Formatting Your Novel Manuscript: The Do’s, Don’ts, and Really-Doesn’t-Matters
By Louisa Burton
o show you how long I’ve been pontificating on this subject, my first article about it cautioned the writer who used a pin-feed printer to burst the pages and tear off the side strips. There’s still a lot of outdated advice floating around the ‘Net about this and other matters related to manuscript preparation and submission, and some that’s just plain goofy. Some publishing industry conventions are as longstanding and venerable as Stonehenge. If you don't follow them, your submission will look amateurish. Others are either evolving or have always been more flexible.
Caveat #1. Writers tend to get foam-spewing dogmatic as regards the minutiae of manuscript format, maybe because it’s one aspect of the subjective and nerve-wracking business of novel submission that we can control. There are people who will read this article and start sputtering about how margins have to be precisely one inch all around, and how, in the name of all that is holy could she not know that?! (Yes, they will punctuate that sentence with both a question mark and the dreaded exclamation point, because they’re really not as smart as they think they are.) What I do know, after two-dozen plus books in print, is that everybody’s got an opinion, but the only ones I really care about are those of the editors who are going to be reading my manuscripts. If that’s what you really care about, too, read on.
Caveat #2: These guidelines apply to manuscripts for novel-length works of fiction—not short stories, articles, or nonfiction—that are being submitted to traditional print publishers, either via email or hard copy. (The manuscript should look the same either way.) I would love to include advice for sending work to electronic publishers, but a) I am really not hep to that jive, and b) it’s my understanding that e-publishers have their own preferences, which are usually posted on their websites. When submitting to e-publishers, you’re best off formatting your manuscript exactly the way they want it, regardless of whether it contradicts my inspired and authoritative counsel.
The Title Page: The first page of a novel manuscript is always the title page. Center your title and name—your real name or your real name and your pseudonym, not just the latter—about halfway down, like so:
PRICELESS WORDS OF WISDOM By Louisa Burton w/a Hottie McHotflash
Also include on the title page—in any corner that screams out to you, single spaced—your name, address, phone number, email address, word count, and in certain cases only (see below), a copyright notice. If you have an agent, the contact information should be his or hers.
The Word Count: Calculate the word count the way editors still do, by multiplying the number of pages in your manuscript by 250. Don't worry about partial pages, how many lines are on each page, what your word processor's word count is, yadda yadda. Just multiply by 250 and round up to the nearest thousand.
The Header:There should be no header or page number on the title page. At the top of each page thereafter, have your word processer print a header, which consists of the title or an abbreviation thereof, your real last name, and the page number. You can include your pseudonym if you wish. There is no hard and fast rule for how a header should look, but I think it’s a good idea to make it both unobtrusive and easy to distinguish from the text. I like to put mine on the right rather than the left, so that it’s not the first thing the eye jumps to when turning the page. Position it about half an inch from the top of the page, and leave at least another half inch between it and the text. I used to print the header in italics, but now I use one of Word 2007’s stylish header templates, albeit a simple, professional-looking one.
Speaking of Style: The left, right, and bottom margins should be about 1¼ inches; you can vary that by as much as a quarter-inch either way. Your top margin should be whatever looks right with the header. If you can get exactly 25 lines on a page, great, but it's not the end of the world if you go over or under by a couple of lines.
When the last line of a paragraph from the previous page gets stranded all by its lonesome at the top of the next page, that’s a “widow.” The first line of a paragraph appearing by itself at the bottom of a page while the rest spills over onto the next page is an “orphan.” Don’t listen to Word’s help menu when it says widows and orphans are contrary to “a professional-looking document.” We like widows and orphans in the novel-writing biz. They give us nice, uniform pages with the same number of lines on each page. In Word, the default is to prevent them, so this should be turned off by unchecking that option. You should also uncheck the “keep with next” and “keep lines together” options. The first is meant to avoid page breaks between paragraphs, the second to avoid paragraphs from breaking onto two pages. None of this this odd, anal-retentive formatting belongs in a novel manuscript; it just creates irritating gaps in your document. Most writers turn off the hyphenation, too.
