General Rules for Formatting Your MSS
These rules are for those who still wish to seek publication through the traditional route, and therefore they don’t strictly apply to those who are self-publishing and therefore may follow different formatting routes.
The idea of manuscript formatting is to make your MSS polished and presentable to agents and publishers, because it’s not just your story that needs to impress them. A well-presented manuscript is just as important – it shows them that you have taken the time and effort with your MSS and you care about the standard of the work you’ve created.
Unless agents and publishers they specifically ask for certain formats, most go with the accepted standard manuscript format, which these guidelines follow. They are not my guidelines, but simply what is accepted within the publishing industry.
Your margins should be minimum 1” all round (Word uses the 2.54cm default, which is perfectly acceptable). Don’t make them any smaller in order to fit more text on the page, because it detracts from reading.
The reason for the margins, other than making your text look neat and presentable, is that it allows editors to make notes in the margins as they read your MSS.
The Ragged Right Principle
The other thing to do is align your text from the left margin. Ah, but isn’t it better to fully justify the text – it makes everything neat, after all?
Not necessarily. You might be in the habit of using fully justified text, but the big disadvantage is that you end up with large gaps of white between some words, and it also causes problems with hyphenated words and spaces after full stops.
And think about it – we naturally read from left to right. So a left aligned margin helps with readability. Also known as right-ragged, it’s preferred simply because it doesn’t cause the text to stretch out or cause any problems. The other main advantage is that there are no large gaps after a full stop.
Don’t Use Fancy Fonts
Editors don’t want to see narrative in a font that they’re going to find hard to read. It will mean instant rejection.
Most agents/publishing houses stipulate they either want Arial or Times New Roman font, or sometimes Courier. (Always check their requirements). Text is always black.
These are standard fonts used in the publishing industry and very easy on the eye, so it makes their jobs much easier, and it makes your manuscript much easier to read.
The size, as a general rule, is 12pt. This is just the right size for readability and presentation. Anything smaller could make the job of reading the manuscript quite jarring. Anything bigger and the narrative will look strange and will instantly turn a 200 page novel into a 300 page one.
Get the Line Spacing Right
There are quite a few variations regarding line spacing, depending on what the publisher requires. It’s best to check what they prefer before you make any submissions, but most of them like double-line spacing, (2.0) again because it has been an industry standard for generations.
Again, it all comes down to readability and presentation. The spacing allows editors to make notes or corrections about the narrative. Of course, that’s not to say that 1.5 spacing isn’t acceptable either, because many agents and publishers ask for it, but check their requirements.
Don’t ever use single line spacing for a novel. This is universally hated, and may mean instant rejection.
Never print out your MSS double sided. Single sided only.
The key to getting it right with your preferred agents/publishers is to check what they prefer. They can vary, and it’s worth getting it right.
It sounds obvious, and it is, but there are plenty of writers who are careless and leave out the indented paragraphs, meaning all the narrative is presented with justified, hanging paragraphs.
Each new paragraph should be indented about 1cm (use the tab key or the format menu).
It goes without saying that you should start a new page to denote a new chapter. They tend to written in capitals i.e. CHAPTER 1, or CHAPTER ONE. Leave several blank lines between the chapter heading and the narrative. (Keep this consistent).
I get asked a lot about this so it seems there is a lot of conflicting information available on the web that italics can be used to denote internal thoughts, emphasised text or languages etc.
The general rule is that whenever you want to show italics, simply underline the text. This makes it easy for the editor reading your MSS to see the formatting. Don’t assume that you can use italics – some publishers don’t like it, hence the underline method.
Always check with in-house publishing requirements first.
Cover Page, Headers/Footers
Your MSS will need a cover page. This will state the name of your novel, your name as the writer (particularly if you have a pseudonym) and your full actual name. It will also state how many words the novel is (to the nearest 1000 words) and your contact details.
You won’t have to point out to the agent or publisher that is copyrighted – it’s copyrighted automatically by virtue of you having written it.
Number your pages from start to finish. (You don’t number the cover page).
In the header, put your name and the title of the novel. (Note – this is not set in stone – there are lots of variations and advice about headers and footers, but as long as you have the right information, that’s all that matters).
And the obvious…
Ensure your sample chapters are as perfect as they can be. That means no spelling mistakes, bad punctuation and no grammar gaffes. Your MSS has to be perfect in every way.
While lots of agents and publishers accept digital submissions, there may be a need for them to see printed hard copies, so make sure you use good quality white paper, 80gsm/90gsm. Don’t print on coloured paper. It must be white.
If you are sending printed pages, don’t staple or pin your MSS, or bind it. Don’t use fancy plastic folders, agents and publishers don’t like them. A simple loose elastic band is sufficient to keep everything together.
So, there they are, the standard guidelines to help you format your manuscript. Just remember there will be variations in requirements from publisher to publisher, and requirements may differ in the US compared to the UK and Europe. The golden rule is, always check before you submit.
Next week: Why you must motivate your characters