The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part IV: drawing some lines in the sand

seagull in the sand

I’m so sorry, everyone — my website experienced a wee meltdown late Thursday night. Some hidden toggle evidently got switched, and ever since, apparently, it has been impossible to post a comment on my last post. Rather unfriendly, wasn’t it, since I’d specifically asked all of you to comment with questions?

Rest assured, any reluctance to hear from you rested firmly on the technology side, not the human one. So please, feel free to comment away.

This would be an especially good time to bring up any long-smoldering concerns about formatting, actually, since I’m going to be devoting next week’s posts to showing you how standard format for manuscripts looks on the printed page. Some of my best examples were derived from readers’ questions; this time around, in fact, in response to a recent reader’s request, I’m going to be adding an entire post on how to format a book proposal.

So if there’s a principle we’ve discussed within the last few days that you’d like to see in action, please, don’t be shy.

Today, I’m going to be wrapping up my theoretical discussion of standard format. In the interest of having all of the rules listed in a single post, let’s recap what we’ve already covered.

(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.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.

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

(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.

All of those make sense, I hope, at least provisionally? Excellent. Moving on…

(15) All numbers 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 aspiring writers are unaware of this particular rule, 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.

There are only two exceptions to this rule: dates and, of course, page numbers. Thus, a properly-formatted manuscript dealing with events on November 11 would look like this on the page:


On November 11, 1492, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took 157 rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

And not like this:


On November eleventh, fourteen hundred and ninety-two, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took a hundred and fifty-seven rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

Do I see some hands waving in the air? “But Anne,” inveterate readers of newspapers protest, “I’m accustomed to seeing numbers like 11, 53, 18, and 10 written as numerals in print. Does that mean that when I read, say, a magazine article with numbers under 100 depicted this way, that some industrious editor manually changed all of those numbers after the manuscript was submitted?”

No, it doesn’t — although I must say, the mental picture of that poor, unfortunate soul assigned to spot and make such a nit-picky change is an intriguing one. What you have here is yet another difference between book manuscript format and, well, every other kind of formatting out there: in journalism, they write out only numbers under 10.

Unfortunately, many a writing teacher out there believes that the over-10 rule should be applied to all forms of writing, anywhere, anytime. 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?

AP style differs from standard format in several important respects, not the least being that in standard format (as in other formal presentations in the English language), the first letter of the first word after a colon should NOT be capitalized, since technically, it’s not the beginning of a new sentence. I don’t know who introduced the convention of post-colon capitalization, but believe me, I’m not the only one who read the submissions of aspiring book writers for a living that’s mentally consigned that language subversive to a pit of hell that would make even Dante avert his eyes in horror.

That’s the way we nit-pickers roll. We like our formatting and grammatical boundaries firm.

Heck, amongst professional readers, my feelings on the subject are downright mild. I’ve been in more than one contest judging conference where tables were actually banged and modern societies deplored. Trust me, you don’t want your entry to be the one that engenders this reaction.

So let’s all chant it together, shall we? The formatting and grammatical choices you see in newspapers will not necessarily work in manuscripts or literary contest entries.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, lovers of newspapers? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk on the submission page.

And no, there is no court of appeal for such decisions; proper format, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. So if you were planning to cry out, “But that’s the way USA TODAY does it!” save your breath.

Unfortunately, although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to KNOW that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well. Which annoys me, frankly. The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasons are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

And that, in case any of you had been wondering, is why I revisit the topic of standard format so darned often. How can the talented mend their ways if they don’t know how — or even if — their ways are broken?

(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. (You’re starting to get used to that, right?)

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 get it wrong.

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. If only as a time-saver: 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 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. Although some agents and editors do now request eliminating the second space at the submission stage, the doubled space is still the norm. Agents, very good ones, routinely submit manuscripts with doubled spaces to editors, also very good ones, all the time. Successfully.

So when in doubt, adhere to the rules of English. Unless, of course, you happen to be submitting to one of those people who specifically asks for single spaces, in which case, you’d be silly not to bow to their expressed preferences. (Sensing a pattern here?)

Fortunately, for aspiring writers everywhere, those agents who do harbor a strong preference for the single space tend not to keep mum about it. If they actually do tell their Millicents to regard a second space as a sign of creeping obsolescence, chances are very, very good that they’ll mention that fact on their websites.

Double-check before you submit. If the agent of your dreams has not specified, double-space.

