Proper Manuscript Format for a Novel

by | 47 comments

The basic rules for formatting a novel manuscript are detailed below. Please note that many agents and publishers have a preferred format. Be sure to tailor your submission to meet their preferences. In most cases, the changes required will be minor tweaks.

When to Format

You may decide to format your manuscript when you start — or you may choose to do it once you finish. I write in manuscript format from the start for several reasons:

  1. Once you set up your word processor, writing in manuscript format doesn’t take any extra effort.
  2. I find it easier to review and edit my work when it’s properly formatted.
  3. I often share my work-in-progress with other writers for critique and they expect to receive it in manuscript format.

Manuscript Format Basics

These guidelines apply to the entire manuscript.

  • Font: 12 point Times New Roman or Courier New. (Note: I find Times New Roman easier to read.)
  • Font Color: Black
  • Margins: 1 inch to 1.5 inches all the way around.

Title Page

A novel manuscript requires a title page formatted in this manner [click to see example]:

  • Contact information: In the top left corner, insert your name, address, phone number and email address. single-spaced and left-justified.
  • Title: Centered one-third to one-half the way down the page
  • Author: Centered one double-spaced line below the title. Example: by Dax MacGregor. Note: If you write using a pen name, show that here; but be sure to show your real name in the contact information above.
  • Word Count: On finished manuscripts, you will need to place the word count centered one double-spaced line below your name. Round to the nearest thousand. Example: 120,000 words.

Chapter Title Pages

A Chapter Title Page is formatted just like all other content pages, with the following exceptions [click to see example]:

  • Page Break: Start each chapter on a new page.
  • Chapter Title: Center the title about one-third to one-half the way down from the top

Content Pages

Format the main content of your manuscript per these guidelines. [click to see example]:

  • Page Header: At the top right of every page, except the title page, display:

Your last name / The book title / Page Number Example: Dax MacGregor / My Story / 152.

  • Page Numbers: Pages are numbered continuously, with page one being the first page after the title page.
  • Paragraphs: Indent the first line of every paragraph by about 1/2 inch.
  • Line Spacing: Double-spaced.
  • Scene Breaks: Insert a new line with a single hash mark “#” in the center. Optionally, you may use three asterisks in place of the hash mark.
  • Dialogue: Start a new paragraph every time you change speakers. Note: I have a separate page with details on how to format dialogue.
  • Separation between sentences: One space. (I learned to type when two-spaces after each period was the rule. I still catch myself inserting extra spaces. Periodically, I do a global search-and-replace to eliminate them.)
  • Italics: Italicize (The old school rule was to underline all italicized words.)
  • The End: Center the word “END” after the final line of your story.

Mistakes to Avoid

Be sure your manuscript doesn’t contain any of these common pitfalls:

  • Don’t indent using tabs or spaces. Use the format paragraph feature of your word processor. (See image on the right.)
  • Don’t justify your paragraphs. Your right margin should be ragged. Justifying creates uneven spacing between the words that makes it harder to read.
  • Don’t place extra lines between your paragraphs.
  • Don’t restart page numbers with each new chapter.
  • Don’t forget to do one last spell check before printing.

Printing

These days, agents and publishers will request manuscripts to be submitted electronically. However, if you need to submit a paper version, be sure to:

  • Use high-quality paper, 20 or 24 pound, with a brightness score in the high 90s. You want to make the right impression. Don’t skimp on cost here.
  • Single sided.
  • Print your manuscript on a good quality printer, preferably a laser printer.

Final Notes

I’ve assembled this information based on recommendations from multiple references, discussions with experts and personal experience. I update it as the standards evolve. Remember, before you submit a manuscript to an agent or publisher, be sure to review their specific requirements. You might enjoy this article: Farhad Manjoo: Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. If you have something to add or corrections to offer, please leave your comments below.

