Manuscript formatting: 8 tips to delight editors

Manuscript formatting matters. Layout, spacing, font (typography and font size), plus other details factor into the legibility and appeal of your manuscript. Read 8 tips to ensure you format your manuscript well:

Manuscript formatting matters. Layout, spacing, font (typography and font size), plus other details factor into the legibility and appeal of your manuscript. Read 8 tips to ensure you format your manuscript well:

How to format your manuscript well:

  1. Be consistent in manuscript formatting
  2. Stick to crisp, serif fonts
  3. Give some space
  4. Insert page numbers
  5. Differentiate similar punctuation marks
  6. Capitalize correctly
  7. Use paragraphs for clarity
  8. Check the guidelines

Be consistent in manuscript formatting

Manuscript formatting practices differ by region for some details.

As an example, many publishers in the US tend to use double quotation marks rather than single, while both double and single quotations marks are used in the UK.

The important part of manuscript formatting is to be consistent. This would naturally look like a punctuation error:

‘I don’t know how to use speech marks,” he said.

The same punctuation mark should be used for the same purpose (in the above example, indicating speech) throughout.

Stick to crisp, serif fonts

The easier it is to read your font, the better.

Manuscript formatting entirely in Comic Sans is definitely inadvisable.

A serif font such as Times New Roman that is comparatively neutral is best. The South African division of the Big Five publisher Penguin Random House specifies their preferred font formatting:

Use a serif font like Times New Roman, Garamond  or Century, size 12.

Manuscript formatting and format - quote | Now Novel

Give some space

Spacing is another important element in manuscript formatting.

Too close together, and the lines of your story become squashed and more tiring to read.

In both fiction and academic writing, 1.5 is the minimum line spacing preferred (Penguin specifies this spacing in their formatting preferences).

How to change spacing in your document:

In Microsoft Word:

  1. Click in the document area of your open manuscript, hold CTRL and A (on a Windows device) or Cmd and A (on a Mac).
  2. Go to the ‘Home’ tab (if not already selected) in the top navigation bar.
  3. Click the little arrow pointing diagonally down to the write in the ‘Paragraph’ section of the navigation bar.
  4. Click the drop-down under ‘Line spacing:’ in the pop-up box and select ‘1.5 lines’, then ‘OK’ to apply 1.5 spacing to your entire document.

For Google Docs:

Google has a succinct guide to formatting your manuscript’s font and paragraphs.

Insert page numbers

You haven’t experienced editorial dismay until you’ve printed out a thick section of a manuscript to edit in hard copy and you drop said stack or a draught blows pages off the stack and you can’t find what page goes where.

Page numbers are easy to insert and a must to ensure that whoever your reader is, they know where they are in the story in relation to the previous page and the next.

5. Differentiate similar punctuation marks

It’s easy to get confused when you’re using hyphens ‘willy-nilly’ for 3 different purposes.

According to Chicago Manual of Style, it’s standard to use the shortest hyphen (like in ‘willy-nilly’ above) to form compound words.

The next longest, the ‘en dash’, is most often used to specific date or number ranges, such as pp. 101–105 (in index pages, for example). Or ‘January–March’ (in specifying a range of dates).

The longest dash, the ’em dash’, may be used to set apart a separate statement from the rest of the phrase—e.g. if you wanted to add extra commentary, like this. It can also be used to indicate interrupted dialogue, as in:

“I don’t know how to use punct—”
“Yeah you do, Karen,” she said.

Chicago Manual of Style has a handy guide to using dashes in manuscript formatting here.

Simplify further by hiring an editor who knows their dashes and more.

Manuscript formatting jokes - Steve Martin on punctuation | Now Novel

Capitalize correctly

The occasional ‘wrong’ capitalization for effect may be acceptable style. For example, if you have a cynical narrator who turns common nouns into proper nouns for dry humour. For example:

Oh boy. Seeing Greatest Stepmother Who Ever Lived tonight. I wonder what awful tray bake dad will make G and I pinch our noses and swallow to please her.

As a general rule, however:

  • Capitalize the starts of new paragraphs and new sentences
  • Proper nouns (people’s and places’ names, official titles when used in full, e.g. The Archbishop of Canterbury, versus ‘the bishop’ without full title)

A younger character MiGhT wRiTe SoMeThInG lIkE tHiS at one point in your story suggesting sarcasm, in reference to internet culture and slang.

However, doing this every paragraph or page will quickly tire your editor (and reader).

Use paragraphs for clarity

In reading, a wall-like paragraph of text is daunting, no matter who the author is. Good novel editing will help you make your novel flow better.

When you’re unknown and trying to get your debut published, it’s near-unforgiveable.

Writing has cadence, rhythm, music. A whole chapter (worse, novel) without a single paragraph break is daunting and tiring to read. In formatting your manuscript, create a new paragraph in particular when you:

Check the guidelines

When in doubt, check agents’ and publishers’ submission guidelines.

The reality of modern publishing is that most larger publishers do not accept unsolicited (unrequested) manuscripts (as we discussed in our webinar on publishing).

Many agents and publishers, however, share their explicit manuscript formatting preferences, so there’s no excuse to get it wrong. The romance juggernaut Harlequin, for example, says:

Q: How should I format my submission?

A. When it comes to formatting, we look primarily for readability. Follow your instincts and keep it simple. If you’re still not sure, go with 12-point Times New Roman, double spaced. But don’t worry about getting it “right”—as long as we can read it, we won’t reject your story for using a different font!

In the end, readability is king.

Learn more about four types of editing that will increase your readability greatly and get a free, no-obligation quote.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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