Why should that be the default option, since proponents of eliminating the second space tend to be so very vocal? Those who cling to the older tradition are, if anything, more vehement.

Why, you ask? Editing experience, usually. Preserving that extra space after each sentence in a manuscript makes for greater 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.

Oh, and it drives the grammar-hounds nuts to hear that time-honored standards are being jettisoned in the name of progress. “What sane human being,” they ask through gritted teeth, “seriously believes that replacing tonight with tonite, or all right with alright constitutes progress? Dropping the necessary letters and spaces doesn’t even save significant page space!”

Those are some pretty vitriol-stained lines in the sand, aren’t they?

Let’s just say that 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 universally. Just ask a new agent immediately after the first time he’s submitted to an old-school senior editor: if he lets his clients deviate from the norms, he’s likely to be lectured for fifteen minutes on the rules of the English language.

I sense that some of you are starting to wring your hands and rend your garments in frustration. “I just can’t win here! Most want it one way, a few another. I’m so confused about what’s required that I keep switching back and forth between two spaces and one while I’m typing.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but inconsistent formatting is likely to annoy both sides of the aisle. Whichever choice you embrace, 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.

He will. So will a veteran contest judge. Pick a convention and stick with it.

But don’t fret over it too much. This honestly isn’t as burning a debate amongst agents and editors as many aspiring writers seem to think. Both ways have advocates, and frankly, there are plenty of agents out there who report that they just don’t care.

As always: check before you submit. If the agent’s website, contest listing, and/or Twitter page doesn’t mention individual preferences, assume s/he’s going to be submitting to old-school editors and retain the second space.

And be open to the possibility — brace yourselves; you’re not going to like this — that you may need to submit your manuscript formatted one way for a single agent on your list, and another for the other nineteen.

I told you that you weren’t going to like it.

(18) Turn off the widow/orphan control; it gives pages into an uneven number of lines.

That one’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? Think of it as my Valentine’s Day present to you.

What, too practical? You would have preferred something made out of lace or chocolate?

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 query letter and synopsis) for the rest of your professional life should be in standard format.

Okay, so maybe that’s not the most romantic view of the future imaginable, but we’re all about practicality here at Author! Author! That, and drawing some much-needed lines in the sand.

Happy Valentine’s and Presidents’ Days, everybody. Keep up the good work!

30 Replies to “The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part IV: drawing some lines in the sand”

    1. Oh, I’m glad you asked, Aly. I tend to assume that readers are familiar with Word, because it’s the industry standard, but that’s not always the case.

      The widow/orphan control is the setting on a word processing program that controls how many lines appear on any given page. The default setting prevents the first line of a new paragraph from being left alone on a page if the rest of the paragraph is on the next (a line so left behind is called an orphan) or the last line of a paragraph begun on a previous page from appearing at the top of the next page all by itself (and that’s called a widow). Thus, if the widow/orphan control is left on, lines will be stolen from one page and added to the ones before and after.

      Here’s how to turn it off in Word: under the FORMAT menu, select PARAGRAPH…, then LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. Un-check the Widow/Orphan control box, and you’re home free!

  1. One question regarding italics: I was ticked off by an editor for using italics in my ms. He informed me in no uncertain terms that at the very least italics should also be underlined, because otherwise it’s too easy to miss on a read-through. Dr. Google seemed to offer much similar advice. Since then, I’ve been followed his suggestion with my submissions.

    So given that there appear to be two schools of thought on this question, which way do you think causes the least irritation in the average Millicent?

    1. Actually, there are not two schools of thought, Cheryl — the two different styles are correct for different kinds of writing. This particular problem is why I talked about both short story format and book format: underlining is correct for short stories, italics for book manuscripts and proposals.

      So the answer to your question depends entirely upon what kind of writing you’re submitting. No book-related Millicent will consider underlining professional, and any agent currently working in North America would have a writer change underlined words to italicized ones. As a result, EVER underlining a word in a book manuscript is not only likely, but guaranteed to annoy the average Millicent.

      In other words, there honestly is no debate within the book-publishing industry about this one, although I can certainly see why so many aspiring writers labor under the misconception that there is. The online debate amongst non-professionals arises, as nearly as I can tell, almost exclusively from people taking advice meant for one type of writing and assuming that it’s applicable to every type. So I would guess that either the editor who snarled at you either edited for a magazine, was not aware of the distinction, or — and this is unfortunately common amongst untrained freelance editors — is relying upon a very, very old textbook.

