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Manuscript 101–Introduction & Basic Manuscript Format

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Who is this Kaye Dacus and why should I believe what she has to say on this topic?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Please check out my ABOUT page to find out why I’m so passionate about the subject of writing.

One caveat. Even though I work as a copy editor, I am not posting any of this material as a representative of the publishing house. This is completely on my own and is no reflection on the house where I work (which is why I am not mentioning the name). The house where I work publishes everything from children’s board and picture books, young adult fiction and nonfiction, educational materials, to adult fiction and nonfiction, and I work with it all. Occasionally I may refer to the “style” we prefer at my house—this will be in instances where the “rules” might be vague, and the place where I work has chosen to do it a specific way. Other publishers may do it differently.

Also, please understand that no one is ever an “expert” at any of this. It’s always a learning process, as our language is constantly in a state of flux, and what might have been a “rule” five years ago (such as “always put a comma before the word too at the end of a sentence”) is now no longer the accepted norm (most houses are starting to eliminate the comma before too).

For the most part, I will be speaking in general terms—especially when it come to formatting—as there really are no hard-and-fast rules, just accepted practices. That said, let’s get some of the most basic “accepted practices” out in the open . . .
(CMS=Chicago Manual of Style)

Basic Manuscript Format
For the most part, if you follow these guidelines, your manuscript will have an acceptable layout for submission:

  • 8.5 x 11″ paper size, portrait layout
  • 1″ to 1.25″ margins (top, bottom, right, left). Do not go wider than 1.25″ (this is what MS Word defaults to, unless you change it)
  • 12 point font, Courier or Times New Roman (Times New Roman is now the industry standard, so use that unless the house you’re submitting to specifically indicates they want the manuscript in Courier). Do not use any other fonts in the file–such as a scripty font for a letter a character writes (just italicize your chosen font). Let the publishing house decide how to format it.
  • LEFT justify your document; do not full justify. This means the right margin will be jagged, not straight.
  • Do not allow your word-processing software to automatically hyphenate your document. It’s okay if long words fall onto the next line. The reason is that sometimes, when the publisher imports a text file into the design software, it will read the hyphen as a character and keep it in the middle of the word, but now that word isn’t broken over a line, but in the middle of it. So you end up with something like news-paper or cli-mate in the middle of a line.
  • In the header:
    LastName/Title of Novel–flush to the left margin
    Page number–flush to the right margin (you can set up a right-aligned tab)
    The LastName/Title can be in ALL CAPS or in Sentence Case (not in italics). All that is necessary for the page number is the numeral–you do not have to put “page” before it, or set it off with -1- hyphens or anything like that
  • Double line spaced, with widow/orphan control turned off. (In MS Word, this is accomplished by clicking FORMAT–>PARAGRAPH and then in that dialogue box, clicking the LINE & PAGE BREAKS tab. Once on that screen, click off the checkmark beside Widow/Orphan control.) Turning off the widow/orphan control lets the text break naturally across the page breaks—it keeps the program from automatically forcing paragraphs to stay together at the end of a page, thus creating big gaps of space at the end of pages.
  • Single spaces between sentences. (CMS 2.12) No extra space at the end of a paragraph. (This can become an issue once your manuscript is accepted for publication and is imported into Quark or other design programs.)
  • Smart Quotes. I saw several entries in this year’s Genesis contest that had a mix of smart (curly) and straight quotation marks. There is an easy way to fix this in MS Word. Do a find and replace: Find ” and replace with ” (the same mark) and click Replace All. Then do the same with the single ‘ quote mark. This should change them all to the smart-quote format.
  • Paragraph indentation. Two ways of doing this. Some people (like me) prefer the old-fashioned way of hitting the TAB key at the beginning of each paragraph, which tabs the line over 0.5″. (Do not use spaces, always use the TAB.) Others prefer to let the word processor do it for them, which is done either automatically, if this “auto correct” option has not been disabled, or by changing it in the FORMAT–>PARAGRAPHS menu. It should never be more than 0.5″, no matter which method you prefer to use.
  • Italics vs. underlining. CMS 2.17: “Unless your publisher decrees otherwise, use italics, not underlining, for words that are to be italicized in the printed version.”
  • Space at the beginning of chapters. Chapters should begin 1/3 to 1/2 the way down the page. This means that the highest your chapter header (CHAPTER ONE) should be on the page is 3.63″. Watch the info bar at the bottom of your word processor’s window—it should show you where you’re located on the page. I start my chapters at 4.6″. No particular reason. I just like the way it looks when I print it out. The lowest you’d want to go is about 5.5″, which would be exactly in the middle of the page. Start each chapter at exactly the same measurement.
  • Use hard page breaks at the end of your chapters if you have all of your chapters in one document. You can do this in MS Word by clicking on INSERT–>BREAK and selecting PAGE BREAK, or by using the keyboard shortcut of CTRL-ENTER. This ensures that no matter how much editing you do on individual chapters within the document, the chapters following will always start at the right place on the page.
  • Where does the chapter header go? That’s a really good question. CMS says it should be flush left, but they really aren’t focused on FICTION manuscripts. The standard I have always seen and heard of as acceptable is CENTERED one double-spaced line above the text. They can be ALL CAPS (CHAPTER ONE) or Sentence Case (Chapter One) or you can use numerals (Chapter 1)–just make sure they’re all consistent. They should be set in roman (not italic) text, and regular (not bold) face. I’ve sent a couple of e-mails out to find out if this is still the correct, accepted format, so stay tuned.
  • PLEASE run a spell check on your manuscript. You can add unique names so that they don’t come up every time you run it. Even though the red-squiggly line is there, we don’t always see it. While the grammar tool with the spell check can be helpful in pointing out run-on sentences and passive voice, DO NOT take everything it says as gospel truth. It’s wrong at least 50 percent of the time (at least from my experience with it).

