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A Quick Guide to Manuscript Format

by Moira Allen

Manuscript format should be a fairly simple issue. Yet from some of the questions I've received, it would seem that people like to make it complicated -- from editors who prefer a particular style and therefore declare that all editors want the same style, to writers' groups who insist that one must use this font and that layout and so forth.

If conflicting advice on format has left you confused (and wondering if your manuscript will be rejected unread simply because you put your address in the upper right corner instead of the left), the following tips should help clarify the issue.

Print Manuscripts: The Basics

Most editors in any genre (articles, short fiction, long fiction, etc.) want a manuscript to conform to the following basic requirements:

  • Good quality white paper (20-lb. minimum, never erasable - beyond that, use what works best in your printer) - in the U.S. use 8.5x11 paper, in Europe and elsewhere, use A-4. (Note: If you are submitting internationally, don't worry about trying to use "their" paper; U.S. editors understand that non-U.S. writers will be using A-4 paper, and vice versa.)

  • Double-spacing

  • 1-inch margins all around (at least)

  • A clear, readable font (more on this later)

  • Paragraphs indicated by indents (tabs), not by an extra line space

Articles and Short Stories should begin about halfway down the page (some folks say two-thirds). Your name, address, and other contact information (phone, fax, e-mail, etc.) should be placed in the upper left corner of the manuscript, in a single-spaced block. The wordcount of the article (rounded to the nearest 10 or 50) should go in the upper right corner. Your title should be centered on the page at the halfway point, in a larger font than the text (boldfacing is fine). Skip two lines, and center your byline (either your real name or your pen name) in a slightly smaller font. Skip another two lines and begin your article.

Novels and Nonfiction Books require a cover page. This can be prepared in a variety of formats, but the simplest is to center your book title halfway down the page. Skip two lines, and center your name or byline. Skip another two or three lines, and center your contact information (real name, if different from your byline, address, phone, fax, etc.) If you are using an agent, you may wish to include the agent's name and information here (or the agent may prepare a separate cover sheet). Skip another two or three lines and include the total wordcount of the manuscript. Then, begin each separate chapter of the book on its own page, beginning halfway down the page with the title of the chapter (or number, if the chapter has no title). Do not include your byline on each chapter, or any contact information.

Running Headers are expected on articles, short stories, novels and nonfiction book. A running header should appear at the top of every page (except the first), and include the following information:

  • Your last name

  • The title of the article, book, or story -- or a keyword from the title if the title is long

  • The page number

For example, a running header for an article titled "A History of Feline Chiropractic Care" might look like this:

Allen/Feline Chiropractic/...2

Page Numbers in a book-length manuscript should be sequential from the first page of the book to the last. Don't number each chapter separately (e.g., 1-1, 1-2; 2-1, 2-2, etc.). Today, it's the rare computer system that won't allow you to work on an entire book-length manuscript in one document. However, if you find this cumbersome, there's no reason why you can't create each chapter in a separate file and assemble them into a single document later. (Keep in mind that these days, most publishers will expect you to deliver not only a printed copy of your manuscript but, eventually, an electronic copy as well, generally in Microsoft Word.) If you find it too difficult to get your headers/page numbers to skip the first page of each chapter, don't worry about it; this is a manuscript, not a finished product.

Contest Submissions are formatted much like regular article or story submissions, with one exception: All your contact information should be included on a cover sheet, like that used for a book-length manuscript. Do not put your name or any contact information on the first page of the story/article itself, and do not include your name in the running header. The cover sheet will be removed from your submission, so that the judges do not know anything about the author of the piece. (If you see a listing that asks for work to be submitted in "contest format," this is what it means.)

Fonts and Format

Amazingly, people get into heated discussions over what types of fonts editors prefer. Some folks claim that all editors want manuscripts in Courier (the font that looks like your typewriter font). Lately, some editors and writers have come to prefer Arial. So what do editors really want?

The truth is, most editors really don't care, as long as the font is readable. (I can state this with confidence, having done a survey of about 500 editors; 90% expressed "no preference" with regard to font.) Very few editors will reject your manuscript because it happens to be in New Century Schoolbook, Palatino, or Times Roman. Generally, it's best to use a 12-point font size, and to choose a font that doesn't "squinch" letters together too closely.

The rationale for Courier dates back to the days when editors did an eyeball "guesstimate" of line lengths to determine exactly how much space a piece would fill in on the printed page. Courier is a "fixed-space" font, meaning that each letter takes up exactly the same amount of space. This made it easier to estimate how an article would appear when typeset. Today, however, very few editors need to do this (or even remember that it was done).

Arial is a nice, readable font -- but it is also a sans-serif font, which many editors don't like. (To see the difference between a serif and sans-serif font, compare Arial to Times.) So before you use this font, be sure your editor really, really wants it.

The bottom line on fonts is simply this: If your editor expresses a preference, or if you've heard from five other people who have submitted to that same editor that s/he is obsessive over fonts, use the font the editor prefers. But if your editor has no preference, don't assume that s/he has one -- and don't "get your knickers in a twist" over the issue of font.

Some editors prefer that you do not include bold or italic type, and use underlining to indicate titles or emphasis. To be honest, I ignore this injunction, and have never found that it "hurt" my sales, with the single exception of Byline magazine, which scans hard-copy manuscripts and therefore does not want formatting. Again, if the editor is emphatic about this, listen to the editor; otherwise, follow your heart.