47 Comments

  1. Jack

    everyone tells others ‘how to do it’, writing like any art form belongs to the creator…. It is the way your inner feelings are received by the observer. Image anyone directing
    the artist of an abstract painting “how to do it’
    That is what i feel, that is how i write my manuscript.
    Jack Redlum

    Reply
  2. Anon

    Jack, this is not an article telling you how to write a manuscript, but how to format it for submission. Most, if not all, publishers will require certain formats when dealing with manuscripts. This is for ease of reading and then editing, adjusting format for publish. The generic of the format is that when the manuscript is scent to formatting for publish it creates a flowing book without creating extra work of having to go through and fix spacing and other errors created from spacing start of paragraphs instead of using the paragraph indent option, or justifying a line, that type of thing. Imagine having to go through a 300 page manuscript, page by page, looking for these errors because the author ignored proper format etiquette.

    Reply
  3. Casey

    Jack, this isn’t to say this is exactly how it will be published either. This is to save the people you expect to assist you with your writing trouble. No author can exist and succeed without the help of others, so it is best to format it to the way in which the agents, editors, etc like and expect it. That shows commitment and professionalism.

    Reply
  4. Lenna Wyatt

    Although I’ve written many short stories and articles this is my first novel. Took me several years to write it and 20 revisions until I got sick of it but sent it to an editor who said it was so good it should be made into a movie. Now to get motivated to fix all the corrections and suggestions. Your article is really a great help to me. The only thing I wish is that Comic Sans would be an acceptable font. I find it so much easier to read than that common Romans or Courier. I have to fight with this new laptop my kids got me because it seems to do what it wants to do, especially with indentations and spacing. I had Word Perfect before and it was so easy and let me be creative. Thanks for listening. I’m putting this article in my favorites to refer to. No website yet, the one that popped up below is not set up yet.

    Reply
  5. Mandy Wallace

    Thanks so much for this! Especially for clarifying the underline versus italics issue. Much appreciated.

    Reply
  6. Mkyonmibck

    I have a story that must be told. If it were not for articles such as this I would be totally lost (not to say I am actually found). I so understand the reasoning behind spacing rules and format stability. On the other hand my story can’t be told without Jack’s expertise as well. It is a story the average editor will not comprehend as truthfulness. My art will be mixing Jack with Anon.

    Reply
  7. Nitish Raj

    Should the synopsis and sample chapters would be in the same attachment of the novel or would it be multiple attachments?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Nitish,

      Requirements of each agent and publisher vary. Here is what Harlequin specifies:

      • Your query letter should start on page 1 of your file. Also, your query letter should be no longer than one page and must include your complete name, your pen name if you write under one, email address, postal address and phone number, and your story pitch (i.e. a brief description or teaser about your story). We need to know the line the manuscript is intended for, the word count and status (complete/partial), any publishing history and writing awards.
      • Please include a synopsis between 500-1000 words. Your synopsis should provide an overview of your story—including the ending! Please note that your synopsis should start on page 2, and your manuscript should directly follow.

      Before you submit, be sure to check each agent’s/publisher’s requirements.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  8. Dianna

    Do you add a table of contents page? If so, how to format. Also, can you add a foreword page?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Dianna,

      For novels, a table of contents in your manuscript is generally discouraged. It may be added as part of the publication process. However, agents and publishers will instruct you to omit a table of contents.

      If your foreword is part of the story, you may include it. Otherwise, don’t include it when submitting your manuscript.

      Reply
      • adam

        OMG IS THIS THE REAL DAX MACGREGOR? 🙂

        Reply
  9. Becky

    Sometimes authors use asterisks to show time passage. I’ve also seen it to show scene changes. If you shouldn’t leave more than a double space between paragraphs, how do you show in the manuscript those changes in the story? Thank you for the help.

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Becky,

      The passage of time between paragraphs is a scene change and should be handled as noted above, by a single hash mark or three asterisks centered in the line that separates the paragraphs.

      Reply
  10. musyoka mukai

    Should the synopsis and sample chapters would be in the same attachment of the novel or would it be multiple attachments?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      The submission requirements vary significantly between different agents and publishers. You will need to package it differently for each. Let me give you some examples.

