The Don'ts of Formatting Manuscripts

It may seem like nitpicking, but formatting manuscripts to industry standards helps your submissions get read by editors and agents. It's not that proper formatting excites editors; it's that improper formatting can repel them--and I've already written about ways to annoy editors here. So let's look at what NOT to do when formatting manuscripts.

Don't Get Creative. Channel all your creative, rule-bending, and genre-busting urges into the story, essay, or book, but keep them away from the typeface, margins, and layout. Editors and agents read so many manuscripts, they really just need them to be--at least visually--easy to read. You might be bored of 12-point Times New Roman, but there's a reason this font and size is the standard for formatting manuscripts, and that reason is readability. Serif fonts (like TNR) have little lines (serifs) at the ends and/or beginnings of the letters that help make them easier on the eyes, especially for blocks of text. Sans serif fonts are more legible for headlines and on computer screens, which is why you are reading the sans serif Helvetica right now.

ShoesNorma Cutouts.jpg

Standard margin widths of 1- to 1.5-inch, and a double space between lines also contribute to readability--and write-ability, as they leave room for the editor to, uh, make edits and insert comments. But easy reading is not the only reason editors like standard typefaces, type sizes, and spaces. It's also easier to estimate the length of stories, articles, and books when they are all presented in the same familiar format.

No bells or whistles in these Cliff Dweller Norma

flats; just simple lines, classic color, empty space (1).

Don't Get Spacey. A double space after a period is a vestige of that early technology known as a typewriter, and you can read all about its origin and demise at the Cult of Pedagogy blog. All you really need to remember is, Don't double up. Place a single space after a period, question mark, or, God forbid, exclamation point. When I receive manuscripts formatted the old-fashioned way, I have to go through and delete each of those extra spaces before I send it on to the designer for lay out. If you're old school, and absolutely, positively can't retrain yourself to single space after a period, then make it a step in your self-editing process to do a find-an


Doubling the line space after a paragraph adds a similarly unnecessary space. Format the regular space between lines at double (or 1.5, which many editors find acceptable). When you get to the end of a paragraph do not add an extra tap on the 'enter' key, creating a double double-space. Instead, just indent the first line of the new graf. Save that double double for section breaks, those big leaps in scene or setting or time or topic that need white space around them to help the reader understand that they are bigger than your average between-paragraph leaps.

Do the genre crossing with

your shoes, not your fonts.

Don't Get Lost. Page numbers and your name on every page will help ensure that none of your pages go missing, get placed in the wrong order, or get inserted in someone else's manuscript. These two pie


Whoopsie; Did she lose a shoe?

Don't let this happen to you.

One Giant, Size-14 Caveat: Many publishers and agencies have their own preferred formats for manuscript submissions. Maybe they prefer 2-inch margins, or page numbers on the bottom right, or even, though I doubt it, a sans serif typeface. If so, forget everything I just said, and follow their rules. Look for Submission Guidelines on the publication's web site or in fine print

near the masthead page in magazines.

Now, for those who get discouraged by negativity, I'll sum up these Don'ts as Do's for formatting manuscripts:

  • Use a standard serif font style and size; Times New Roman 12 pt. is generally the standard.

  • Place a single space between sentences.

  • Format the line space at double or 1.5.

  • Double the double line space between sections, but not between paragraphs.

  • Find and follow submission guidelines for particular publications and agencies.

Footnotes: 1 Cliff Dweller Norma cut-out flats by CYDWOQ, and available at Ped, among other retailers. 2 It is my understanding that the shared ped in pedagogy and pedestrian is purely coincidental, but I do love the fact that teaching and feet are connected by this little phrase.

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