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Formatting Manuscripts For Submission

What to Avoid

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As an editor, publisher and manuscript assessor, I have seen some very creative methods of manuscript formatting. These have included pages with narrow strips of text either down the middle of the page or resembling a border at the side, fancy fonts that have proven almost impossible to read because of the 'curly bits', pages that have literally been cut and pasted together (with sticky tape or staples), type so small I was rummaging for binoculars, and type so very large I wondered if it was a device used to 'bulk out' the work to achieve a certain amount of pages. I have nervously grasped large manuscripts of several hundred pages, fearful of dropping the bundle because not one page number adorned any of the sheets. These types of formatting errors and omissions are an editor's nightmare.

Many new writers have the idea that they must present their submissions exactly the way they hope their book will appear on bookstore shelves. This is not always the case. Publishers have their own, expert, methods of transforming a manuscript into an appealing book. That is their job. Book designing is an art, like all areas of book production. Layout, typeface (style of print), size and form of headings should be left up to the publisher. When your manuscript is accepted and you are about to sign the publisher's contract, that is the time to negotiate your specific wants and desires for your book. Even then, most publishers won't easily give up control. Still, you can try, if you can't live without your book looking a certain way. If the publisher wants you to format your manuscript as a 'print-ready' document, you will be advised of this, after acceptance.

When presenting a manuscript to a publisher or agent, it is important the work be formatted in such a way as to make the reader's task a pleasure and not a frustrating chore. You do not want your manuscript tossed aside in favour of another, which may not in fact be as well written, but is much easier on tired eyes and less mind boggling.

Manuscripts without Title Pages, adequate margins, correct indentation of paragraphs and page numbers, tend to put off publishers and agents. Incorrect formatting is seen as a lack of a writer's professionalism and respect for their own work and the person who is expected to read it.

Each publisher and agent has specific ideas on formatting of manuscripts - as set out in their submission guidelines. However there are basic standard formatting procedures that are recommended, if a writer desires equal footing with other writers more conversant with publishers' needs and wants.


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When submitting a manuscript for publication - as is hoped would be the goal for yours, since you are reading this - your initial aim is to get the publisher, agent or editor to read it. This means making sure nothing detracts from the words on the page. Publishing is a commercial venture. A manuscript presented incorrectly formatted is rarely given more than a fleeting glance. To give your manuscript its best chance, the following rules need to be addressed. Variables do occur between publishers, but only in minor respects. If in doubt, read the publisher's guidelines.

Pick Up a Book
The simplest way of determining the basic format, to see how your (fiction) manuscript should appear as a print-on-paper submission, is to pick up just about any commercially published novel. It can be whatever genre you choose. What you see is a flow of words and sentences, with the first line of each paragraph indented. There are no blank spaces between paragraphs unless there is a change of scene or chapter break.

The only difference between the book in your hand and the manuscript on the desk, ready to go in the envelope, is that the text on your loose pages will be in double-line spacing. This is only because it is a submission, and you are following the rules to give a publishing house what it wants.

Your manuscript should not look like this Web page.

Writing for Hardcopy Publication versus Writing for the Web

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Work written for the Web is very different from that written for publishers of hold-in-the-hand books, especially fiction. Reading long sections of writing on a computer screen is tiring for a reader's mind and eyes. This is why you find Web content set out in smallish blocks of text with space between.

Most editors and publishers of hardcopy cringe when receiving a manuscript formatted as if it is being presented on the Web.

Submissions need to be legible and encourage the reader's eyes to flow along the words and paragraphs, the mind grasping the details within the work as a whole. Unnecessary blank space makes the reader pause, as if reading a business report where certain points need to be focused on.

Submitting work for electronic publication varies considerably, depending on the requirements of the cyber-land publisher. Some want attachments and some want the work included in the body of an email. Some prefer normal hardcopy-type formatting and yet others want it in 'block text'. When submitting to electronic publishers, make sure you thoroughly read their requirements.

General Format Rules for Submitting Hardcopy Manuscripts to Print Publishers, Agents and Editors

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  • Give them a legible copy. If your ink cartridge is on its last gasp and omitting tails on the letters, be a devil and splurge on a new one. It's worth it if it means a choice between your manuscript being read, and the editor, publisher or agent taking one look at it and shoving it back in the return envelope.

  • Photocopies are acceptable, but they need to be clear.

  • Pages should be printed/typed on one side only.

  • Use an easily read, non-fancy font - if not Times New Roman, then Courier, of preferably 12 point - these fonts were designed for effortless reading.
  • Note: Research shows serif fonts (the ones with the little tails on the letters, such as this one you're reading) aid in leading the reader's eye across the page. Sans serif (no tails) fonts, such as Arial and the like, tend to make the reader subconsciously pause after each word, sometimes even reading each letter individually. Remember learning at school how to do 'joined-up' writing? It really did have a purpose.

  • Leave at least 3cm margins all round (top, bottom and both sides). This allows for editing and proofreading marks to be noted by the editor.

  • Text should be justified to the Left margin (not centred or fully justified). The text appears ragged (uneven) along the right-hand margin like the paragraphs on this page. Fully Justified text causes uneven spaces to appear between words, which can be disruptive to the eye.

  • The first line of each new paragraph is to be indented by approximately five spaces, except for the first line of a new chapter or section of text, which begins at the margin. Instead of pressing the space bar four or five times, you can set a Tab or Indent when working with a word processor, the same as on a typewriter.

  • Double-space lines. This allows for easier reading and provision for editor's comments, corrections etc. This can be set with the aid of the Format (Paragraph) function in your word processing program and thus happens automatically as typing progresses. Some publishers and agents will accept one-and-a-half spaced lines, but unless this is specified in their guidelines it is best to opt for double-spacing.

  • Author's name and contact details appear either at the very beginning of the manuscript, or on a separate Title Page, as well as Title, Approximate Word Count, and Copyright ownership details if desired. (Copyright laws in Australia are such that from the moment something is written, it is automatically copyrighted to the creator.)

  • Every page is numbered. (Please don't forget this!)

  • Include a Footer or Header, giving the title (abbreviated is fine) and at least your surname on each page, except for the Title Page, which contains all necessary information. This way, if the manuscript becomes disturbed, or dropped (heaven forbid) the work and author can be identified.

  • No staples or binding of any sort. Manuscripts may be held together with rubber bands (or ribbon) and may, if you wish, be placed in a cardboard or plastic document folder to prevent damage.

A Final Word

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Some of these 'rules' may seem either rather too obvious, or pernickety, but this is the generally accepted format for submitting manuscripts to publishers and agents. They are interested in the words and merits of the story and do not welcome distractions from the main objective - to discover a book worth publishing. You and I both hope it is your book!


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Last updated January 2010