What your typing teacher didn’t tell you about manuscript formatting

A writer once complained to me that she had spent a lot of time going through her manuscript replacing all the five-space paragraph indents with tabs. She didn’t realize the five-space indent was wrong. She said, “I didn’t get that memo!”

I almost didn’t have the heart to tell her that a tab isn’t correct, either. Almost.

The problem is that in this case the “memo” is The Chicago Manual of Style, a thousand-page, 1.5-kilogram volume with a sticker price of $65. Contrary to what some would have you think, this is not required reading for writers. Only for editors.

I wrote an earlier post about Chicago.

Here’s an important point from Chapter 2:

“Consistency and simplicity in all matters is essential: authors should know that their manuscripts will almost always be converted into another software environment for publication.”

The words, not the format, are what’s important. Keep your text as simple as possible. Leave the typography to the page designer. Your job is to produce beautiful words, not obscure them with typographical tricks. The page designer will take it out of Word and into InDesign or some other layout application to prettify it. Any unnecessary bold, italics, underlines—or, saints preserve us, all three—will be stripped out and replaced with something readable. If your book is going straight from Word to Kindle, simple formatting is even more important.

Manuscripts are rarely rejected because of small errors in formatting. But large errors like these can cause an editor to stop reading.

The Basics

First, find the submission guidelines for the agent, publisher, or periodical you wish to submit to. Follow them, even if they contradict everything else on this list.

  • Use an ordinary serif font like Times New Roman at 12 points. It’s easy on editors’ myopic eyes. Using fonts that are small or hard-to-read may cause an editor to stop reading. Using fonts that are both certainly will.
  • Set margins at 1 inch to 1.25 inches—never less than 1 inch. I find that 1 inch top and bottom and 1.25 inches at the sides is ideal for most purposes.
  • Double-space manuscripts. Synopses, query letters, and other correspondence are single-spaced.
  • Type only one space character after periods and colons. Ideally, there should be no space after the last character in a paragraph. Clicking the ¶ button in Microsoft Word will show you where you have extra spaces.
  • Don’t double-space between paragraphs. That’s appropriate for block-format business letters, but not manuscripts.

That’s the absolute minimum you need to know about formatting your manuscript for submission. Next, we’ll discuss some advanced topics.

And as I said before, I have a copy of Chicago, so if there’s anything you want to know, e-mail me, and I’ll be happy to look it up for you. Really. I enjoy reading Chicago. I’m just geeky that way. I’ll use your question and my answer in a future post.

Download my full manuscript formatting guide.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

One thought on “What your typing teacher didn’t tell you about manuscript formatting

  1. […] time I shared the basics a writer needs to know to prepare a book manuscript for submission to an agent or editor. Here are some of the finer […]

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