Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Yes, do a little dance. Celebrate. You have finished your book. And of course, you know this means a new phase begins. A phase of editing and research and submitting your book to editors and agents.

But before even that, you need to format your manuscript. Of course, as you are researching editors and agents to submit your literary baby to, you want to pay attention to their specific format rules and adjust your manuscript accordingly; however, what I provide for you in this article is a checklist of the most standard rules of manuscript formatting.

Many of the formatting rules will no doubt make you go, “Duh, thanks, Sh┼Źn,” but you’d be surprised at how many people forget one thing or decide not to do something a specific way because they like the way they do it better. This isn’t about what you like; it’s about getting your foot in the door of PublishDom that is currently closed.

  • Use letter-sized white paper – 20 lb.
  • 1″ margins all around.
  • These days, most use Times New Roman, 12-point font, but there is nothing wrong with using Courier. Avoid sans serif fonts; those are fonts without feet, such as Arial.

  • In the upper left hand corner, you’ll put the following information: full name, address, phone number, and e-mail address, and word count.
  • Space down to nearly 1/3 to 1/2 of the page and center the title of your book, then the word “by,” and then your name. Here’s a PDF example of a cover page -http://shonbacon.com/sample-cover.pdf
  • If you have an agent, his/her contact information will go in the bottom right hand corner of the cover page.

  • Double space throughout.
  • Use a ragged right margin – in order words, do not full justify your manuscript.
  • In the header, on the left hand side, you will place your last name and book title (or partial book title) and on the right hand side, the page number.
  • Though you will be tempted to do this, do not place copyright information on your novel; do not let fear of theft make you do it!
  • Place chapter headings about 3 double-spaces down the page, centered and place two to three double-spaces between the chapter heading and the start of the chapter.
  • Indent every paragraph – and this seems nonsensical, but I’ve read manuscripts that have not been indented, I’ve read manuscripts where writers literally hit the space bar five times, and I’ve read manuscripts where the author uses the TAB button, which usually moves the cursor a half-inch in. Personally, I hit the TAB. It’s easier for me, and I don’t have to remember to go 1,2,3,4,5 every time I make a paragraph. Besides, this is the age of computers; why manually do anything when you can configure the word processing program to do it for you?

Here’s an example of a formatted story pages taking from an unedited manuscript of mine: http://shonbacon.com/sample-story.pdf

When breaking up scenes, you want to make sure there is white space between paragraphs to denote the break; it might be a good idea to also center a “#” so that the reader knows for sure a break is occurring. If you’re not breaking into new scenes, do not place additional spaces between paragraphs.

This one is iffy, depending on who you talk to. Some say do not italicize or bold any text; use underline to denote emphasis. There are others who say that this practice is a throwback from the typewriter. If you can find out from an agent or an editor which they would prefer, that’s your best bet. Better yet, ask authors online – they might be more readily available to you. Personally, I hardly ever use bold because I want my words to be strong enough to carry themselves. And when I write characters’ direct thoughts, which are typically italicized, I underline instead because a wise author who read my stuff once suggested it.

When your story is done, do not type THE END; hopefully, the story is good enough that the reader knows it’s the end.

Do not punch holes, staple, or bind your manuscript; you can, if you like, use a clip or a rubber band. You can also loosely place your manuscript in a box, followed by any other material an editor or agent requests, such as cover/query letter, synopsis, or marketing plan.

Remember, first impressions are everything. Editors and agents receive a plethora of manuscripts every day, and it’s important for your book to not only be well-written and engaging, but also well put together.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services and online programs at CLG Entertainment.

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  1. Great info expressed clearly and concisely.

  2. This was helpful. I am at this stage now.
    ~ Wendy

  3. Thank you so much for this post.

    I hope that the rules don't change by the time I am finally ready to submit.

  4. Good information. Things seem to keep changing, but if you format the standard way, you'll be fine. It's the standard way for a reason.

    Straight From Hel

  5. Excellent post, Shon. This is so important to create that good first impression, to let the agent or editor know you're a professional.

    Writers need to be aware, though, that many of the smaller presses will have another whole list of formatting requirements and sometimes will ask they be done before they'll read the manuscript. If that happens, be sure to save a copy of the manuscript with the original formatting as well.

  6. Part of my job as an editor is to turn all that underlining into italics. If you mean italics, why not use them? They have the additional advantage of not crossing out parts of characters.

  7. Thanks for the comments.

    I'm interested in seeing how formatting might change in the future as technology becomes even more prevalent.

    Stephanie, so you would suggest writers use italics instead of underline? There are some books that suggest that writers underline. I remember when I let a few seasoned authors read a draft of my work, and it was one of the first things they thought I should change: underline instead of italics. Had never really heard that before then.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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