Always, always, always double space your text. Never, never, never try to fool an editor or agent into thinking your manuscript is longer or shorter than it is by deviating just a little bit from double spacing; they know that trick, and they will sneer and say rude things about you behind your back. Paragraphs must be indented, with no line spaces between. These things are not optional; trust me on this. Scene breaks should be indicated with a double line space. In addition, editors find it helpful if you center a symbol in the line space, such as a pound sign (the old typesetting symbol for a space), as follows:
The purpose of this is to draw attention to the scene break if it falls at the top or bottom of a page. For this reason, it’s not necessary to put the pound sign at the end of a chapter. It will just confuse the editor. Never confuse someone who’s in a position to make important decisions about your career, if you can help it.
Each chapter starts on a fresh page, and chapter headings should be centered about a third of the way down. The decision about whether to use numerals, spell out the chapter numbers, title your chapters, or whatever, is a matter of personal taste. Follow the chapter heading with three double line spaces and then begin your text.
Okay, Fonts. Here’s where people tend to get just a little bit crazy. Traditionally, editors have preferred nonproportional fonts (where each letter takes up exactly the same amount of space) like that sturdy old warhorse, Courier, and its effete cousin, Courier Lite. I mean Courier New. Yes, it is a butt-ugly font. We all know that. The reason it has long been the font of choice for manuscripts is that a) it’s easy to read, which is a big deal if your job involves reading 24/7, and b) it’s easy to edit, because there’s enough room between the characters to insert other characters using those little wedgie marks called carets. I’ve heard editors say they prefer Courier, and I’ve heard them say they couldn’t care less; they just want a great story. The bottom line is that it’s always a good idea to make your manuscript as readable and professional-looking as possible.
The most readable fonts are those with serifs, so if you choose not to go with Courier, back away slowly from Arial and do not make eye contact. I also recommend a font that prints LARGE in 12 point, which is the only size in which you should ever print a manuscript, period. It’s common sense: larger fonts are easier to read. To illustrate this, try typing the same sentence five times, each on its own line, using the following fonts in the following order: Courier New, Bookman Old Style, Georgia, Times New Roman, and Garamond. Not only do the sentences shrink dramatically from top to bottom, but the spaces between characters get all squished up. Garamond is my all-time favorite font. It’s elegant and beautiful, especially in italics. I use it for letters and promotional materials—but never for manuscripts. It's best to indicate italics with underlining, not with an italic font. Not only is it more customary to do so, and therefore more professional-looking, but if you don't underline your itals, your publisher's copyeditor will have to do it by hand before the script goes to typesetting. ALL CAPS and boldfacing are generally not used for emphasis in fiction, but hey, it’s your creative license; exercise it how you will. I will sometimes print a word, phrase, or chunk of epistolary material in a different font to indicate to the copyeditor and typesetter that I want it set that way in the finished book. Titles, headers, and chapter headings can be in whatever font your heart desires. Just don’t get too froo-froo. Editors roll their eyes when it looks as if you’re trying to desktop-publish the freakin thing. It’s the story itself that should demonstrate your originality and creativity, not the fabulousness of the manuscript.
“Louisa,” you ask, “What’s all this I hear about putting just one space after a period instead of two? Back when I took typing, they distinctly told me, blah blah blah...” The two-space thing is a holdover from the old Smith-Corona days, when the extra space helped to distinguish one sentence of nonproportional characters from the next. With the advent of word processing, this custom has become obsolete and may even, in certain applications, screw up your line breaks. Most publishers, if asked, will tell you that they prefer one space between sentences. So what do you do with that almost-finished two-space manuscript? Either do a search and replace, changing a period with two spaces to a period with one space, or (gasp!) leave it with two spaces. This one ain’t a biggie.
Printing:The paper you choose for your working manuscripts is between you and your God; your submission manuscript is a different critter altogether. You want the pages to feel substantial in the hand and to read well, with no show-through to the page beneath. Also, flimsy paper doesn’t hold up or erase well, a factor in the editing process. So print that puppy on good-quality, bright white paper. This means 20 or 24 lb., with a number in the high 90’s on the brightness scale. I like Staples Printing Paper, which is 24 lb., with a brightness score of 97. (Note to Staples: That was a sincere and unsolicited plug, freely offered. But I could use a new printer, maybe one of those multifunction babies that does everything but your laundry. I’m just saying.) Oh, and use a nice, fresh cartridge that will print BLACK, not almost black.
So, now that you’ve got that perfectly formatted and printed manuscript, what are you supposed to do with it? That discussion, cats and kittens, will begin with next month’s FictionCraft offering, Avoiding Literary Scams and Choosing an Agent.