  2. Thanks for clearing up numbers. A friend had his non-fiction manuscript gone over by a family friend, and it had lines like, “All 12 of us hiked the nine miles towards the town, 25 miles away.”

    It just gave me eyesore – the way the numbers stick out. I told him the rule I’d heard was to write out numbers under 100, but he said his friend knew what he was doing. And now, since the guy was a newspaper editor, I know why.

    (I also recently read that The New Yorker writes out all numbers, including six-hundred and sixty-seven thousand, two hundred and one, but again, that’s a magazine.)

    And yes, whatever you do, be consistent. I had to type up a town report once, before computers, and it made me batty how they didn’t format anything the same way twice. I didn’t care which way was right – “Just pick one and stick with it!”

    Now off to fix those really cool-looking em dashes.

  3. Anne, lovely as always! One question I couldn’t find the answer to in hunting your archives.

    When I want to indicate the time/ year/ setting at the beginning of a chapter (“November 1, 1675″ or “Two days earlier” or whatever), where do I put that? Just before the first line of text? Do I italicize it? Thanks, and sorry if you answered that question elsewhere.

    XO Lucy

    1. Thanks, Lucy! That’s a good question, but one that would be easier to answer with visual aids. So hang tight: you’ll be seeing the answer in a post within the next week or so.

  4. How do I format numbers if they’re a time of day? Should I put “11:30″, or should I write “eleven-thirty in the morning”? And should I say “in the morning” or should I say “AM”.

    These things trouble me when I’m trying to fall asleep at night.


    1. I know the feeling, Icy!

      If you’re writing a time, it’s perfectly acceptable to format it as 11:30 AM (or 11:30 a.m.). You could get away with 11:30 in the morning, too, or even eleven in the morning, but believe it or not, eleven-thirty in the morning would strike most Millicents as wrong. Technically, it isn’t, but the danger here is that she’s going to think that the writer just did a search-and-replace for all numbers, rather than typing them correctly in the first place. Not a deal-breaker, usually, but surprisingly likely to give our Millie pause as a potential inconsistency.

  5. Ooh, that’s a great question, Icy. Most word-processing programs automatically indent .5 inch (12.7 mm, if my junior high school conversion formula is still correct), but as you’ve probably noticed, that’s more than five spaces. Such is the way of the world. So if you set your tabs to .5 inch, you’ll be set.

  6. Anne, great post. Nice to see all the comments AND questions. I get confused about numbers too. As I write fiction and non-fiction articles and essays, the rules are good to know.

  7. Maybe I should host a primal scream day here at Author! Author! Many’s the time I feel like indulging in a good GARRRGGHHH!!!

  8. Dear Anne,

    I have been unable to read your blog for a few days and I feel like I have missed out on so much already! Time to catch up!

    Please let me know when you are hosting y9our primal scream day… I would like tickets on the first row, please!

    I am kicking myself right now, because I have just submitted 5 pages for a manuscript consultation I signed up for and just before I printed it out I changed all my double dashes to emdashes! ($%!^!!) and I have never ever added two spaces after a period. Ever. I think that one will be the hardest one to get used to.

    I have just turned off the widow/orphan tool (thank you for the V-day gift)! and I am seriously thinking of taking a whole weekend off to just go through your blog with my ms in hand and start from the beginning.

    Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome, Nuria. I’ve been kicking myself, too, because I’ve only just realized that I started this series too late this year to help entrants to my local writers’ association contest…usually, I time it better than that.

    1. Thanks for the link, Plinko. However, since Wikipedia is, as the name implies, not a juried site (meaning that anyone can post anything he wants there, without any expert going through to fact-check), I am always reluctant to refer readers to it as an authoritative source. It’s widely recognized not to be. There’s a lot of useful information there, but not all of it is credible. That’s the trade-off any wiki makes for readers’ freedom to change what it reports as fact.

      Also, as I have pointed out many times before, even if the language had changed in common usage, it would not necessarily affect the way hyper-literate readers (like, say, many editors) respond to a change in spacing — and it absolutely would not affect the way an agency screener who had been trained to cater to her boss’ preference for standard format would perceive it. Any industry has the right to set its own standards, rather than having them dictated from the outside, and since it is virtually never possible for a submitting writer to argue with the person making the decision about his manuscript, it just doesn’t make sense for aspiring writers to make their submissions a proving ground for their understandings of how English works. Strategically, it just doesn’t make sense.