      • Shadow Mountain won’t accept mail or email submissions. You need to use their website form where you paste in your cover letter and synopsis and then attach your complete manuscript.
      • Kensington Publishing Co. accepts only email submissions with query letter be in the body of the email and no attachments. If they are interested, they will request more.
      • Penguin’s DAW Books will not accept any electronic submissions. They want paper (print on one side only, thank you). They ask for cover letter and complete manuscript (no synopsis or sample chapters).
      • Harlequin wants your query letter, synopsis and manuscript to be in one file with pages numbered consecutively, starting with the query letter.

      As you can see, there is no standard. Good luck.

      Reply
  11. Sabrina Collins

    So do we underline or italicize all italicized words?

    Reply
  12. martinmurphy2016

    …and if you italicise (Brits don’t use z) a word in italics, it will no longer be in italics. Now do you see?

    your brain is indented.

    Reply
    • nicer_than_martin

      Don’t be such an a$$hole.

      Reply
  13. Alex

    Notes about pronunciation of characters names can be included into the manuscript?

    Reply
  14. Dax MacGregor

    Interesting question… If you are writing fiction, you should avoid anything that pulls the reader out of the story. So I would handle this by showing other characters struggling with the name and learning the correct pronunciation.

    Reply
  15. Linda Ballard

    Stupid question. When you say that each chapter should begin on its own page, do you mean a completely new sheet of paper? Or can it be on the back sheet of the last chapter? I am assuming that the manuscripts can be written front and back of each paper and not only one clean sheet per page unless the publisher requests otherwise.

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Hi, Linda. When you have a new chapter, just start it on a new page. Whether that page is front or back doesn’t matter.

      Reply
  16. James Waltz

    I’ve been writing my manuscript using just the default Calibri style in Microsoft Word, and now want to switch to a standard format. The body paragraphs are a simple matter of changing the typeface, however I’ve styled my chapter headings in a particular way: each “chapter” is currently unnumbered, instead headed by a location and date on their own lines, both italicised and bolded, and separated from the body by a blank paragraph. How might I go about translating that into a standardised format? Thanks.

    Reply
  17. wes horton

    Hi James, I would dump Word and buy Page Four and Smart Edit from http;//www.sofwareforwriting.com. it should just come if you search Page Four This is a writing program just for us. I have Smart Edit which can polish a m.s. like glass. Both are great. However, don,t mix the fonts up, they are different. The handing of chapters is great and it has everything a writer needs to turn out a top looking m.s. Wes Horton W.A

    Reply
  18. Avery Oldakowski

    Hi. If you are using a pen name, should you put your real last name on the heading of each page or your fake last name? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Use your pen name on the header of each page.

      Reply
  19. Myra

    Hi, I’m writing a children’s picture book and each page of the book will only have a few sentences.
    How do I denote a new page on the manuscript if 4 pages of the proposed book fits into one page of the manuscript?
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Myra,

      You should manually insert a page break to separate the pages.

      Reply
  20. Gary

    Can you clarify something for me. You wrote: Line Spacing: Double-spaced. And then further down you wrote: Separation between sentences: One space. Do you mean “One space” between paragraphs? Or am I missing something? I think of a paragraph having multiple sentences, so how can you have double spacing for lines yet one spacing for sentences?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Gary,

      The Boomer generation was taught to place two spaces after the period ending a sentence. Most of them learned “keyboarding” on typewriters, which mostly used monospace fonts. The extra space improved readability. Most Gen Xers (and all Millennials) learned to type on computers and were taught to leave a single space between sentences. For many years, this was a topic of heated discussion. A consensus finally coalesced within the past five years or so.

      So double-space your manuscript and separate sentences with a single space.

      Dax

      Reply
      • Gary

        Aha. You are talking about the space between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. I was really not reading your original post correctly. Since I am a boomer, yet quite immature, I use two spaces. That would be a hard one to stop since I just do it naturally. Thank you Dax

        Reply
        • Dax MacGregor

          I am a Boomer too. It takes a long time to change something that happens without conscious thought. I’m improving.

          Here’s a recommendation: Use the Search and Replace feature of your word processor to find all of the double-spaces after a period and replace them with a single space.

