Formatting 101

cropped-manuscriptsoftfocus2.jpgOne of the very first things I learned when I started taking writing workshops, back in the dark ages when personal computers were so new most people still wrote on a typewriter, was the industry standard for formatting a manuscript.  It was based on typewriters and their limitations along with the needs of publishers and typesetters.

The technology available to writers has changed, but the standard format in most ways has not, and yet, again and again I see manuscripts that don’t conform to these very simple formatting requirements.

Here’s the basics:

Margins  = no less than 1 inch all around, no more than 1.25 inches all around

Lines per page = 23 – 25

Line spacing = double… not 1.5, and no extra space after a paragraph.  Double.

Font = this one has loosened up some, but generally Courier or New Times Roman, and always 12 pt.

Headers = a header is required on every page except the title page.  It consists of, at the left margin, the title of the piece, a slash, and your last name.  If you have a common last name, like Smith, use your first initial or full first name.  Ex:  Charming the Shrew/Wittig

At the right margin, a page number.  It’s up to you whether you want to put the word “page” before the number.  Make sure there is sufficient white space between your header and the body of the text so they don’t look like they run together.  The easiest way to do this is to simply add a return or two after the page number.  Page numbers must be sequential through the entire manuscript.

And the newest formatting quirk = only one space after a period.  For those of us who learned to type on typewriters where we were required to put two spaces after a period this one is a hard habit to break.  Autocorrect is your friend if, like me, you find decades of typing two spaces after a period virtually impossible to change.  Seriously.  My fingers have a mind of their own.

When starting a new chapter move your cursor about 1/3 of the way down the page and center the word Chapter followed by a number, either numerical or spelled out.  It’s up to you.  You can also choose to capitalize the whole chapter heading, or not, or underline it, or not.

And my pet peeve… folks, when you leave a line intentionally blank, say for a scene break or a change in your point of view character, put a symbol there to indicate you did this on purpose.  A simple # centered will do, or asterisks if you prefer.  1 – 5 symbols is commonly used.  But really, one is enough.  Sometimes it’s obvious that a scene break or pov change has occurred.  Sometimes it’s not.  Don’t confuse your editor/agent/contest judge/critiquer.

That covers it.

Why is this necessary? 

Some of it is simply the convention, but most of it is to make reading manuscripts and making comments, line edits and/or copy edits easier to insert.  It also made it easy to estimate the number of words in a manuscript before the days of word counters on the computer.

The number of lines of text on a page, which is bounded by the margins and line spacing, combined with a 12 pt font gives you a quick and dirty estimate of total word count.  For a fixed space font like Courier, you’ll get approximately 250 words per page.  400 pages then equals a 100k word manuscript.  With Times New Roman (a variable spaced font) you’ll get closer to 270-280 words per page.  So a 350 page manuscript is approximately 100k words.

As we move further and further away from paper copies all of this standardization of format may be less and less necessary, and indeed, there may be publishers who already have moved on to their own preferences for manuscript formatting.  However, unless you know for sure a publisher wants something different, following these simple guidelines will make you look like you know what you are doing.  They’ll make you look like you take this process of publication seriously enough to mind the details.

In short, they make you look like a professional and editors, agents, copy editors, and your critique partners will all appreciate your effort.



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