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Text formatting guidelines for submissions to editors and agents

Once you’re satisfied that your story works and you’ve done your best to iron out any text and expression issues, it’s time to prepare your manuscript for an editor. Or if it’s already been edited, you’ll want to prepare it for submission to an agent. The guidelines for formatting a manuscript for editors and agents are the same, though agents are the ones who are going to be the sticklers. Editors will be used to having to do a lot of the formatting themselves, but it always helps to present them with a manuscript that is already neatly formatted. The less work they have to do, the lower they charge.

Note: Most copy editors and agents work in Microsoft Word as this is the industry standard and allows for the use of custom styles. You can do some of the basic formatting in Google Docs but you won’t be able to create custom styles for your paragraph indents (at least, not at the time of writing this).

Page setup

  • Title page: Begin with a page that has the book title and your name (on a new line). Include your contact details and the total wordcount of the manuscript (below your name or in a corner of the page).
  • Page size: Use Word’s standard A4 page size with normal margins (1 inch all around).
  • Page numbers: Agents like page numbers, so use these if your manuscript is going to an agent. (Page numbering starts on the page after the table of contents.)

Typography

  • Font: For body text, 12-point Times New Roman or similar serif-type font is recommended. Don’t go below 12 points or above 14 points.
  • Line spacing: For body text, set spacing to 1.5 or 2. Set this in your Word styles so it’s easy to change if an editor or agent prefers a different spacing.
  • Alignment: Make your body text left-aligned, not justified. Justified text is hard to edit, so text is only justified at the page layout stage.
  • Emphasis: If you want to emphasize text, use italics rather than bold or underline. Bold and underline are common in website text but should be avoided in published material.
  • Chapter titles and headlines: Use Word’s heading styles to format your titles and headings. Apply Heading 1 style to your chapter headings and Heading 2 and Heading 3 to subheads. Using styles also makes it easier for the typesetter as their software will recognize Word’s inbuilt styles.
  • Full stops (periods): Single space after full stops, not double.

Breaks

  • Paragraph breaks: Press Enter once to create a paragraph break (not twice). Indent the first line of each new paragraph except the first paragraph after a chapter heading, subheading or scene break (these are always flush with the margin, no indent).  The standard indent for a new paragraph is 0.5 inches, though my own preference is for a shallower indent of around 0.3 inches.
  • Indents: Never use spaces (hitting the spacebar) to create text indents. As de-scribed in the point above, apply Word styles with automatic indents based on a set measure, e.g., 0.5 inches.
  • Chapter breaks: Start each new chapter on a new page. Use page breaks (Insert – Page Break) to do this – do not press Enter multiple times to move the chapter title to a new page.
  • Scene breaks: Use three asterisks or other text ornament to indicate a scene break. Start the new scene with no first-line indent.

Manuscript formatting example

Sample formatted text showing paragraph indents, line spacing and scene break.

Tip: Use Microsoft Word’s styles to style your body text and headings. For instance, in the example above, I am using two versions of Normal style for my body text. Both are set at 1.5 line spacing, 12-point Times New Roman font. One of them has a first-line indent of 0.3 inches and the other has no first-line indent. I use these to style my paragraphs so I don’t have to insert or delete indents manually. I can also adjust indents or any other aspect of the formatting throughout the document simply by going to the Styles bar in the Ribbon and modifying the style.

If any of this is too tricky, just ask the editor to do it for you. The main thing is to get the text as neat and presentable as possible.

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