      Especially in this case, when there is genuine disagreement about whether what is proper has changed. Believe me, few professional readers are going to base their interpretations of what a sentence should look like on what answer pops up first in a Google search. (Sorry, but that is how most of them would respond to being told that Wikipedia contradicts their view.) The internet can be a useful tool for research, but it’s certainly not infallible — and no matter how popular any given website may be, there currently is none with the authority to tell an entire industry devoted to handling sentences that the way it has done things for the past couple of hundred years is wrong.

      That being said, there is genuine debate on this issue within the industry, mostly (as I have said repeatedly here) between agents and editors over 35 (i.e., the ones who grew up without the internet, for the most part) and those younger. Even within those groups, opinion is far from universal. Which is why, as you will see if you read through this series carefully, I tell my readers OVER and OVER that it is their responsibility to find out whether the agent or editor they plan to approach has ever made a public statement on the subject — and to follow whichever standard they state in when submitting to them.

      Rather than, say, quibbling with the majority (and it is still the majority) of people who read manuscripts for a living over whether what they have been trained to consider correct is wrong. That is, I’m afraid, how literally every agent and editor I’ve ever met regards the continual online bickering on the subject amongst aspiring writers, as if anything that anyone outside the publishing industry could say would have the slightest effect on what was considered proper within the industry.. Since professional standards are internal to an industry, not set by outsiders, the popularity of the topic amongst the as-yet-to-be-published just seems like wasted energy.

      That’s not, of course, why most aspiring writers worry about it — they’re just concerned about doing something wrong in their submissions. Yet as I’ve pointed out here many times, insuffiicient spacing after a period or colon is highly unlikely to be the ONLY reason a manuscript gets rejected; if an agent likes the book, the worst that tends to happen is that after she picks up the writer, she’ll insist on the manuscript’s being brought into conformity with standard format before she’s willing to submit it to editors. Usually, a manuscript is rejected for many reasons, not just one.

      Unless, naturally, the agent in question has made it perfectly clear in her submission standards that she prefers either the single or the double space. (It’s rare to see guidelines specifying the double space, since it is the standard, but one does see insistence the other way.) If a submitter ignores that request, it’s a pretty clear indicator that he either has a hard time following directions or simply didn’t do his homework.

      Thus, because this is a site devoted to helping aspiring writers get published, the real issue here is not whether spacing standards have permanently changed (as most scholars say it has not, although printing standards in published books largely have, to save paper) or bullying people who deal with sentences for a living into accepting a new standard (which is unlikely to be successful), but how writers may figure out which of the contested standards to use. Wikipedia’s current opinion may well turn out to be right in time, but that’s simply not relevant to how a specific manuscript would be judged by a specific professional reader today.

      1. Ms. Mini:

        Thanks for taking the time to provide your detailed response. You might be interested to know that I wrote the majority of the Wikipedia article (at least the first half). It still needs a LOT of work. I have at least thirty more grammar, typography, style guides, and design manuals (print and web) that I have not synthesized into the article. In addition, I also have a number of studies that tangentially relate to the readability and legibility of this issue from the last 50 years. Those are scheduled for addition (in summarized form) also. Stay tuned to the Wikipedia article in the next few months as it has been slow going due to my other committments.

        Here are a few things for your consideration. Initially it was difficult for me to tell which type of book (style guide, grammar, typography) would be able to properly indicate if this convention has changed. In other words, what “area” does this rule/convention belong to?

        Of the twenty or so grammar guides I’ve referenced, I think two discussed this at all Most discuss “terminal punctuation” and sentences but do not offer guidelines on spacing between them. I decided grammar guides weren’t (or didn’t aspire to be) the authority on this convention.

        That leaves typography manuals. Nearly all offered guidance on this issue. About 60% indicated that the double-space was acceptable for use with a typewriter (or in some cases a monospace font such as Courier). About 40% stated unequivocably that the double-space was no longer acceptable for any use today (I’m using the most updated editions of books except for select manuals to help paint the picture of change over time).

