Manuscript Formatting: Just Do It

“How do I format my manuscript?”

This question plagues new writers who worry that their manuscript will automatically be tossed into the Rejection pile if the layout is wrong. Other new writers view formatting as self-expression; if their manuscript looks outstanding to their eyes in 9-point Monotype Corsiva, then that’s what they use. Besides, they reason, the writing is what matters.

The truth lies somewhere in between. Agents and editors aren’t monsters. They’re people who make their living by representing or buying the manuscripts of writers like us. They care more about the quality of the writing than the way it looks on the page. But they’re also busy professionals with far more submissions than they have time to read. So go out of your way to avoid giving them a reason not to read yours.

Editors of fiction and creative non-fiction expect manuscripts to be presented double-spaced on plain white paper with one-inch margins all around. The font should be a nice, normal serif font like Times New Roman, sized at 12 points. (The same is not true for plays, screenplays, or query letters. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Don’t think you can squeak by at 11 points to fit more on a page. Editors read all day long. They will notice. The kind-hearted ones will assume you didn’t know any better; the more jaded ones will assume you cheated. The ones looking for reasons not to read your manuscript may reject it on those grounds because their slush pile fills a quarter of their office and they don’t have time to educate the uninitiated about the often brutal world of publishing.

What’s so special about Times New Roman? Don’t ask. Just use it. Here’s why:

1. If an editor reads 100 manuscripts a day, and 99 of them use Times New Roman, the editor will notice the one that doesn’t—but not in a good way. It will look wrong. Their eyes will have grown accustomed to the letter shapes in the familiar font. Those shapes help convey meaning, making the text easier to read. Editors will not appreciate receiving a manuscript that makes their job harder.

2. Many writers who use a unique font do so because they want the manuscript to stand out. Relying on a font to do that makes you seem insecure and a little desperate. Your manuscript should stand out because of the power of your prose. If it doesn’t, it’s not ready to send out yet. Don’t waste your time and the editor’s by sending your baby into the world too soon. Oh, and if you think your manuscript is your baby, rather than your product, it’s too soon.

3. Manuscript formatting rules are consistently and widely accepted throughout the industry. If you don’t follow them because you’re an artist and don’t want to rein in your creativity, how will you react if the editor says you’ve got a comma out of place? Will you rage that your artistic sensibilities are being trampled? Editors don’t want to work with writers like that. They want to work with writers who understand the value of structure in providing a framework for creative expression.

Failing to follow the formatting rules suggests that you don’t take seriously the business aspects of the writer’s life. If you haven’t adequately researched formatting guidelines, maybe you haven’t adequately researched the material in your manuscript. Or maybe you’re just a flake. The editor may question whether you’ll deliver your rewrites on time, show up for meetings on time, or contribute reliably to the marketing of your book.

Following the guidelines for manuscript formatting tells the editor that you’re a professional. It says that you won’t gush like a teenage girl, nor brood like a misanthrope. Remember, half of all manuscripts that editors and agents receive are sent to them by people who can’t write. At all. You don’t want your manuscript to look like one of those. Make it crisp, clean, and professional so the recipient can focus on the content, not the package.

Related Posts:
Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability

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