Proper formatting is by far the easiest thing you can do to make your book project appear as professional as possible to literary agents and the various professionals you will work with throughout the publication process.
There isn’t an ironclad industry standard format for manuscripts that’s as exacting as, say, a Chicago Manual of Style. Instead, there are a mix of “must haves” and “some people do these things.”
Here are the must-haves:
- A cover page. If you’re submitting to literary agents it’s helpful to have a cover page that includes the title, your name, your contact information (phone number and email are fine but include your physical address if you want to), and the word count.
- Times New Roman, 12 point font. It used to be Times New Roman or Courier, but in my experience Courier has gotten a little old school. Go with Times New Roman.
- Double spacing. This means, very simply, double spacing without any other changes. Do not add any extra spacing before or after paragraphs. And absolutely do not get crazy with facing pages or trying to make your manuscript look like a book. It’s a manuscript. Go with it.
- 1″ margins. Just 1″ margins all around. Double-check this because some programs default to 1.25″ or 1.5″.
- 1/2 inch indent for a new paragraph. Best: Setting an automatic indent for new paragraphs (this saves your future interior designer a step). Fine: Tabs for new paragraphs. Red flag: Spaces. Don’t. do. this.
- Numbered pages. The best way to drive a publishing professional insane is to send them a manuscript where the pages aren’t numbered or, even worse, where the pages start over with every chapter. NUMBER YOUR PAGES. Optional but not a bad idea: include your last name or the book title in the header or footer case an agent prints out your manuscript and gets trapped in a wind storm.
- Page breaks after the end of a chapter. New chapters should start on a new page. And use the page break function in your word processing program, not returns, so future additions or subtractions don’t turn your manuscript into a hot mess. Also, I would still number chapters even if you decide to use chapter titles so that the people giving you feedback can easily reference the chapter #.
- Section breaks. If you have a section break within a chapter, at minimum include an extra space between the paragraphs denoting the break. I would advocate including three asterisks or some other symbol denoting the break so it’s clear it’s not a mistake and for situations when it falls near the end of a page and the break might be easily missable.
Here are some areas where people tend to vary a bit more:
- Spacing for chapter breaks. Some people don’t include extra spacing for chapter breaks, some include quite a lot of extra padding. I just include one extra space before the chapter title and one extra space after.
- Denoting alternate text like text messages, handwritten letters, signage. There aren’t hard and fast rules here, but I would recommend extra spaces around the alternative text and italicizing or changing the font to denote that it’s a break from the narrative voice. If you change the font, don’t get too crazy, and err on the side of legibility (e.g. don’t use some hard to read cursive font for a handwritten letter).
- Italicizing a character’s inner monologue in a third person narrative. It’s become a convention but it’s not a standard to italicize a character’s thoughts in a first person narrative, such as: “Why is this all so complicated, he thought.” (There was quite a Twitter beef about this a few weeks back). There’s room for author discretion here.
Once more for emphasis: Don’t try to make your manuscript look like a physical book. Publishing professionals are used to working with manuscripts in industry standard formula and it’s sort of baked into their brain, meaning they have a sense of how long chapters and entire books are with this formatting in mind.
See anything I missed? Have any questions? Take to the comments!
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Art: Fabrique de cartes à jouer dans une maison de la place Dauphine, à Paris by Anonymous