        Style guides. I think I’ve seen almost all of the U.S. style guides. I know that’s a bold statement, but I think it’s true. I have a few more coming for niche specialty areas. None state that the double-space is “correct” or “proper” usage. One (APA) recently made a large number of back-and-forths and finally settled on recommending the double space for draft manuscripts only, leaving the spacing issue for final work to the publisher. Another leaves room in draft work for writers based on preference. About 50% of the style guides don’t discuss the issue. Some of these are small in scope, and refer to larger guides such as Chicago. The other 45% or so of the style guides, including Chicago, state that the single space is correct use or is the convention. Chicago is unequivocal, stating (besides what’s on the Wikipedia page) that it’s not acceptable in final or draft work.

        Interestingly, none of the books and journal articles mentioned above use the double-space convention in their text. Zero. One style guide states that it leaves some leeway for writers on this, but it uses the double-space convention on purpose within its writing examples and in the book, so this fact is relevant (in my opinion).

        I’m just not sure what the disagreement over this usage is now. With a few exceptions, all of the literature indicates that the movement to single spacing is nearly complete. There are some excellent reasons given for this (typograhic works explain in the most detail).

        I will agree that there are likely editors out there that allow or even ask for double-spaced manuscripts. In light of that, your advice for aspiring writers to ask a specific editor what they want is certainly reasonable. I don’t know of any professionally typeset books, magazines, or newspapers that actually print them double-spaced though. I’ve walked into a large bookstore and combed through. I have yet to find a “single” double-spaced work in a modern bookstore. In light of this and the above, I cannot agree that the double-space is still the standard. I must acknowledge that it once was. That seems to have changed, however.

        Finally, I’ll agree that Wikipedia has to be used carefully. However, the information listed there now is well-referenced with reliable sources. It will be greatly improved in a month or two.

        Please feel free to contact me on my listed e-mail address for more information.

        Best regards.


        1. Thanks for indicating your sources, Plinko (and it’s Dr. Mini, by the way; I have a Ph.D.), but again, I think you may have missed the point of this blog. It is not intended as forum for the purely theoretical discussion of technical points of writing; as you may see from the extensive archive listings, it is primarily devoted to helping aspiring writers refine their craft, find agents, and get published. Thus, 100% of the controversy we’ve been discussing here relates to MANUSCRIPTS, not published books.

          Your extensive comments do not seem to make a distinction between the two, but as someone who has worked extensively with writers, agents, and editors, I can assure you that it is a distinction that the publishing industry takes very seriously indeed. One of the very first things that any aspiring writer needs to learn — and something you’ll find that I have pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, should you care to read it in its entirety — is that a professional manuscript does not resemble a published book. Therefore, it simply doesn’t make sense to base any observations on what is proper in a manuscript upon published books found, as you put it, “in any modern bookstore.”

          As I have pointed out before, it is up to any industry to make its own standards. As I have also pointed out, not every source on writing format is talking about manuscripts — in fact, most are not. So while it’s certainly impressive that you have checked so many sources, if those sources are not all talking about the same thing, it seems difficult to draw a single, universally-applicable conclusion from them. Were you to have approached the research differently — say, by polling 100 literary agents — you would not have found unanimity on this particular point. As, indeed, I have pointed out at length several times throughout this series.

          Which brings me back to my earlier point about Wikipedia. If an aspiring writer was not already aware that the standards for book manuscript submission were different than what he sees in published books — a fact about which there is no controversy; it’s just a fact of publishing — he might well be confused by assertions that did not recognize the necessary distinction. But no matter how many times people outside the publishing industry declare certain manuscript features obsolete, only people who actually represent and publish books have the power to enforce guidelines on manuscripts.

          So while I wish you the best of luck in perfecting your Wikipedia entry, I still have grave reservations about the contention that single-spacing is not in use, when as a matter of practical fact, it is in use in manuscripts all the time. I have only been addressing your theoretical point at such great length because I do not want any aspiring writer confused on this point. Since you have alerted my readers to your Wikipedia entry (which I assume was the point of your original comment), they can certainly go and consult it, but for myself, I see no reason to continue this discussion via e-mail. Thanks for weighing in, though.

          1. Dr. Mini:

            I seem to have offended you and that was not my intent. Please forgive me if you took my comments as a slight. I quite enjoy your webpage and think it is an extremely useful resource for writers.

            I should clarify a few points.

            Although some typographic sources only make a distinction between monospace and proportional fonts (because of readability issues), some style guides do give guidance on this issue for manuscript vs. final writings and publications. Those distinctions are noted in the style guide references. E.g., Chicago states that the single space is used for both manuscript and final form, but the MLA Handbook allows for the use of double spaces if required by the publisher and the APA recently reversed their position and now recommends the use of double spaces for manuscripts only. And of course, publishers can decide for themselves what convention they want in their submission guidelines. You are quite right to point that out in the context of your web page.

