Thursday, December 02, 2010

Not My Type: Formatting Your Manuscript

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

You'd be surprised how much anguish can go into what font to use when you send your manuscript out. (or maybe not if you're one of the many who worry about this)

Courier or Times Roman?

10 or 12 point?

Double or single spaced?

Many writers worry that if they don't get their manuscript formatted exactly right, their book is doomed to rejection. This is so not true. As long as your manuscript is readable and follows some very simple guides, you'll be fine. (Well, your story still has to wow them, but they won't reject you for a formatting issue)

Basic Manuscript Formatting
12 point font, Times Roman or Courier, flush left, double spaced, with one-inch margins all around, half-inch paragraph indents, no spaces between paragraphs. Chapters start halfway down the page (In Word, I use 276pt before the header, and 85pt after to center it nicely on the page without all those extra returns) with chapter header in all caps, centered. Text starts a few lines below that. Scene breaks are denoted by something graphic like *** or ## or even a blank line. One space after a period. (thanks to Shayda for reminding me abut this one)

But what if you used Palatino instead of Times? Don't worry about it. Both are still readable serif fonts. (Serif is a font with those little tails at the ends. A san serif font is one that's blocky, like Arial) The goal of any manuscript (besides being really good) is to be readable. As long as the pages are professional looking and easy to read, no one will care if they're a little different from the standard.

A .25 indent instead of a .5 isn't going to get you a rejection. However, using 5 point type will, because it's too tiny to easily read the pages. Making it 16 point type is just as bad, as this can strain the eyes too.

Starting your chapters two-thirds down -- no problem. Single spacing vs double -- problem, because it's hard to read. (See the trend? Reading ease matters)

If you have special formatting in there, like an e-mail or text message style, just choose a style that makes it clear that part is different, and be consistent. It's fine to indent if you want, or use Courier when the rest is Times. When you sell the novel, there are book designers who are going to do the final design anyway, so all that will change.As long as it's easy for those designers to tell what parts need that special look, it's good.

Italics or Underline?

Underlining is the most common, as there as tons of books, guides and sites that back this up. But this comes from the days when you couldn't click a button and change your text to italics. But today, using a serif font with a clear italic version is available to everyone. So if you want to use italics, go right ahead.

I used to use underlines because that's what the books said. I submitted my novel to agents, then later to editors, with all my italics denoted by underlines. I asked my editor which she preferred. She told me to use italics, so now I do that. But the fact that I used underlines to submit to her didn't bother her one bit. She still bought the book.

No one is going to look at your pages and shout "Eeek! They used italics (or underlines) REJECT REJECT REJECT!" They're going to read your work and judge it on how good that work is. As long as you use a readable serif font, and it's consistent and clear what your italics are, they won't care.

ETA:  In the comments, C.A. brought up a really fantastic point about this. E-readers can have trouble with italics, and underline shows up better. Since more and more agents are reading on e-readers, underlines might start to make a comeback. I'm going to see if I can get some agent thoughts on this since my agent happens to read her submissions on an e-reader. So if you happen to know the agent you're submitting to uses an e-reader, it  might be worth it to change to underlines.

What matters most is making your manuscript easy to read. Remember, if agents can't read it, they can't fall in love with it.


  1. Very good post. I've seen other agents' blogs echo the same thing - as long as it's easy to read, it doesn't matter if it's Times or Courier. Makes sense. :) Thanks Janice!

  2. I use Courier religiously now. I just love how professional every word apppears with it. But perhaps that mindset was hammered into during my typography courses. I position my chapters right beneath the header with page breaks to clear out unnecessary gaps. I head my chapter titles with standard five breaks, with text starting on the sixth. Seems to all work.

    I still italicize with courier, although I am considering making the switch to underlining as it is sort of tough to tell, unlike how noticeable it is in Times. What do you think?

    In My Write Mind

  3. Courier is kind of an ugly font I think, but great for computer programming, since all letters are equal size and line up nicely in columns. For prose I prefer Times Roman or Arial >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. You know what I learned about a month ago? Double-spacing after a sentence/semicolon is a no-no. There was a huge discussion about it on Weronika Janczuk's blog, and apparently double-spacing after periods is extremely dated. I mean, it made sense.

    But I'm 22. And I learned that way. I mean, LEARNED--like drill-a-hole-in-my-head-and-seal-it-up-forever-afterwards learned.

    Although it's been a surprisingly easy habit to break, and I'm sure no one would reject me on the sole basis of the fact that I double-spaced after periods. But it's good to know stuff like this! Thanks for the post!

  5. Just a note, italics sometimes don't show right on eReaders and agents request that you underline those words instead when you send them a full/partial if they plan to read it on an eReader.

  6. Thanks, Janice, great advice. And thank you to Shayda, too, I had no idea that double-spacing after a sentence or semicolon went the way of the dodo! That will be a difficult habit to break!

  7. It's kinda funny, this post. It's exactly the opposite in screenwriting. If you hand in a script that isn't in 12pt Courier with very specific margins and text formatting chances are you won't get read beyond the title page, even if you've written the next "American Beauty".

  8. Kathryn:Most welcome!

    Justin: It's really whatever you prefer. Since you send Word file out, whoever is reading it can change the font to whatever they like. I did underline when I used Courier because it was easier to spot, though.

    Cold As Heaven: Courier has its uses. I like it as a designer, but not a writer. It feels too big to me as a copy font, but Justin shows why it can be loved as a copy font. I'd use Sabon or Garamond, but not every program has those so I stick to the safe Times :)

    Shayda: Two spaces! I forgot to mention that and probably should add it. Yep, one space is the norm these days. It took me a while to get used to that since it was still two spaces when I started writing (and working).

    C.A: That is an excellent point. When I first wrote the italic post e-readers weren't as common. That is definitely something to consider. I'll have to ask my agent (who does her submission reading on an e-reader) how she feels about that. Great comment!

    Kristy: Most welcome!

    Alex: That's pretty cool. I've heard folks mention the differences between fiction/scripts before, and it does sound like they're a lot tougher. But I imagine you have a more rigid format for a script. Time limits and whatnot. You can easily add 50 pages to a book, but not 50 minutes to a movie.

  9. If two spaces after a period is a tough habit to break, don't worry about it while you're writing. Just make one of your final pass editing steps a find and replace changing period-space-space to period-space.

  10. Fennel: Good tip. I do that in my design job.

  11. Appreciate the post. It's a nice reminder to just be clear, be consistent and don't let the format speak for the content.

  12. Fennel -- Actually, you can just search for spacespace and replace with space, and that's better, as it gets all those end-of-sentences that follow question marks, exclamations, or quote marks.