any extra spaces between beginning and end of the letter?

    Thanks much for your help!

    1. You’re welcome, Bryan.

      1) You can certainly time shifts as subtitles or even chapter titles — quite a few authors do that.

      2) This one made me smile, because this is the first time I’ve covered letters-in-text in my standard formatting series — and I only did it because of a reader’s question. The response, however, showed me that I should have included it some time ago; it turns out that simply masses of writers had been speculating on this issue for a long time. Who knew?

      And now your question makes me think that I should add a heading on the category list, to make the information easier to find. In fact, I’m going to do that right now.

      Because, you see, the reason you had trouble finding it in the archives is that I only just ran a post on it. Here’s the direct link.

      Hope this helps!

      1. Great, thanks for the pointers.
        (Wow. I’m going to tell my friends that I elicited not only a smile, but a new category heading on Anne Mini’s blog!)

  2. First, you are an angel from heaven. I am educated in the biological sciences and the field of publishing was foreign to me before I found your blog only 4 days ago. My nonfiction manuscript contains a number of bulleted lists and reference tables. How should these be formatted in a manuscript? Thanks again, Dani

    1. I’m glad you’re finding it helpful, Dani. A quick question before I answer about the formatting: are you planning to submit the manuscript to an academic press or a mainstream publisher? It could conceivably make a difference in the formatting.

      1. Mainstream publisher; it is information anyone can understand. My manuscript is a new approach to pregnancy fitness and nutrition. There are many bulleted lists (of symptoms, foods, ideas, etc.) charts of foods, etc. and demonstration photos of exercises (I own all rights) all appearing within text paragraphs. I am worried that without bullets or some formatting it will look like incomplete sentences or be confusing. This book is more comprehensive than anything on the market, but it would never have been given the time of day due to formatting issues, had I not found your site. I can’t thank you enough!

        1. Okay, so you’re going to be doing it as a book proposal first. That makes things easier, actually: since a proposal is already divided up into sections by topic, bulleted lists are going to jump out less in a sample chapter than they would in a manuscript. And you’re quite right to worry about what lists might look like to a professional reader if they were merely included within a paragraph — if they were just unconnected words and phrases, it would strike professional readers as illiterate. (Sorry, but it’s true — bullet points are indigenous to magazine articles and Powerpoint presentations; they’re alien to the book industry.) So at the proposal stage, when you’re only going to be submitting a chapter, you might actually want to change some of those lists into sentence-style lists; folks in the publishing industry are substantially more sentence-oriented than the population at large, and they see a surprising number of submissions from people who just don’t know how to structure a sentence properly. You could always talk with your agent or editor after you signed the contract about changing it back to bullet points, if you felt that was absolutely vital to the text.

          Which means that my short answer to the question is that I would advise avoiding using the bullet points at all in the manuscript, if humanly possible. The choice about whether to use them in a published book lies with the editor, not the writer, so personally, I feel it’s safer to present everything in a book proposal or manuscript in sentence form.

          However, I haven’t seen the manuscript, so I’m going to take you at your word and assume that the lists are not a stylistic choice, but as essential to the argument as the charts. On a double-spaced manuscript page, each bullet point should begin on its own line, but the text that follows the bullet point should be double-spaced. Don’t skip an extra line between bullet points.

          Traditionally, charts in manuscripts are presented in the form they would take in the book, but they do not appear in toto in mid-text. Rather, each chart should have its own page, inserted in the manuscript stack immediately after the page of text upon which you want it to appear. Like every other page of the manuscript, the chart pages should be numbered consecutively with the rest of the text. The same is true with a small publishers, so quadruple-check submission guidelines.

          Where the chart should appear in the text, add:

          {Insert Chart 1}

          Usually, this information is centered on the page, but you may also just indent it as you would the start of a new paragraph. Then skip to the next double-spaced line and continue with the text.

          That’s the classic manuscript way to deal with charts. Some agents and editors (especially those who prefer electronic submissions) prefer to have charts appear as they would in a published book, rather than on a separate page, but since that’s a relatively recent preference, you shouldn’t format charts that way unless you know for a fact that the agent or editor likes to see charts in-text.

          I hope that helps!

          1. Your response was very helpful…and so prompt! The number/ style of lists, charts, etc. in my manuscript are no different than any other published books in this category, but I appreciate what you are saying about editor level decisions and looking illiterate at the proposal stage. I promise to take your advice. I was definitely trying to deliver a book rather than a manuscript. On a side note, your trilogy sounds intriguing. I have a master’s in Infectious Diseases and did my thesis on HIV treatment.
            Thank you, thank you and thank you again.

          2. I certainly understand the impulse to think in whole-book terms — three of my first four conversations with the agent who sold my memoir involved her saying, “I get that you want to know what the whole thing is going to look like on paper, but you need to stop thinking that you have to finish the book before I start to market it.” Part of her argument (which turned out to be VERY true) is that since a NF publisher is going to have different ideas of what the book should contain, anyway, it’s more efficient to hold off and do the bulk of the writing after the project is acquired.

          3. That would have been good to know 300 pages ago. I figured substantial portions of the content and layout would change, so I am not broken hearted, but I had naively assumed you had to show a product to sell an agent or publisher on your ideas rather than selling an idea for a product. I feel it would have been even harder for me to write a well constructed proposal had I not written my version of the book first. This proposal is more under construction than well constructed at this point, but I will get there.

  3. You’re right that having a full draft in hand will make it easier to write the proposal, if that makes you feel any better. The conceit of the proposal is that the author writes about the book as though it were already written. And having a draft in hand definitely helps with the marketing portions of the proposal, since you can actually hand a chapter to someone who you think might be in your target audience and ask, “Okay, what about this might make you buy this book?”

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