Formatpalooza, part IX: areas of authorial discretion, or, there are rules, and there are rules

full moon in the gutter

At the risk of seeming trite, I would like to point out that it has been raining a great deal in Seattle of late. Not the normal constant misty drizzle that characterizes our dark Pacific Northwest winters, but sheets. Buckets. The proverbial cats and dogs, with an antelope or two thrown in by whatever celestial water-monger has seen fit to try to drown us.

I’m not saying we’re worried. I’m saying my neighbors came over this evening to ask how long a cubit was, so they could read the blueprints for their ark.

But enough idly wondering where on earth they found a pair of yeti for their menagerie. Time to get back to the matter at hand: manuscript formatting.

Over the last couple of posts, we have been gladdening our hearts (okay, gladdening my detail-loving editorial heart) with discussion of something that Millicent the agency screener just loves to see, a properly-formatted first page of a manuscript, as well as phenomena she sees more often, but likes less, various species of improperly formatted page 1. The Millicent-pleasing version looked, if you will recall, a little something like this — and, as always, if you’re having trouble seeing the details, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly.

good example revised

Now that’s a lovely page 1: unprovocative, professional-looking, and flaunting lots of nice, clean white space at the top. “Ah,” Millicent murmurs, settling back into her chair, “now I can concentrate on the writing and the story.”

Contrast that, please, with the much more cluttered short story format all too many book and book proposal submitters mistakenly believe is universally applicable to any writing on paper:

Pretty distracting to the eye, is it not? Admittedly, not all embracers of this format will choose to clutter the space up further with an epigraph — which, as we discussed last time, it not generally the best idea at the submission stage, no matter what you want the published version of your book to look like — but one does not need to be the Amazing Kreskin to predict that their submission packets all share another unprofessional characteristic: no title page.

How do I know that? Well, think about it: since all of that eye-displacing verbiage — title, book category, word count, contact information — would in a properly-constructed submission packet appear on the title page, why would a submitter repeat all of it at the top of page 1?

Both page 1 and the opening of each subsequent chapter should include all of the spaciousness of that first example, not launching into the text until 14 single lines from the top of the page. (Or, to put it another way, 6 double-spaced lines under the chapter title. And for those of you who do not know how to insert a hard page break into a Word document, it’s located under the INSERT menu. Select BREAK, then PAGE BREAK.)

Did that bit about the subsequent chapters catch any of you by surprise? To prevent that kind of confusion in future, let’s go ahead and hatch a new axiom: each new chapter should begin on a fresh page, but the first page of every chapter should be formatted exactly like page 1.

Yes, Virginia: exactly, at least in terms of formatting. Since the book’s title should appear on the title page, why would the opening of the book and the opening of Chapter 6 be different?

So you may see that in action (and to prove that I practice what I preach), here’s what could be the first page of Chapter Six my memoir:

Memoir wo title

I said could, because actually, I’m not a big fan of chapters named Chapter Six, even if they happen to be the sixth chapter in the manuscript. It’s sort of like dubbing a suburban street lined with elm trees Elm Street: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a straightforward, descriptive title, but you must admit, it’s not startlingly original.

It’s not precisely going to come as a shock to many readers when Chapter Six appears immediately after Chapter Five, after all. At least not readers whose counting skills have moved past their first hand.

Speaking of hands, I see many of them waving in the air, apparently trying to attract my attention. “Okay, Anne,” those of you fond of naming things inquire, “how should a chapter title appear on the page, if I also want to number it? Or do I need to choose between numbering and titling?”

Not at all — go ahead and include both, if that makes you happy. In fact, it’s actually a little easier for agents and editors if you do number titled chapters; it’s simpler for a feedback-giver to say, “Please tone down the snarkiness in Chapter 6 of your memoir, Ermintrude,” than “You know the snarky tone in the chapter called something like How I Had My Way with Ocelots, or, Twenty-seven Ways to Skin a Cat? Give it a rest, Ermintrude.”

The formatting is very simple: just add the chapter title on the second double-spaced line of text, centered under the chapter number designation. (Freeing up mental space to speculate: what was Ermintrude doing with all of those ocelots?)

