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
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
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
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
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
Boldface type is normally reserved for chapter headings
Headline styles, etc., will be applied during layout and
My preference in a working manuscript, is to use:
ALL CAPS, BOLD, CENTERED
chapter titles and,
Lower Case, Bold, with Initial Capitals, Left Justified
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
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
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
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.