            For my part, I realize that is something that needs to be more fully explained in the Wikipedia article, and I will make sure that it does so. I only brought up the points that I did because I thought it might provide some more information for you and your readers on the direction in which the “standard” seems to have turned in recent years.

            And thanks again for your considered response.

            Best regards,


  9. 08/26/10

    Hello Dr. Anne Mini:
    Thanks for your article. It really showed me things I unknown to some degree. Let me introduce myself: I am an unpublished (copyrighted) writer and med devices inventor from the Caribbean that is perfecting his English through the years. My genre is “Apocalyptic” and “post-apocalyptic fiction” with “military drama” ala “Angels and Demons” and “Left Behind”, but in other alien context that I won’t divulge here. I already read your information in “Representation” and “Personal Consultation”, and I can tell you that I am interested to work with you if you may have the time later, and your interest of course.

    Because I write/ask so much, I am asking you to bear with my long letter, please.

    Here are my questions in your blog (no e-mail) following your ‘theoretical discussion of standard format’. Some are questions but in others I just need your thoughts:

    “(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.”

    But the pages could detach and fall to the ground, etc, despite having a number? But yes, I will do it. I know it is the popular doing.

    “(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.” and “(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.”

    Okay, the manuscript (only pages or chapters I will send to the agent) must be ‘left justified’, Okay, I understand it perfectly.
    But if my entire novel (manuscript) volume 1 (of 5 volumes) has already 400 pages (already indented, double spaced, Times New Roman # 12 and one inch margin on all edges) so I am obliged to have the entire book in ‘left justified’ in any reason?

    If he/she wants to read the whole manuscript… so if I centered each sub-chapter 1/3 down a new page, wow, the resulting work will be 1,000 pages per volume because I don’t use chapters to separate but sub-chapters. My sub-chapters have their respective narration and dialogue.

    And, yes, I already split my thriller in 5 different books.

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

    Okay, here I have a related question. In a couple of months I may have ready the revamped English versions of Volume I and II, so can I submit to him/her a partial manuscript of both volumes at the same time? What do you think?

    “(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.”
    No, I never underline anything. But I use tons of foreign (oriental names and last names) plus Asiatic cities and phrases… Example Lieutenant Kang Feng, the city of Nihon-koku, etc, etc… My ‘paranormal’ novel starts in one Asian communist town and the enemy are from there. My main characters are not American.

    “(15) All numbers 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.”

    What about when I use this?
    a 1-year-old baby or 27-year-old man? So always will be a “one-year-old baby” or “twenty-seven-year-old man”?


    Dr. Mini,
    your thoughts, please:

    I have a problem. My work is written in a format ‘half-novel’ and ‘half-screenplay/script’. For me was/is totally impossible to having created my novel without those elements.

    The dialogues that I use are the heart of the books. I did it in that way because, at difference from the writers that publish their novels, and years later somebody (with them) prepare the future scripts/play for the movie or tv… they can wait. But I couldn’t wait to do that because the ideas and plot where precisely conceived in that moment in 2008, not the future or when somebody could call me for. Who knows? Maybe I am dead for that time.

    So, I have a second problem:
    when I see that the literary agents tell us about submitting our screenplays or novel/manuscript… I enter in confusion since my baby is possibly a mix of both. Or not? I am confused. Maybe you would like to see it in the future.

    Thanks for your time to read my questions and thoughts. I think my work is no conventional in some way because I am creating a new system in writing…

    If for some reason (if you are not so terrified after all I did here) you want my e-mail, just let me know.

    with all my humble respect,


  10. My, that’s a lot of questions, Pito! I shall do my best to answer them briefly, in the order you asked them.

    (1) For reasons of confidentiality, I do not discuss my services with potential clients in the comments section of my blog; you should not even consider dealing with a freelance editor who would be willing to do so. As you already have read, there are directions about contacting me about editing on the Personal Consultations? page.