This format should sound at least a trifle familiar: we’ve already seen it in action in today’s first example. But in furtherance of my ongoing mission to place so many examples of correctly-formatted manuscript pages in front of your weary eyes that you’ll start automatically recoiling from pages in published books, muttering, “Well, that wouldn’t work in a manuscript submission, let’s take a gander at another one:

memoir w ch title

Actually, I had an ulterior motive in showing you that last example: in comparing it to the example just before it, do you notice anything about the amount of space between the chapter number and the beginning of the text?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “By gum, Anne, the area between the two appears identical! You’ve simply placed the chapter title within it, you clever lady,” award yourself an extra helping of hot fudge on your sundae. (If devoting a couple of weeks to discussing standard format doesn’t entitle an aspiring writer to dessert, nothing does.)

Regardless of whether a chapter’s opening page contains a chapter designation, a title, or both, the text should begin the same distance from the top of the page. The same logic would apply to any other information you might see fit to include at the beginning of a chapter — alerting the reader to a break between Part I and Part II of a book, for instance.

Since so many aspiring writers ask me about part breaks — hey, I’m not known as the Format Queen for nothing; I would much, much rather that my readers ask me than misformat their submissions — let’s take a look at the phenomenon in action. If Chapter 6 were the beginning of Part II of my memoir (it isn’t, but we aim to please here at Author! Author!), I would have formatted it thus:

memoir w part break

Starting to get the hang of this? Okay, let’s talk about inserting another common piece of introductory information in that heading: identifying a narrator-du-chapter in a multiple point-of-view novel.

If the switch comes at the beginning of a chapter, it couldn’t be easier: it’s simply another reader-signal that belongs above the pre-text white space, right? To see this principle in action, let’s pretend our ongoing example is fiction (which it isn’t; my middle school honestly was pelted with migratory spiders) and place the narrator’s name in the traditional spot:

new chapter with name

That’s the way one would handle the matter in a multiple POV manuscript like, say, Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, where the narrator changes with the chapter. If there were also a chapter title (perhaps not advisable in this case, as there’s already significant information at the top of that page for the reader to absorb), it would go between the chapter heading and the narrator identifier.

The important thing here is to be consistent — and that’s not always easy. Most seasoned authors probably wouldn’t appreciate my revealing a working secret, but pretty much everyone worries that someday her will forget to hit return one of the necessary times, so that Chapter 5 will begin — gasp! — twelve lines from the top, while Chapter 1-4 and 6 on will begin fourteen lines down.

Gives you the willies even to contemplate how Millicent might react to that level of formatting inconsistency, doesn’t it? Double-check each and every chapter opening before you submit; trust me, you’ll be happier in the long run.

Oh, my — that was an unpopular suggestion, wasn’t it? Fully a third of you have your hands waving impatiently in the air. “That would be absurdly time-consuming, Anne,” the irate third huff. “Oh, I understand that the chapter number or title needs to appear at the top of the first page and each subsequent chapter; I’m perfectly happy to leave six double-spaced blank lines between it and the first line of text, so the first paragraph starts seven lines down. But surely there’s an easier way to do this — a template or something? Perhaps Word has some sort of default setting I can employ so I need never worry about the issue again as long as I live?”

Standard format templates do exist, now that you mention it, but frankly, Word is already equipped with two perfectly dandy features for reproducing formatting exactly in more than one place in a document: COPY and PASTE.

In other words, create your own template. It’s very simple to do: just copy from “Chapter One” down through the first line of text, then paste it on the first page of Chapter 2, 3, etc. Once the format is in place, it’s a snap to fill in the information appropriate to the new chapter.

Oh, dear — now another group of you have raised your hands. Yes? “But Anne,” exclaim those of you who favor switching narrator (or place, or time) more often than once per chapter, “we are, as we believe the tag line identifying us as speakers just mentioned, advocates of those nifty mid-chapter signposts that we see all the time in published books, boldfaced notifications that the time, place, or speaker has just changed. How would I format that in a manuscript?”

You’re talking about incorporating subheadings into a novel, right? Or at least what would be a subheading in a nonfiction manuscript: a section break followed by a new title.

I’m fully prepared to answer this question, of course, if only to show all of you nonfiction writers out there what your subheadings should look like. Before I do, however, I’d like to ask novelists interested in adopting this strategy a quick question: are you absolutely positive that you want to do that?

