Proper Manuscript Format for a Novel
Early in the process of transferring the story in my head into my computer, I realized I should format my work properly. In my mind, I pictured Earnest Hemingway pounding out pages on his typewriter in perfect manuscript format. I figured I ought to do the same.
So I googled “manuscript format” and got 1,800,000 results. After looking at a number of sites, I was more confused than ever.
I expected there to be a standard format for manuscripts that every publisher required. Instead, I found a lot of conflicting opinions on the subject. Some stated Courier font was required. Others said, that was old school, now Times New Roman was preferred. Most said never italicize (underline instead); but some very respectable sites said italics were okay. The basics were similar; but the details varied significantly.
I sought guidance from other writers. This started a very lively debate at one of my critique team meetings. The biggest debate was whether to place one space after a period or two. I learned people have very strong opinions on the subject of manuscript formatting.
Eventually, I realized there wasn’t a “standard” format with rigid rules; there were guidelines with some room for interpretation.
The key word here is “some.” There are a number of items that are non-negotiable.
I’ve deduced there are two schools of opinion on this subject. The Old School believes the format in force when authors used typewriters should still be followed. New School thinkers believe that many of those standards were designed to simplify manual typesetting and no longer serve any purpose.
After spending way more time researching this than I should have, I’ll detail for you the basics (on which most agree), show you what’s required, and explain areas where you have choices.
One last note before I get into the details. I’m exploring the formatting of manuscripts for novels. If you are seeking assistance with other types of manuscripts, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
When to Format
You may decide to format your manuscript when you start — or you may choose to do it once you finish.
I decided to format mine early for two reasons:
- I find it easier to review and edit my work when it’s properly formatted.
- Incorporating some elements after the fact is a lot more work. For example, if you italicize, then decide later to underline instead, you have to change them all by hand.
A novel manuscript requires a title page containing the following.
- 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 (e.g., by Newbie Author). 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: Centered one double-spaced line below your name. Round to the nearest thousand (e.g., about 100,000 words). Note: some recommend placing this at the bottom, center of the page.
Format the main content of your manuscript per these guidelines.
- Font: 12 point Courier New or Times New Roman. Personally, I find Times New Roman easier to read.
- Margins: 1 inch to 1.5 inches all the way around.
- Line Spacing: Double-spaced
- Header (at the top right of every page except the title page): Your last name / The book title / Page Number (e.g., Author / My Story / 152). Note: Pages are numbers continuously, with page one being the first page after the title page.
- Indent the first line of every paragraph by about 1/2 inch.
- Chapter Titles: Start each chapter on a new page and center the title about one-third to one-half the way down from the top.
- Scene Breaks: Insert a new line with a single hash mark “#” in the center.
- Dialog: Start a new paragraph every time you change speakers.
Odds and Ends
These items get discussed a lot, but to me they are less important.
- Traditionally, periods at the end of sentences were followed by two spaces (colons, too). Most now recommend one space. I’ve used the two-space rule all my life. It happens without conscious thought. Before I print, I’ll do a global search and replace to shrink them to single spaces. Update 5/19/2011: My editor says this is a dead issue. Make sure you’ve got one space after each period before submitting, unless the receiving party specifies otherwise.
- Most recommend underlining any text that you intend to be italicized. Some claim italics are now acceptable. The argument against italics in manuscripts is they are easily overlooked. I’ve decided to go old-school on this and underline my intended italics.
- Some writers like to place “END” after the final line in their manuscript.
Mistakes to Avoid
There are a several don’ts that are widely recommended.
- Don’t right 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.
- 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.
- Print your manuscript on a good quality printer, preferably a laser printer. If your printer is on its last legs, buy a new one or use a friend’s.
When it’s time to submit your manuscript, check with the agent or publisher. Many will have a preferred format. Most will post it on their website. Be sure to tailor your submission to meet their recommendation. In most cases, the changes required will be minor tweaks.
(This tip comes via Beth Hill in her post on The Editor’s Blog titled Format Your Novel for Submission.)
I’ve cobbled these notes together based on recommendations from multiple books, websites and personal discussions. I believe these to be accurate. But before you submit a manuscript, be sure to review their specific requirements.
Did I miss anything, or get any thing wrong? Do you agree? Disagree? Please let me know.