How to professionally format your manuscript for editors, agents, and publishers

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

How to format your finished manuscript for editingMost of the MS Word manuscripts I receive are not properly formatted for editing.* Instead, I get all kinds of unusual formatting, from a stylized, ready-for-print book to 37 chapters all in separate files, each with a hodge-podge of formatting. While it’s not difficult for me to clean up an improperly formatted manuscript, if you can save me time and put a smile on my face at the same time, wouldn’t that be a great start to our author-editor relationship? And if you’re planning to submit to an agent or publisher without the help of an editor, the following steps are essential.

Sometimes I receive manuscripts that have been meticulously formatted as though that version is the one that will be going to press. This is well-intentioned but a mistake. Please avoid using multiple, fancy fonts or other unusual design elements or formatting to try to make your manuscript look like a finished book. You’re not at the design stage yet, and an editor will only undo all your efforts, stripping them out to get a plain version ready for editing.

The rule of thumb for formatting a manuscript for editing is 12-point Times Roman font for the main text, 1″ or 1.25″ margins, left-justified text (aligned against the left margin), double spacing (although my personal preference is 1.5 line spacing). Offset material like block quotes can be set in a sans serif font like Calibri. If you plan to submit your manuscript to an agent or contest, be sure to also follow any specific formatting guidelines for individual submissions.

Those are the basics. Here are more things you can do to make your editor do a happy dance before the work even begins.

•  For most manuscripts, prepare as one single file, no matter how large. (Exceptions may be made for scholarly works where there are a number of contributing authors.) Use Dropbox if the file is too large to e-mail. If you send chapters in separate files, I’ll only have to copy and paste them all together, which can be time consuming. This is because when I’m editing, I don’t just edit line by line. I’m constantly searching back and forth in the manuscript for clarification and consistency, and it’s impossible to do this among 37 separate files unless many hours are added to the editing time.

•  No page numbers in the table of contents, please. They’re meaningless at this stage and will change dramatically between now and your final proof copy. After the editing is complete, typesetting and layout are done, and page numbers will be added during this stage. Page numbers are then checked for accuracy in the proofreading stage.

•  Chapter headings should be uniform and start a line or two down the page. Add the extra lines in manually, after you have completed all the automated formatting below. I don’t mind if you use boldface type and a larger font for chapter headings, but avoid using all-capital letters or underlining. Those styles are outdated.

•  Paragraphing. For fiction, each new paragraph should have automatic indents (using the ruler, never tabs or the space bar)―four or five character spaces is standard. Some agents and publishers prefer that nonfiction uses no indents; instead, leave a line space between each paragraph. This is not a rule but a style choice, so check with your agent or publisher. If you’re self-publishing, it’s up to you. In general, if you use indents, don’t use a line space between paragraphs; if you use a line space, don’t use indents. Below, I explain how to set indents on MS Word’s ruler.

 Avoid using tabs or the space bar for indenting or centring text. If you want to centre any text such as chapter headings (which really isn’t necessary), highlight or place your cursor in the text you want to centre and press Ctrl+E.

•  Insert automatic page numbers in the top right corner position of each page. Always paginate your MS Word manuscript; if you don’t do it, your editor will. If you have header material such as the book’s title, place that in the top right corner, and place your page numbers in the bottom right corner. The reason? So the editor’s eye, following the main text, isn’t disturbed by a number or header in the top left corner when moving to a new page.

manuscript ready for formattingHere are some further suggestions for manuscript cleanup that will make your editor’s job easier. The best way to do these is to first turn on the Show/Hide button, which looks like a backwards P, like this: ¶ (it’s called a pilcrow). You’ll find it on the Home tab on the top ribbon in MS Word 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016. This will show all hidden characters: spaces show as dots, tabs as arrows, manual line breaks as bent arrows, hard returns as pilcrows, page breaks as a row of tiny dots, and non-breaking spaces as circles (among others). The hidden character button ¶ is a toggle button, and you can turn it off when you’ve finished formatting.

•  Remove all double spaces between sentences and other extra spaces created by using the space bar. Your manuscript should contain no multiple spaces. Double spaces at sentence end are an outdated practice harking back to typewriter days when proportional spacing didn’t exist. Removing them takes seconds using the Find and Replace feature in MS Word (Ctrl+F in Word 2007; Ctrl+H in Word 2010 and 2013). Simply type two spaces (tap the space bar twice) in the Find what box and type one space in the Replace with box. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made.