That’s not an entirely flippant question, you know. There are plenty of Millicents out there who have been trained by old-fashioned agents — and even more editorial assistants who work for old-fashioned editors. And that’s important to know, because even in an age when mid-chapter subheadings aren’t all that uncommon in published books, there are still plenty of professional readers whose knee-jerk response to seeing ‘em is invariably, “What is this, a magazine article? In my day, fiction writers used language to indicate a change in time or place, rather than simply slapping down a subheading announcing it; if they wanted to indicate a change of point of view, they would either start a new chapter, find a graceful way to introduce the shift into the text, or have the narrative voice change so markedly that the shift would be immistakable! O tempore! O mores!

I just mention.

To this ilk of pros, the practice of titling a section, or even a chapter, with clear indicators of time, place, or speaker will always seem to be indicative of a show, don’t tell problem. And you have to admit, they sort of have a point: novelists have been indicating changes of time and space by statements such as The next day, back at the ranch… ever since the first writer put pen to paper, right?

As a result, fiction readers expect to see such orienting details emerge within the course of the narrative, rather than on top of it. Most of the time, this information isn’t all that hard to work into a narrative — and if a novelist is looking to please a tradition-hugging agent or editor, that’s probably a better strategy to embrace, at least at the submission stage. As with any other authorial preference for how a published book should look, you can always try to negotiate an editorial change of heart after a publisher acquires your novel.

At least if you don’t happen to write in a book category that routinely uses such subheadings. If recent releases in your book category are crammed with the things, don’t worry your pretty little head about editorial reaction to ‘em. An editor — or agent, Millicent, or contest judge — who routinely handles books in that category may be trusted to realize that you’re simply embracing the norms of your genre.

Millicents tend to approve of that. It shows that the submitter has taken the time to become conversant with what’s being published these days in the category within which he has chosen to write.

Which is to say: these days, plenty of very good fiction writers prefer to alert the reader to vital shifts with titles and subheadings. And nonfiction writers have been using them for decades; in fact, they’re more or less required in a book proposal. (More insight on those follows later in this series, I promise.) I just didn’t want any of you to be shocked if the agent of your dreams sniffs in the early days after signing you, “Mind taking out these subheadings? Seven of the ten editors to whom I’m planning to submit this hate them, and I’d rather be spared yet another lecture on the pernicious influence of newspapers and magazine formatting upon modern literature, okay?”

All that being said — and now that I’ve completely unnerved those of you who are considering submitting manuscripts with subheadings — you do need to know how to do it properly.

It’s quite straightforward, actually: a subheading is just a section break followed by a left-justified title. The text follows on the next double-spaced line.

Want to see that in action? Okay. Just to annoy traditionalists who draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction writing, let’s take a peek at a nonfiction page by a well-respected novelist:

Wharton subheading example

That caused some bloodshot eyes to pop wide open, didn’t it? “But Anne!” the detail-oriented exclaim, “that subheading is in BOLDFACE! Didn’t the rules of standard format specifically tell me never, under any circumstances, to boldface anything in my manuscript?”

Well caught, sharp-eyed ones: boldfacing the subheading does indeed violate that particular stricture of standard format. However, since nonfiction manuscripts and proposals have been routinely boldfacing subheadings (and only subheadings) for over a decade now — those crotchety old-fashioned editors are partially right about the creeping influence of article practices into the book world, you know — I thought that you should know about it.

It’s definitely not required, though; Millicent is unlikely to scowl at a nonfiction submission that doesn’t bold its subheadings. Like font choice, you make your decision, you take your chances.

In a fiction submission, though, I definitely wouldn’t advise it; traditionalists lurk in much, much higher concentrations on the fiction side of the industry, after all. Here’s the same page, formatted as fiction — and since we’re already talking about exceptions to the rules, let’s make this example a trifle more instructive by including a date and time in the subheading:

Wharton example2

Unsure why I used numerals in the subheading, rather than writing out all of the numbers under a hundred, as standard format usually requires? Full dates, like specific times and currency, are rendered in numeric form in manuscripts. Thus, I paid $14.17 for a train ticket at 12:45 a.m. on November 3, 1842, officer is correct; I paid fourteen dollars and seventeen cents for a train ticket at twelve forty-five a.m. on November three, eighteen hundred and forty-two is not. (It would, however, be perfectly permissible to include quarter to one in the afternoon on November third.)

