The Author Toolbox: Formatting 101

At this point, you should have a finished manuscript that is as edited as you know how and have hopefully also had additional eyes read it and offer ideas on how to make it stronger. You might think it’s time to take the next step toward publication. Unfortunately, many manuscripts never get a fair chance because of simple formatting mistakes that send a nonverbal message to the professionals and imply that the author doesn’t know what they are doing.

While more details will come later when we get into queries and proposals and the other tools you’ll need to get representation or sell your book to a publisher, there are a few industry standards when it comes to formatting a manuscript. Of course, individual publishing houses or contests will have their own specific guidelines, but these tips will help you look less like an amateur.

Tool #1: Use the modern type-setting aspects of the word processor to your advantage. In order words, don’t hit that tab key to indent paragraphs. In fact, nothing makes an editor more frustrated than having to manually remove all of your tab commands before they can format the book. Even worse is hitting the space bar five times in a row.
Want to see if you have any of those formatting land mines hiding in your manuscript? On the main toolbar inside Word (an industry favorite program that creates the .doc file to submit), find the section in the middle that is labeled “Paragraph” and look at the top for the bold colored backwards capital letter P. Click that button to reveal the hidden formatting codes such as that same backwards P for each hard return (“enter” key), right-pointing arrow for a tab, and a dot for each space. Unfortunately, you will have to manually remove the tabs.

Now for the good news. Use the Control-A command to select all of the text in the manuscript. Then in that same “Paragraph” section of the main “Home” toolbar, click on the tiny arrow at the lower right corner. In the pop-up window, select a first line indent of .5 inches. This will automatically apply an indent to each paragraph within the document text. While you are here, select double space and make sure there is no extra space between paragraphs. Then click Apply to return to the document.

Using that same Control-A command, you can also change the entire text to a 12-point Courier or Times New Roman font because both are easier to read for long periods of time and you definitely want to be on the good side of a potential editor or agent. Also adjust the margins to a standard one-inch around all sides.

Tool #2: Use the Find and Replace command to replace two spaces between sentences with the industry standard of one space. If you’re like me, you had (or still have) a two space habit that was drilled into your muscle memory by a typing teacher. In the days of manual typesetting when every letter occupied the same width block of type, it was important to have two spaces between sentences in order to create the necessary visual difference. However, in the era of modern fonts, skinny letters like an “i” take up less space than wider letters like a “w” so a single space is all that is needed between sentences.

Now unlike revealing the hidden formatting codes to manually remove the tabs, there is an easy way to fix it. On the far right-hand side of the main toolbar, open the find and replace box. Put two spaces in the “Find” box and a single space in the “Replace” box. Then hit replace all.

Tool 3: Research and follow the specific guidelines of that particular publishing house or agency. Following their directions is the mark of a professional while doing your own thing sends up red flags that you might be a difficult author to work with even if the writing is stellar.

If there are not specific guidelines, here are a few more common formatting norms. First, start each chapter about a third of the way down the page and leave a blank line after the chapter title. The best (and most professional) way to keep this spacing unchanged is to insert a page break at the end of the previous chapter. That way if you make any changes earlier in the manuscript, it doesn’t affect the spacing for each new chapter.

In fiction, generally center three #’s or *’s on a line of their own to designate a scene break. There is no need to add a blank line above or below the symbols. In non-fiction, you may have sub-titles for individual sections within a chapter. Generally these are flush with the left margin and in bold text. To undo the automatic indent you established for the document, simply highlight the area you want un-indented, click that tiny arrow to the bottom right of the “Paragraph” section on the toolbar, and select “None” for intent.

Back in the days when authors sent stacks of paper for consideration, it was critical that each page contained the author’s name, title of the manuscript, and a page number just in case the document was knocked off a desk and had to be reassembled in the proper order. This is less important now in the age of electronic submissions but it still may be helpful to put your last name and the title of the manuscript at the top left corner of each page using the Insert toolbar to add a header. While creating the header, check to see that the font style and size matches the rest of the document. Many choose to add a page number in the top right corner or insert a footer with the page number.

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