Manuscript formatting: Advanced topics

Last 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 points.

  • Use the Insert > Page Break command, not a bunch of returns, to start a new page.
  • Justify only the left margin (not both). In Word, use the button “Align Left.”
  • To indent your paragraphs, use a paragraph style (Format > Style) with a first line indent. A half-inch indent is standard.
  • To center text, use the “Align Center” command with no first line indent. Using a bunch of tabs or spaces to make the text appear to be centered will lead the copyeditor or page designer—sometimes they’re the same person—to curse you and your middle-school typing teacher.
  • Turn off automatic hyphenation. In Word, this is found under Format > Paragraph > Line and Page Breaks.
  • Minimize font styles. Use italics, not underlining, for emphasis or foreign words, and use sparingly. Bold type has a few uses in nonfiction, mainly for drawing attention to key terminology. I cannot think of any good reason for using boldface in fiction. Bold and italic are to be mixed only by trained professionals using proper safety precautions. Do not try this at home.
  • Underlining has no place in your manuscript.
  • Use em dashes—these—instead of two hyphens — like these — to show a break or aside. If you type two dashes with no spaces around them, Word automagically converts them to an em dash. If you put spaces around them, you’ll get an en dash, which is rarely the dash you want. You can also produce an em dash by typing ctrl + alt + hyphen on a Windows computer and option + shift + hyphen on a Mac.
  • If your nonfiction book includes numbered or bulleted lists, type numbers or bullets. Don’t use Microsoft Word’s automatic features. They may not import correctly into the page layout program. If you’ve already done so, cut the list out of your document and then paste it back in using Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted text. This should cause the numbers or bullets to appear as characters rather than formatting.
  • When submitting files by e-mail, put your cover letter in the body of the e-mail. Make your subject line specific, e.g. “Conference follow-up: requested ms, historical novel.”
  • If you’re submitting hard copies (surprisingly, some people still want this), use high-quality 8.5-by-11-inch white paper.

For more information, see the Chicago Manual of Style or Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, which is published by Writer’s Digest Books.

I have both of these books handy, so if there’s anything you need to know, e-mail me, and I’ll be happy to look it up for you. I’ll use your question and my answer in a future post.

Download my full manuscript formatting guide.

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

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