Everybody clear on all of that that? Now would be a dandy time to start waving your hand at the Format Queen, if not.

Next time, we shall be continuing our in-depth look at chapter openings. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

18 Replies to “Formatpalooza, part IX: areas of authorial discretion, or, there are rules, and there are rules”

  1. Regarding the switching-POV-character-within-the-chapter issue: There’s a good theatre tool to deal with this. In rehearsal, actors (or the director) will sometimes break a play down into “French scenes” — that is, following the French practice of starting a new scene every time a character enters or exits, even if the action is continuous and some characters remain onstage. The principle is that any time a new person enters the scene, the whole dynamic changes, and therefore in terms of analyzing what’s going on, you have to look at the new dynamic between the characters currently onstage and work out what’s going on accordingly.

    What does this mean for the novelist? Well, if you treated chapters this way, you would find yourself with some pretty short chapters, but it would also highlight places in the MS where there are a lot of characters, and you would have to take a good look at whether each “new” scene/chapter is really necessary. The resulting micro-sections would show pretty quickly whether anything was actually happening in them to move the plot forward, or if they were just there to include a mess of characters.

    1. That’s an interesting idea, David. I’m also a great advocate of buttonholing a few friends and having them act out one’s action scenes, but then, I’m a sticker for realism. I once had to explain to a Chicago police officer that I was not in fact mugging that nice lady, but that we were instead making sure something I had written was logistically possible.

  2. Regarding writing out numbers under one hundred, are there any other exceptions beyond those you have alluded to? I specifically am interested in the correct format for a sports score. For example, if writing about baseball, should the format be “they won three to two,” or would it be acceptable to use “they won 3-2″? Thanks Anne.

    1. The former. The acquiring editor will probably change it back later, but in a manuscript, all numbers under 100 OTHER than specific dates and times should be written out in full. Thus, On April 5, 2011 at 3:47 p.m., the Mudhens beat the Quail three to two would be correct, as would On April fifth around three in the afternoon, the Mudhens beat the Quail three to two, but em>On April 5th at 3 in the afternoon, the Mudhens beat the Quail 3 to 2 would not.

      The reason for this convention date back to the days of handwritten manuscripts: a 3 and an 8 might look pretty similar on the page, as might a 1 and a 7, a 4 and a 9, and so forth. Writing out the numbers minimized the probability that the typesetter would misread them. The convention stuck, and we observe it to this day.

      1. Thanks Anne. I appreciate you including the background on the convention. Understanding why certain practices came to be makes them seem less arcane.

  3. This is also about the numbers. I have a bit of astronomical notation that looks like this:


    It’s a character’s shorthand for: declination minus 30-degrees, 44-minutes, 12-seconds and right ascension 16-hours, 53-minutes, 15-seconds.

    It appears both ways in the narration and I have no problem writing it out if it should be. I guess my question is, should numbers be written out when they apply to measurement, mathematical notation, or mapping coordinates?

    Thanks so much. Your blog rocks!

    1. It would really depend upon the context, Wendy — I can conceive of it both ways. Could you show to me in a paragraph?

      1. Sure. Thanks, Anne.

        Matty picked up the litter from the black quartz floor according to social customs, but he smoothed out the crumpled sheet in defiance of them. His curiosity often got the better of him. In the dim light, he could barely read the small print: dec-30.44.12/ra16.53.15. He looked up and forgot about the paper, along with the anxiety that had been sitting like a stone in his stomach all afternoon.

        1. Since Matty’s reading something verbatim (and since the notation format appears to be part of the meaning here), I would leave the numbers in this instance. It’s different enough from other numbers Millicent might encounter that it reads rather like hieroglyphics. I rather like that.