Submitting Your Manuscript

Submitting your manuscript is a fairly simple process. If your manuscript is short (less than five pages), it is acceptable to fold it and send it in a regular business-size mailing envelope. If, however, your manuscript and cover letter combined come to five pages or more, it is better to use a manila envelope for your submission.

Use as small an envelope as possible that will allow your pages to lie flat, but not slide around. A 9x12 envelope will usually be sufficient, unless you have a very thick manuscript.

Do not staple or paperclip your pages. Insert them into the envelope "loose." If you are including photos or artwork, protect them with cardboard. (One good approach is to put them inside a separate envelope, with cardboard protectors, and put that envelope into your main mailing envelope.)

Address labels look more professional than hand-written addresses. One easy way to generate address labels is to buy a Dymo label-maker for your computer -- you can simply copy the address from your cover letter, paste it into the label-making program, hit "print," and you have a neatly formatted label. Otherwise, I recommend typing labels (it's a great reason to hang onto your old typewriter!) I also recommend ordering preprinted return-address labels for yourself -- and don't clutter them up with puppies or flowers or such! (You can also use these return address labels to label your SASE.)

Now that most writers use printers rather than typewriters, most of us consider our manuscripts "disposable" -- i.e., we don't expect the editor to send them back. (And no one expects editors to scribble suggestions and comments on our work anymore!) So it's no longer necessary to include a return envelope that will hold your entire manuscript, or enough postage to return that manuscript. Instead, just include a business-size, stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the editor to use to respond to your submission. (Do send a return envelope with postage if you want photos or artwork returned.)

Some writers like to include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with "check-off" boxes for an editor to use. Some editors find this simpler than a SASE, but it requires you to actually develop a postcard for the editor to "check off." Personally, I consider this more trouble than it's worth; it's much simpler to just self-address an envelope and put on a stamp (and a postcard really doesn't save you that much money).

When submitting a book manuscript, you'll usually need a box. While such things as "manuscript boxes" do exist, they aren't easy to find -- and they aren't necessary. Instead, just use a regular mailing box -- such as the type of box you might receive from Amazon.com. A file-folder box will also work well for mailing a manuscript, but you may need to pad it a bit to keep the pages from sliding around. (Plastic shopping bags work just fine for this.) Again, don't secure your pages with staples, paper clips, or heavy clips. At most, if you're afraid the pages may slide around in the box, you can secure it with a single rubber-band around the middle. If you're including a disk, put that in a separate envelope inside the box. Again, most publishers aren't going to make comments on your manuscript, so there is no need to include postage for its return; just include a regular SASE.

Electronic Submissions

As you might imagine, electronic submissions break nearly all the rules listed above. If you are sending a submission as an e-mail attachment, you can still format your manuscript as you would for print; however, if you are including your manuscript in the text of your e-mail, you'll need to follow very different format guidelines.

In e-mail, obviously, you don't have to worry about paper quality, ink, margins, or running headers and page numbers. Here are some of the things you do have to worry about:

  1. Don't attempt to double-space text. Most e-mail programs automatically convert a double-spaced document into single-spacing; don't try to change it back. This will only create format problems at the other end.

  2. Double-space between paragraphs. You can still indent, but some e-mail programs "lose" the tabs, so a double-space may be the only way to indicate a new paragraph.

  3. Use a readable e-mail font. I am always amazed to receive e-mail messages in microprint. Mishawaka is a good e-mail font; be sure to select "normal size". When in doubt, send yourself an e-mail; if the font looks tiny, increase the size or change fonts.

  4. Avoid formatting, such as bold, underlining, or italics. Most e-mail programs still don't translate these well, resulting in odd symbols that make a transmission look garbled. Indicate underlining or italics by placing an underscore character next to the word being _underlined_. Indicate bold with asterisks on either side of the *word* you want to emphasize.

  5. Turn off "smart" (curly) quotes in your wordprocessing program, if you are going to transfer that document to e-mail. This includes curly apostrophes. These do not translate well in e-mail, resulting in a manuscript that is littered with weird symbols -- a manuscript your editor will not only find hard and frustrating to read, but will have to go to great lengths to "fix" for publication. Do not use a keyboard-generated "m-dash"; use " -- " to indicate a dash instead. Do not use symbols at all if you can help it; you never know what an accent mark will turn into at the receiving end.

  6. Include your contact information (name, address, etc.) and wordcount at the very beginning of the e-mail, before the title.

  7. Do not use HTML, or send material that has previously been formatted in HTML. Remove all HTML codes. Turn off any option in your program that is likely to convert your submission to HTML.

  8. Do not send your submission as an attachment unless you have received permission to do so. (Do not send any unsolicited submission as an attachment.)

  9. To be safe, convert your wordprocessed document to a text format before pasting it into your e-mail. This can eliminate many format problems. (Use plain text, not Rich Text Format.)

  10. When in doubt, e-mail the piece to yourself first, to make sure nothing went wrong.

A Final Word

I mentioned putting your name and address on your manuscript at the beginning of this article, and I'm going to mention it again. I am amazed at how many manuscripts I have received in the past couple of years that don't even include the author's byline, let alone full contact information. Keep in mind that when you are submitting a manuscript as an attachment, this document may well become "separated" from the "cover e-mail." Most likely, an editor (like me) will store manuscripts in one file and e-mail messages in a completely different file. And since, like me, most editors may keep a manuscript six months or more before publishing it, by the time we get back to that article in the file, we may have no idea who wrote it.

Thus, the bottom line in all manuscript submissions is really the top line: At the very least, include your name!

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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