    (2) In the U.S., the writer owns the copyright to everything he writes as soon as he writes it, so it’s not meaningful to say here that you are unpublished but copyrighted. Registering the copyright with the government is a separate step, but it merely proves who owns the copyright, not creates it. To learn more about it, please see the COPYRIGHT ISSUES category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

    (3) The pages should not be physically joined in any way. I don’t quite understand what you mean about the papers falling to the ground, unless you were thinking the alternative was printing the manuscript on the kind of continuous printer paper that is seldom used anymore in the U.S. If you are using that kind, tear at the perforations so each page is a separate sheet.

    (4) The first part of your question doesn’t make complete sense, and the second part just sounds unlikely: I don’t quite see how you could possibly add 600 pages entirely from chapter headings. Even if you could, that would have little to do with how far down the page a chapter should begin, since every chapter must begin that way. But let me try to explain again how left-justification works, and maybe that will clear up your confusion.

    Every page of text in a manuscript should be left-justified. No exceptions. (Technically, the title page is not text.) The only thing that should not be left-justified on a page of text is the title of a chapter.

    There is no such thing as a sub-chapter in fiction; there may, however, be section breaks within chapters. These are called section breaks, and are designated (as I explained in this series) by simply skipping a double-spaced line of text. If you read the rest of the posts in this series (i.e., the posts that follow immediately after this one), you will see plenty of examples.

    So you actually do not have a problem at all. If you are not starting a new chapter, there is no reason to format each new section like a new chapter. Just add a section break and continue on the same page.

    (5) No. If you are querying with a series, you should just query and submit the first book. If it is not a series — if Vol. I and Vol. II are unrelated books — then you should be querying them separately.

    (6) Proper nouns — names, places — should not be italicized. But even if the characters are not Americans and the book takes place someplace else, other words in foreign languages should be italicized.

    (7) Yes, it should always will be a “one-year-old baby” or “twenty-seven-year-old man.” What precisely was confusing about this?

    I’m sorry if I sound peevish, but it’s quite obvious from some of these questions that you have not looked at any of the many examples I have given in the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT series. I’m always glad to answer questions, but the answers to all of these were actually right in front of you — in this case, in many posts, immediately following this one, containing actual pages of manuscript.

    So in future, I would appreciate if you would check the archive list — or even the next few posts chronologically — to see if I already have written a post on this question before sending me long lists. The archive list contains specific categories for this very reason.

    (8) A novel manuscript and a screenplay have completely different formats. You may believe that it’s not possible to present dialogue in anything but script format, but no one in the book publishing industry will share that belief. Therefore, they will expect any dialogue in your manuscripts to be presented properly for dialogue in books.

    Again, no exceptions. If you want to write screenplays, write screenplays. If you want to write books, follow the rules for books. And if you want to include dialogue written in play format in a novel manuscript, you’re going to need to revise it so it looks like dialogue does in books, I’m afraid. Plays make the reader guess what is going on in the environment around the speeches; books show it to the reader.

    You may be right that you are creating a new system of writing (although from what you say, it sounds unlikely; it sounds as though you’ve just mashed two mutually-exclusive types of format together), but to people who read for a living, refusing to present dialogue as it usually appears in books will just look as if you either are unfamiliar with how manuscripts are supposed to be formatted or are unwilling to write full scenes.

    From that perspective, your argument that the U.S. publishing industry should be inconvenienced and bend the rules for you just because someday, some filmmaker MIGHT want to turn your story into a movie but you MIGHT not be alive to control that process is completely unreasonable. As is expecting a freelance editor to read a half-novel/half-screenplay without immediately telling you to go revise the dialogue scenes so they would make sense in a book. Good freelance editors only work with writers willing to follow the basic rules of manuscript presentation. Only the bad ones will tell you format doesn’t matter.

    Best of luck with your experiment, though. Trying to convince people in the publishing industry that you are a writer worth taking seriously while at the same time refusing to follow the industry’s rules is going to be an uphill battle. If your story and writing are genuinely unique, are you sure that you want to make the only issue for an agent or editor considering your work whether he is willing to let you ignore the rules of standard format?

    1. Hello again, Dr, Mini.
      Thanks from my heart for for all that valuable information, that you have taken from your valuable time, to explain here. I agree with you in everything you say. You are completely right: I just read part of this page and saw only few examples of pages. Apologies for that.

      You have done a great job to explain, in as much detail, my questions. I must restructure my dialogues sections.

      1. You’re entirely welcome, Pito! I hope it helps — and I’m really, truly glad to hear that you are revising your dialogue. Your project sounds too interesting to be held back by formatting.

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