          Reply
          • Gary

            Thanks Dax, that is a great idea.

            Reply
  21. awakeinwisdom

    Dax,
    When you’re writing someone’s thoughts, are they italicized or should they be in single quotes?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Use italics for internal thoughts.

      Sometimes I see inner thoughts formatted just like dialogue, but to me this invites confusion between actual dialogue and unspoken thoughts.

      Reply
  22. Jim

    Are manuscripts more commonly submitted to a potential agent in paper or electronic format?

    I f electronic, MS Word docx, pdf, txt, or ?

    How are photographs placed within a manuscript? Captions?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Always follow the guidelines of the agent or publisher to whom you are submitting your manuscripts. Most often submissions will be requested in Microsoft Word format. The method of treatment of photographs and illustrations varies greatly.

      Reply
  23. Donna

    Thanks for this information. I write in MS Word. I’m confused about paragraphs. Some info out there says that you don’t indent the opening paragraph of a chapter or scene break. Does it depend on each agent/publisher? Also, I used the hit-the-space-bar-manually-five-times rule (if there is such a rule) for the first line on each paragraph of my manuscript. I didn’t use the tab button. I understand now that I should have set the indent in Word through Format->Paragraph->Section before I began writing and it would automatically indent the proper spacing. My manual spaces don’t look like they’re enough, even though I hit the space bar five times. I’m at a loss as to what to do with my completed manuscript that’s otherwise properly formatted. Thanks.

    Reply
    • micheldaw

      Hi Donna. To set the automatic indent: Right click on the Normal Style in the Styles area of the Home Ribbon. Select Modify… This opens the Modify Style dialog. In the bottom left corner, click the Format button, then select Paragraph… This opens the Paragraph dialog. On the Indents and Spacing Tab, under the Indentation section, use the Special: drop-down list to select First Line. In the By: Combo box beside it, enter 0.5″ if necessary. Click OK, OK.

      To remove you five spaces throughout your document, Click the Replace button on the Editing section of the Home Tab. In the Find What: field type five spaces. Leave the Replace With field blank. Click replace all.

      That should do it.

      Reply
  24. Claudia Orpin

    Hi, Dax, I’ve completed writing a novel in Pages. I’m a low level computer person. Is Pages similar to Word? Can I submit in Pages? Many thanks. Coop

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Claudia,

      When you are submitting your manuscript, you need to submit it in the format specified by the recipient. I’ve never seen any agent or publisher willing to accept submissions in Pages. You should be able to save your manuscript in MS-Word format by following the directions in this article.

      Reply
  25. Sandra Bender

    This is all such amazing and useful advice, thank you so much!!! Can I just ask – why not the indent for new paragraphs? I’ve only just finished formatting the first three chapters of my novel in preparation to start querying, but I did it all with indents! (Is there a quick way to undo that?? Help???)

    Reply
  26. Richard Copple

    Odd question…I’m a short story writer and I’ve been looking for (legitimate) places to submit my pieces, but with little luck. Is a manuscript normally required for these smaller pieces? 30-50 pages.

    Reply
  27. Dylan

    I’ve written a manuscript and originally it was told in 5 parts. After giving to some trusted readers, they gave feedback that the parts were too long and so I’ve begun breaking them into chapters. I understand that chapters start on a fresh page, but how should I break up my parts?

    Example:

    Part 1: Line 1
    Chapter 1: Line 2

    The text for this novel starts here. This is going to be a book. etc. etc. etc.

    I understand that line 1 starts 1/3 to 1/2 of the way down the page. The question is does line 2 go directly below line 1, would there be a space between line 1 and line 2, or would line 2 start on entirely new page because it’s the beginning of a chapter?

    Also, I noticed in the example there is extra space between the chapter heading and the beginning of the chapter. Is that formatting that adds a space after a paragraph or do you put an extra paragraph between the chapter heading and the actual text?

    Reply
  28. geeksintransit

    I have a small question. Should i include the table of contents when submitting?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Pin It on Pinterest

Join Our List

Join Our List

Get notified by email when new information is published.

You have Successfully Subscribed!