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 Standard Manuscript Format

 What it is, and why it's important

            Writing your manuscript in standard format is essential, whether you’re working with an editor, or, especially, when submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher.

            An agent or publisher may reject a non-standard manuscript out of hand.

            When working with an editor, standard format saves the editor time, which saves you money.

            Basically, that means 12 point Times Roman, left justified, 1" margins all around, double spaced, paragraph indents, no space between paragraphs, with a header on each page giving your name, the title or a short form of it, and the page number.

            There are certain elements that must be present, and a few options—but only a few. The format, which originated in the typewriter era, long ago, is intended to (a) make the manuscript easy for the editor to read, (b) allow room for the editor to edit (i.e. write corrections and comments on the printout), and (c) make it easier for the editor at the publishing house to estimate the page length the book, short story, or article will be when published. Word count gives the publisher’s editor a basic idea of the pages it will need, but the paragraphing of a book can make a major difference. A lot of short paragraphs takes up more page space, when printed, than a manuscript that’s mostly long paragraphs. The editor needs to be able to estimate how long this book will be as easily as possible.

            There are four key elements.

            The first element of standard format is the header. It must contain your name (last name), the title or a short form of the title (for example, a manuscript called The Farmer’s Daughter might use “Farmer’s” in the header), and the page number. If your last name is common, Smith or Jones for example, adding your first name is a good idea.

            Reason: the editor at a publisher or literary agency is working with more than one manuscript at a time. If anything happens to scramble the pages, the editor must be able to put the pages back in proper order and assure that pages from one manuscript don’t become part of another.

            Don’t laugh, and don’t think it doesn’t happen. A friend of mine sold her novel when it fell off an overloaded shelf with a bunch of other slush pile manuscripts, and literally hit the editor over the head! As the editor sorted out the mess, something on one of the pages caught her eye and she thought, Hey, this is good!

            Because the page had the header information, the editor could put the manuscript back together, read it, and buy it.

            Make it a habit, when you write anything other than business letters or memos, to create a header before you write the first word. In your word processing program, look for the “header-footer” option. Where it’s located depends on the program, and sometimes on the version. Most commonly, you’ll find it in the “format,” “edit,” “view,” or “insert” menus. Check your manual if you have difficulty finding or using the command.

            This header does not appear in the published book. The style and content of published headers and page numbers is a book design function, and is decided by the publisher and layout artist, not the author. If you self-publish, you, with your book designer, will make those decisions—after the book is completed and ready for layout and design.

            The second element of standard format is that it is always (!!!) double-spaced.

            Double spacing is used for two reasons. First, so an editor working with a printout can write corrections between the lines, and second to make reading a bit easier on the editor’s overworked eyes. Editors may work 8-12 hours a day reading copy (they may read even longer when crash deadlines loom), either on the computer screen or on paper, or both. Some New York editors keep right on reading while taking the subway to and from the office.

            Be kind to your editor’s eyes!

            Along the same lines, be sure your printer can produce clean, clear copy, i.e. that it has no mechanical problems, and isn’t about to run out of ink or toner. Hint: laser printers are much cheaper per page printed than any ink-jet. When you buy your printer, always ask the rated page output of the toner cartridge, and its cost. Divide the cost by the rated page output to get the cost per page. You’ll get some surprises. Don’t skimp when you buy your printer! It’s responsible for the way your manuscript looks to agents and publishers.

            The third key element is your choice of typeface (font).

            Times Roman has become pretty much standard. If a publisher or agent asks for a different font, you can reformat in that font. Use 12 point type, unless an editor asks for a larger size. Never use a smaller type size! (The editor’s overworked eyes, remember?)

            Do not use Helvetica, Ariel, or any sans-serif font! Most editors hate that font family for manuscripts and body text. Sans-serif fonts can be great for headlines, and sometimes as a design element for a short block of text within the body of a book, but they make for miserable, slow reading as body text. (Remember the editor’s poor tired eyes, not to mention your poor reader’s eyes if you self-publish.)

            The idea is to make the book easy for the reader to read; to give him or her an urge to pick it up again and keep reading wherever they left off. Anything that gets in the way means you’re not being read. If your computer or word processing program comes with a sans-serif default font, change it to Times Roman!

            The fourth key element is left-justification. (Also known as ragged-right margins.) Full justification—the margins are smooth on both sides—is reserved for layout of the book or article. You’ll see a few left-justified books and somewhat more articles (depending the magazine’s style), but most use full justification.

            For manuscripts, left justification is standard. It makes it easier, among other things, for an editor to spot an extra space between sentences or within words.

            Page margins are normally 1" top, bottom, and sides. You may find some editors who request 1½" margins (which gives them more space to write comments and corrections), but unless asked for something different, use 1" margins all around.

            Paragraph indents should be five spaces.

            Use one space between sentences, not two.

            Do not use underlines for emphasis. They’re an old typographer’s convention, from typewriter days, indicating that the underlined text is to be set as italic.

            Use true italics and boldface, and leave it at that.

            Italics are for someone’s direct thought, or for emphasis.

            Boldface type is normally reserved for chapter headings and subheads.

            Headline styles, etc., will be applied during layout and design.

            My preference in a working manuscript, is to use:



for chapter titles and,

Lower Case, Bold, with Initial Capitals, Left Justified

for sub-headings. Other editors may have other preferences; ask.

            Do not use any formatting other than the font, bold and italics where appropriate, and double spacing, left-justified, with paragraph indents and no space between paragraphs.

            Above all, don’t use business letter format (I get a lot of manuscripts written that way), which is single spaced,  no paragraph indents, and a space between paragraphs. I’m not sure what formatting codes people use in Word to get this, but I find that they often cause problems in editing. They have to be gotten rid of, and sometimes that can be difficult.

            If you ask me or any other editor to work on a book, especially if major editing or rewriting is needed, working around needless or inappropriate formatting codes and design elements can make the work much harder. That translates to longer, which costs you money you don’t need to spend.

            Book designers will convert your Word or WordPerfect file (or whatever word processor you use) into the design program they use for layout.

            Therefore, keep it simple.

            That’s the basic reason standard manuscript format is standard. Editors, publishers, typographers and book designers need to have a standard everyone can rely upon.


            Finally, a note about my personal working preferences.

            The spaces and three # signs, above, are another typographic convention, indicating that there should be a break in the text. They’re necessary when submitting to an agent or publisher. They’ll be removed when the book is typeset. If you plan to self-publish, you may think than a space is sufficient. It usually is, but marking the break clearly makes certain than no unintended breaks appear in your published book. Your book designer will remove the break markings.

            I normally work from e-mailed files, sent in Word or WordPerfect for Windows, or a format that can be opened in those programs. I can use Word’s Track Changes feature if you wish to see what I’ve done, but some clients have found this confusing, so let me know.

            I’ll test edit an hour or two’s worth of the first chapter or introduction to give you an idea of how I edit and the kind of changes I make. There’s no charge for this test edit, which tells you (and me) whether we’re on the same wavelength. If we aren’t, we can discuss it and solve the problem, or agree that I’m not the editor for your project. No editor can be all things to all clients.

            Once we’re agreed, I’ll work with your material as you get it to me. That can be the whole book or article at once, or a chapter or a few pages at a time. I try to adjust my working patterns to the needs of each client.

            If you have a deadline, advise me before we start, and keep your end of the bargain by getting material to me in time to edit it without rushing, on a schedule that makes your goal realistic. I prioritize work based on when I receive it, modified by deadline considerations when applicable.

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