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Manuscript Format Basics

by Harold Underdown

I get a lot of questions about how to format (and package) a manuscript. Here, I cover the basics, and answer the common questions: I will keep adding to this as more come in.

Know this to start with: some publishers may have specific requirements when you deliver a final manuscript for approval, copy-editing, and production purposes. I'll address what you might be asked to do then at the end of this. But at the manuscript submission stage, most publishers are fairly broad-minded. Follow these few basic rules, and you'll be more than OK. These rules are based on my experience working in children's trade publishing and should apply to books for other kinds of publishers also. They apply to email submission as well as mail, except as noted.

The Manuscript

Along with the title, put your name and return address on the first page, in the upper right-hand or left-hand corner (if the manuscript gets separated from your cover letter, the company will still have your contact information). Other pages need nothing more than the page number and your name in one upper corner or another (in case the pages get out of order).

Type the story itself upper and lower case on plain white paper, double-spaced, with one-inch margins. Use your paragraph settings to create a half-inch indent for paragraphs. Do not tab to create the indent, as that will make it more work to change or remove it later. Print only on one side of the paper. You want the manuscript to be as physically easy to read as possible.

Fonts and Type Sizes

It's not true that a manuscript must be Times Roman, but it must be in an easy-to-read font. It could be Georgia, or similar familiar serif typeface, one that does not call attention to itself. San serif fonts like the one used on this webpage you are reading (Arial) are OK for articles or short pieces but not a good idea for manuscripts.

The best size is 12 points. Do NOT go smaller. You might set a very short, very simple manuscript for a picture book in 14-point type, but do not go larger or smaller than that, and do not play around with typefaces and sizes in the manuscript. The book's designer can do that when the book reaches the design stage--and you'll be able to make suggestions.

Spacing and Justification

Manuscripts should be "left justified" and ragged right. If you don't know what that means, check your word processor's HELP information, and try different settings to see what they look like. Always double space between lines, even with poetry. There's no need to play around with spacing between words or sentences. Just use the default settings for your word processor. One space between sentences is now standard. If you're still following the old typewriting rule of two spaces, and can't break yourself of the habit, do a find-and-replace before you send out the manuscript and turn all those into single spaces.

Page Counts and Word Counts

People suggest putting the word count on the first page; I think that information belongs in a cover letter along with the page count, but either way is fine. It looks a little better if you round off your word count. If your word processor does the word count for you, and you get a number such as 43,127 words, it's a good idea to just say "43,000 words."

Page and Stanza and Chapter Breaks

If your manuscript is intended to be a picture book or magazine story, or of similar length in nonfiction, do not break it into pages with a few sentences each, as it would be in a book--just type it out as a story. If it's a book with chapters, insert a page break at the end of each chapter, and start the next chapter a few lines (whatever looks good, but be consistent) down on the next page. In a query, you might send only the first or a few chapters, but if you've been asked for the entire manuscript, send it.

Poetry should be in stanzas, as you would see it in a book; if the book is a collection of poems they can each start on a new page, but they don't have to.

Italics, Underlining, and Boldface

In the days of the typewriter, underlining was used to indicate words that would properly be set in italics when a manuscript was actually typeset. Now, there's no reason not to italicize in the manuscript itself, and to use boldface, sparingly, for emphasis. Consult the Chicago Manual of Style for guidance in using italics and boldface; whatever you do, be consistent. And understand that when and if you reach the copy-editing stage, your publisher may ask you to follow their house style.

Special Characters

Special characters, which include em and en dashes, accents, and letters not found in English, can get fouled up when a word processing file is poured into a design or typesetting program. Go ahead and use them in your manuscript, but be sure to consult with your editor before delivering the final manuscript to find out how the publisher wants the special characters to be dealt with in the manuscript.


Do not bind your manuscript. Do not staple it. A paper-clip (for a picture book ms.) or a file folder (for a novel) is OK. Editors do not want to have to pull out staples or figure out how to open a binding.

The Envelope or Package (or Email)

For submissions by mail, use a business-size envelope for a picture-book manuscript, if you don't mind folding it (folding will not be held against you). Different countries have somewhat different sizes but this will not be an issue if, say, you are sending a manuscript from the US to an Australian publisher. If you want to send the manuscript flat, send it in a plain manila envelope. Other colors are OK so long as they are white or brown; beyond that, you'll be seen as an attention-seeker.

Send the manuscript by first-class mail or Priority Mail if it's large; send it ordinary airmail if you are sending it internationally. Use of Federal Express or similar express services is just not necessary.

Some publishers and many agents now accept email submissions, and you can then submit a manuscript as an attached file or in the body of the email, whichever they specify. They will generally expect the manuscript to be in standard Word .doc format: the newer .docx format can be converted back to .doc but is an inconvenience for some. When emailing, follow the general rules for paper manuscripts. Be sure to follow the guidelines for the email header and message; some agents and publishers are very specific so that they can automatically sort incoming email.

If you are sending in your manuscript by mail, include a stamped, self-addressed envelope (a SASE) for return of the ms., unless the publisher states that they do not return rejected manuscripts.

Preparing a Manuscript for Publication

If you follow my suggestions above, you will already be well on your way to having a "clean" manuscript. Your publisher may have specific requirements, but in addition to the above, avoid using tabs or extra line breaks to make things look good or to end a chapter. They'll just have to be removed.

Andrew Karre of Carolrhoda Books produced two videos that show the work he has to do in order to get a manuscript ready for their production system. Watch the first of these to see basic issues you should know in manuscript set-up:

Watch the second one for the advanced class--or the "Varsity," as he puts it:

Andrew created those in response to an earlier version of this article, which he felt needed some information about this from the point of view of someone working in-house, and needing to clean up manuscripts on a regular basis. The videos are part of this blog post: Manuscript formatting and prep screencasts. Additional comments on this issue are welcome.


Related resources can be found on my Basic Articles Index page or the Writing Articles Index page.

Comments? Questions that weren't answered? Contact me.

This article is copyright © by Harold Underdown, 2007-2013 ( Google + Profile ) and may not be reproduced without permission. Single copies may be printed out for personal, non-commercial use.

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