          I can’t resist, however, suggesting cutting the second sentence — what happens in the rest of the paragraph shows what it tells, and the phrasing isn’t as original as the rest of the paragraph. I’d also break the paragraph after the long sequence of numbers, so he doesn’t appear to forget them instantly. Look how beautifully this passage reads now:

          Matty picked up the litter from the black quartz floor according to social customs, but he smoothed out the crumpled sheet in defiance of them. In the dim light, he could barely read the small print: dec-30.44.12/ra16.53.15.

          He looked up and forgot about the paper, along with the anxiety that had been sitting like a stone in his stomach all afternoon.

          Nice, eh?

  4. Hey Anne,

    I asked you a question a couple weeks back about opening my paranormal thriller with an omniscient prologue (thanks again for helping me out).

    This time I have a question about park breaks. Your many examples (with or without part breaks before the chapter) always have two lines at most. I have titles for both the chapters and the part breaks. Is it appropriate to do this (with double spaces of course):

    Part One
    Part Title
    Chapter One
    Chapter Title


    Part One: Part Title
    Chapter One: Chapter Title


    Of course Part Breaks are infrequent, and whatever convention I set up for chapters would have to be consistent. Meaning, if I start with a one line for chapter number and title I would have to stick with that throughout, presumably.

    What are your thoughts on this? Ideally, I wouldn’t even want chapter numbers in the (hopefully!) published book, but I agree with your advice on their functionality for editorial communication.

    Thanks for any advice!

    1. Hello again, Chris! How nice of you to have posted this question on two of the relevant posts, so other writers are twice as likely to stumble upon the response. I appreciate that.

      And you’ve caught a genuine peculiarity in manuscripts: it is genuinely rare that a professional manuscript will feature more than a two lines of chapter title. With part designations, though, one does occasionally see three. That’s not considered particularly distracting, since the part titles would not come up very often; the convention is to mention them only once, at the beginning of the part.

      That being said, I’m afraid the repeated colons wouldn’t look right on the page. The convention for part titles is for them to appear on a different line.

      Part One
      The Dreadful Truth
      Chapter One

      That would be perfectly fine. You will be delighted to hear, however, that it’s not actually required to number one’s chapters — or to give them titles, for that matter — as long as the manuscript is consistent about how chapter openings look.

      It honestly is up to the writer. And since you already would prefer not to number ‘em, you could easily remove a line by just beginning each chapter with a title.

      Part One
      The Dreadful Truth
      A Day at the Races

      Technically, that’s proper, but a skimming eye might find it confusing. I would opt for normalizing the formatting even further by incorporating one set of colons:

      Part One: The Dreadful Truth
      A Day at the Races

      I hope that helps!

      1. Hello! I realized I responded to your older post, so I’m pasting that response below to this newer one.

        Sorry it took me some time to respond, and thanks so much for the feedback. I agree that the repeated colons and the three line title header both look distracting.

        For your feedback: page-shot examples are always ideal! But in this case they’re probably unnecessary, at least for me. You have plenty examples of the first pages for chapters, and simply describing the different scenarios works fine.

        However, I do find myself in one more snag concerning these titles. You’ve solved my biggest problem with them: I’m going to only include the chapter titles and not the numbers. But for that tricky 500 word omniscient opening that I described previously, I would like to label it “prologue”. This way, I hope to defuse any readers’ concerns that the omniscience might be followed throughout the narrative.

        And of course this brings me back to the original quandary, because I also have a title for the prologue. My only solution to avoid the double colon is to put the prologue outside the first part title, which would then go with the first chapter, but I would rather not.

        And to top it all off, I’d rather not call it a prologue anyway. I’m just doing it to try to offset any knee-jerk reactions from screeners and agents — those near-instant rejections you’ve appropriately made me so terrified of!

        Any thoughts? And thanks again.

      2. Never mind on the my question! In your above answer, you did state that three lines is fine, and in one of your recent posts, you had a fine example of this. I’m just going to do this for the prologue, and all others will be one or two lines.

        Thank you for your help!

        1. I’m glad you spotted it, Chris! It does indeed sound like a reasonable solution.

          You could also place the prologue before the opening of Part I. That’s fairly common. That way, you could just have page 1 begin like this:


          Prologue Title

          And the first page of Part I begin like this:

          Part One: The Part’s Title

          Chapter Title

          That way, you could have two-line chapter openers throughout. Either way would be acceptable, however.

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