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something very important. Does this cover basic formatting? Let me know what I’ve left out.

  1. Wednesday, May 23, 2007 12:58 pm

    LOL, life history not important. You’re a hoot.

    Are chapter headers not supposed to be underlined?


  2. Wednesday, May 23, 2007 1:41 pm

    When I was in grad school, we were told chapter headers were to be not bold, not italic, not underlined. Just centered, plain text.


  3. Thursday, May 24, 2007 12:01 pm

    Wonderful, concise guide, Kaye!

    My experiences with Grammar Check has been so bad, with it being wrong at least 75% of the time, that I just turn the stupid thing completely off. Training Spell Check is always one of the first things I do when I’m working with a new word processor. I’ll open one of my files that I know has a lot of odd or off the wall words in it, and run Spell Check. Quick and easy way to get it mostly trained.


  4. Thursday, May 24, 2007 6:35 pm

    Thought of something! Do you need to put your name/title at the top of each page?


  5. Thursday, May 24, 2007 6:40 pm

    Yes, Rachel. See the sixth item in the list.


  6. Thursday, May 24, 2007 9:27 pm

    Thanks! I missed that the first time, lol.


  7. Friday, May 25, 2007 8:43 am

    Thanks Kaye. This is great stuff. Passing it on.

    The only one that continues to baffle me is the italics because it seems to depend on who’s giving the advice. So same rule of thumb applies: Start with this and modify according to publisher’s guidelines.


  8. Friday, May 25, 2007 8:53 am

    True—publishers want things formatted slightly differently from each other. However, if it is not specified in the manuscript submission guidelines, formatting according to CMS rules is a good rule of thumb.

    Being able to search for formatting in MS Word helps—you can search for italicized text and replace it with underlined text with just the clicks of a few buttons, rather than having to go through 300-400 pages and trying to find them all visually.


  9. Roscoe Slade permalink
    Sunday, November 15, 2009 7:22 am

    On novels..the writing is the easy part. You’re a miracle worker if you can find a literary agent or a book publisher who doesn’t want to be pestered by unpublished authors!


  10. Friday, February 19, 2010 7:48 pm

    I appreciate your advice on how to format a manuscript. Now I can submit my manuscript with confidence – once I have it finished.


  11. Teresa Lockhart permalink
    Tuesday, March 2, 2010 9:59 pm

    Again, VERY helpful, VERY useful information. I shall now insert a page break and start my chapters at an exact spot. Thank you.


  12. Thursday, July 7, 2011 6:43 pm

    Thanks for the primer. One question–what do publishers generally prefer in terms of document formatting: .doc, .docx., .rtf…?


    • Thursday, July 7, 2011 7:01 pm

      For that, you would have to check the individual publishers’ submission guidelines, but the general rule of thumb is either .doc or .txt.


  13. Thursday, September 1, 2011 9:21 am

    Thanks for taking the time to run down the basics of formatting, but there’s one other thing I’m having trouble finding advice on. What is the standard or proper way of showing section breaks?


    • tori permalink
      Sunday, October 23, 2011 10:15 am

      i’ve heard that you can show it by using # or *** centered on a line between the sections.
      but i still don’t know for sure.


      • Sunday, October 23, 2011 1:27 pm

        The standard is *** centered with an extra line space above and below.


  14. tori permalink
    Sunday, October 23, 2011 10:14 am

    do you know how to format a new chapter on Microsoft Works? i don’t have Microsoft Word, so I don’t get the info bar on the bottom of the window.


    • Sunday, October 23, 2011 1:27 pm

      The best thing to do is to use the same number of line spaces. If your document is single spaced, hit ENTER 17 to 20 times at the beginning of the chapter. If it’s double space, hit ENTER between 8 and 10 times. Pick one format and stick with it in every chapter.


  15. Bruce Perry permalink
    Thursday, January 19, 2012 1:27 pm

    Very, VERY silly question. But how do I insert headers in the manuscript without doing so on the title page? I’m actually using OpenOffice instead of Word, if that helps.


    • Thursday, January 19, 2012 3:57 pm

      Hi, Bruce! Since I’m not familiar with Open Office (though I did download it and play with it to see if I could figure this out on my own) I did a little digging online and I came across this site which seems to have a solution to the different-first-page header question:

      Hopefully that will help! (I Googled “headers and footers in open office different first page” in case that one doesn’t work for you.)


  16. Teri Gillingham permalink
    Wednesday, September 12, 2012 10:56 am

    This is a really helpful 101, thank you! But I still have one question: what is the correct way to format speech? In books I tend to see speech contained in single quotation marks (‘Hello!’). I just wanted to check whether that is also correct for manuscripts, or if it is better to use double quotation marks (“Hello!”) in the manuscript since they are easier to read.

    Many thanks!


    • Sunday, September 16, 2012 7:36 pm

      It may be done differently in other countries, but in the US, the standard is double quotation marks for dialogue. “I didn’t know that,” she said.

      You use single quotation marks only if there’s a quotation within a quotation. “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me.’ And he meant it.” The pastor banged his fist on the lectern for emphasis.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Teri Gillingham permalink
        Monday, September 17, 2012 3:51 am

        Thanks very much for your reply!



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