  Remove all tabs. The hidden character for a tab is an arrow, like this →. Book designers loathe tabs, and if you’re hiring a designer after the editing, she will be filled with gratitude to find no tabs in your document. Open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^t (caret symbol and lowercase letter t). Leave the Replace with box empty. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made.

“Fine,” you say, “but not really, because now I have no indents.” Well, if you are self-publishing, you can choose not to use indents if your work is nonfiction. You simply need to add a line space (an extra hard return) in between block paragraphs (see ^p in the next tip).

If your work is fiction, memoir, or if your publisher or agent submission guidelines call for indents, use the top ruler to create them. Under the View tab, make sure the Ruler box is checked. Next, highlight your entire document (Ctrl+A). Then hover your cursor over the top left slider on the ruler. It should say “First line indent.” Slide it four character spaces to the right, and voilà!―all your paragraphs following a hard return will be properly indented.

  • Note #1: Never use the space bar or tabs to indent!
  • Note #2: The first line of any new chapter or section should not be indented, a long-established publishing convention. You’ll need to go through manually and un-indent those, or your editor can do it for you.

•  Remove all extra hard returns. The hidden character for a hard return (created when you press the Enter key) is also a pilcrow ¶. Authors tend to use hard returns to start a new page or chapter because they don’t know how to make a proper page break using Ctrl+Enter. Please, get rid of all those extra hard returns! Your editor will worship you.

For nonfiction, you may wish to leave two hard returns at the end of each paragraph to create a line space between block paragraphs (again, this is a style choice). Open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^p^p^p. In the Replace with box, type ^p^p. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made.

For fiction, you want only one hard return at the end of each paragraph. Open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^p^p. In the Replace with box, type ^p. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made. If you need to add in a hard return to provide an extra line space, do this process in reverse.

•  Remove extra spaces from the beginning and from the end of paragraphs. These extra spaces at the beginning and end of paragraphs sneak in by the thousands. While they’re relatively harmless, it’s just better to have a clean manuscript in case anyone (like an agent) is peeking behind the scenes at Show/Hide.

To remove extra spaces from the beginning of paragraphs, open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^p followed by a space (space bar). In the Replace with box, type ^p (with no space). Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made.

To remove extra spaces from the end of paragraphs, open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type a space (space bar) then ^p. In the Replace with box, type ^p (with no space). Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made. Your manuscript should now be free of all extra spaces at the beginning and end of paragraphs.

•  Remove all manual line breaks. A manual line break (also known as a soft return) ends the current line and continues the text on the next line without starting a new paragraph. I find that authors inadvertently insert them in the strangest places. Line breaks are made by pressing Shift+Enter, and appear as a bent arrow in hidden characters. Open Find and Replace. In the Find what box, type ^l (caret symbol and lowercase letter el). Leave the Replace with box empty. Then click Replace all. Repeat this search several times until no more replacements can be made. Your manuscript will now be free of any inadvertent manual line breaks.

  Add in proper section breaks at the end of each chapter. You want each new chapter to begin on a new page, but please don’t hit Enter twenty times! Assuming you’ve first gotten rid of all those pesky hard returns, place your cursor after the very last sentence of a chapter, and press Ctrl+Enter. Voilà—your next chapter will start on a new page.

There are other things you can do to polish your formatting, particularly if you’re submitting to an agent. For example, in nonfiction, a double line space after a paragraph sometimes looks like too much space. You can finesse the amount of space between paragraphs by opening the Paragraph dialogue box on the Home tab. There, you can play around with Spacing Before or Spacing After to get just the amount of space you want. This is especially useful if you have block quotes, bulleted lists, tables, graphics or images, and you want to finely tune the space around them.

As mentioned, you can manually add one or two hard returns back in at the top of each chapter, above and below the chapter title (and subtitle, if there is one), just to give some visual space. Subheadings within chapters usually have more space above them, but little below, to anchor them to their topic, much as you’ll see throughout this website.

In this brief article, it’s been my goal to provide you with some simple formatting basics. Once you get the hang of using Find and Replace for some of these functions, you won’t believe how fast it can go. Delight your editor before the work has even begun by sending him or her a properly formatted manuscript.

And if you have any formatting issues I haven’t addressed here, please let me know in a comment and I’ll be pleased to help you solve them.

♠  ♠  ♠

freelance editor

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
October 24, 2013

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* Instructions are for MS Word for Windows.

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