LitMatch: Research Literary Agents and Track Submissions

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Manuscript Formatting Basics

It’s been a while since our last post, but now that we’re back from our winter hiatus, I thought it a good idea to devote our first post of the year to a look at fundamentals. And what could be more fundamental than a look at the most fundamental part of your agent search: the manuscript itself?

When it comes to formatting your manuscript, there are a few simple rules to follow, but the first and most important rule is this: If the agent you’re submitting to has specific, stated requirements that contradict any of the standard rules, always follow the agent’s guidelines instead. But in the absence of such guidelines, the following will get you where you need to be.

The Basics:

  • Always use white, standard-size paper (8.5”x11” in the U.S., A4 almost everywhere else).
  • Print on one side of the page only; don’t try to conserve space by printing double-sided, even if it means a little extra printing cost.
  • Use one-inch margins on all sides of the page, with a ragged right margin (a justified margin can impair readability).
  • Use Courier, or another, serif, fixed width font. 12-point size. You want your manuscript to appear typed, not typeset as it might be in a finished, printed book.
  • Always double-space your lines. If you’re familiar enough with your word processing program, turn off widow/orphan control as well (you can find this under Format, Paragraph in Microsoft Word).
  • Indent each new paragraph about one half inch. Don’t skip lines extra lines to denote the next paragraph.
  • When you need to emphasize text in your manuscript, underline instead of using italics.

The Title Page:

  • List your full contact information in the upper left corner of the page. This includes your name, mailing address, phone number and email, each on its own line.
  • List your manuscript’s word count in the upper right corner. This doesn’t have to be the exact word count; rounding to the nearest hundred words is fine.
  • Type your manuscript’s title in all caps, halfway down the page. On the next double-spaced line, write the word “by”, followed by your name in mixed case. In the case of a novel, you can alternately write “a novel by” along with your name.
  • Refrain from posting statements of copyright on the cover or any inside pages. This is often considered the sign of an amateur. (Note that it is still a good idea to register your manuscript with your government’s copyright office, but there’s no need to indicate that you have done so.)

All Other Pages:

  • Start new chapters halfway down a new page, with the name and number of the chapter centered. If your chapter has a name, include it on the next, double-spaced line in mixed case. Then skip one double-spaced line and begin your first paragraph.
  • If you have a dedication or quote that begins your book, it should appear centered on its own page, just after the title page.
  • At the top of each page, type your last name, manuscript title, and page number, separated by forward slashes (for example: “Hawkins / The Format / 12”).

And that’s all there is to it. Now, will an agent automatically reject your manuscript if you don’t follow these rules? Some might, but most will not. However, if you’re thinking of deviating from these guidelines, you should take a moment to consider one of the most important reasons for having formatting rules in the first place: to make your work as accessible and easy to read as possible. By making sure an agent doesn’t need to focus on the way your manuscript is laid out, you let your writing take center stage, and that, after all, is what writing is all about.

I promise not to make you wait another month for our next post. In the meantime, stay warm, be well, and above all, get back to writing!

Christopher Hawkins


Anonymous said...

I've been told that Courier was only appropriate for script-type writing and that Arial or Times New Roman was a more acceptable font for prose, poetry, and books.


Kyle H
kyleh at yahoo

Anonymous said...

Sorry, my e-mail in the previous comment is kyleh767 at yahoo. Thanks.

Christopher Hawkins said...

Courier is definitely appropriate for scripts. Times New Roman is a trickier issue. I've read some manuscript formatting guidelines that allow it, and others that do not. When in doubt, it's best to err on the side of caution and stick with Courier.

Arial, and other sans-serif fonts, should be avoided. They're not as readable as serif fonts like Courier and Times.

I hope this helps.


white rabbit said...

I really think Times New Roman is deeply unattractive. I use Tahoma and before that used Bookman Old Style.

Christopher Hawkins said...

I can't say that I disagree. I think that Courier is very unattractive also.

But, bear in mind that the goal of manuscript formatting is not to make the text look pretty or to make the manuscript appear that way it would if it were typeset; the goal is to let your words take center stage by eliminating layout as an obstacle to readability.

A second goal, and perhaps the more important one, is to show that you've taken the time to learn the rules by which the whole query submission process is governed. It tells the agent right away that you're serious about what you're doing, and helps to create a favorable impression.

I hope this helps.


Flaming Nora said...

I'm finding this blog invaluable as I start to think about submitting the fruits of the last 6months of my life to an agent. Thank you for the advice, it's much appreciated.

Christopher Hawkins said...

Thanks Flaming Nora. I'm very happy that you're finding it helpful!