Basics of writingEditingFormatting

Manuscript formatting guidelines–PART 1

From Rick:

We talk a lot about the specifics of grammar and craft in this blog, but one aspect of writing we’ve left out so far deals with the basics of formatting your story or manuscript.

Just so we’re clear, this refers to the MANUSCRIPT, not to the final file for your book or e-book. However, I will endeavor to combine good formatting practices for both because doing it right from the start will save you a lot of headaches later.

RULE #1: Use a standard font. The two standards are Courier New and Times New Roman. These are called serif fonts. Serifs are the small lines tailing from the letters. Do not use non-serif fonts such as Arial or Calibri. The reason is that in Arial and Calibri, it’s impossible to distinguish between uppercase “I” and lowercase “L” in these, and that makes proofreading harder. There are other good reasons, but I won’t go into them. Yes, I’m aware that this blog and many others use Arial as the default font (and without some behind-the-scenes coding in html, you can’t change it). But I still type my original in Courier New for easy editing. Stick with the standards in your manuscript and don’t worry about how it gets changed later.

If you’re going to submit your work to a publisher, you want to keep the manuscript clean and straightforward because the publisher will handle the details of formatting later on according to their own preferences.

Never submit a manuscript for critique or review (or to an editor) with fancy fonts, colored fonts, or page borders, etc. The reader will not be impressed. And if you use a newer font that your reader doesn’t have on his PC, he may see things you never intended, or he may even see garbage.

RULE #2: Standard manuscript formatting is double-spaced (not single-spaced) lines, one-inch borders all around, and a simple header OR footer (not both). The preferred header is:


These are the basic two rules to follow when submitting. Now, Scott talked about some of the issues with MS Word in terms of its grammar checking, but when it comes to formatting and typing a manuscript, Word has many evils that many novice writers (and some experienced ones) are unaware of. With the advent of e-books and self-publishing, some new rules and problems have arisen.


There are two (and ONLY two) preferred methods. Back in the days of mechanical typewriters, you could set tabs or space over 5 (or whatever) spaces to indent your paragraph because the result was the same. However, in Word there is a difference between using spaces and tabs. NEVER NEVER NEVER use spaces (the space bar) to indent a paragraph because this causes all sorts of problems down the road, especially for e-books.

You’ll hear a lot of e-book people tell you NOT to use tabs. You should not use them in your FINAL manuscript 9the one you’re submitting), but if it feels comfortable for you to do so while writing the early drafts in your computer, go ahead. Just be aware that you will have to remove them later. And I do find that if you blindly use first line indents, then EVERY line following a return/enter will be indented, and you may not want that with chapter titles, scene breaks, or on some lines.

Another problem I see with using tabs is that an author may during editing decide to join two paragraphs by deleting the return–except that he forgets to remove the tab at the same time. That tab then ends up in the middle of a line and may cause strange spacing to appear later on.

Therefore, you’re usually better off using first line indent, but either way, you’re going to have some cleanup later.

RULE #4: Do not force formatting with extra spaces, tabs, or returns. Many novices don’t understand or appreciate MS Word or other word processors and seem to insist on fighting them when it comes to formatting.

For example, I’ve seen people try for force words onto the next line using tabs or spaces, and I’ve seen people try to force page breaks by using multiple returns. While these may look okay in the beginning, if the number of lines before these chage on the page, then you’ll see weird results–such as half a page of text following by many blank lines, followed by more text. I also see authors fail to put the start of a new chapter onto the next page (or they try to force it with returns). Likewise, don’t put spaces at the end of paragraphs.

RULE #5: Create a new page (such as a new chapter) with a PAGE BREAK. In Word you do this by holding down the CTRL key and pressing ENTER.

RULE #6: Do NOT use “Spacing after” and “Spacing before” in your paragraphs. These should always be set to ZERO. The default template in the newer versions of Word typically sets Spacing After to 6 pts. MS Word does this so your paragraphs are nicely spaced on the page, but this causes problems in many places, especially when uploading stuff to the Internet. In some cases it can result in extra spacing, but in others, it may result in NO spacing between paragraphs. That’s because blogs like Word Press do not recognize MS Word’s formatting. (We’ll talk about this more in Part 2)

RULE #7: Separate paragraphs with a SINGLE return. EXCEPTION: If you’re posting to a blog where paragraph indents don’t show up, then put TWO returns between paragraphs. Just be aware that if you’re posting part of your manuscript on some review site, the latter may result in more spaces than you intend.

RULE #8: SINGLE space between sentences. Yes, I know some of us were taught in school to double space. That’s old school (pun intended). However, if you’re like me and still prefer those double spaces, be sure you take them out later (using search and replace, which we’ll also talk about in Part 2).

Before I go further, I want to let you know that PART 2 of this blog will cover how to clean up your messes (at least some of them) if you have older manuscripts where you didn’t follow these rules.

RULE #9: Use ITALICS for emphasis, not underlines. However, I prefer to underline in my early drafts because it’s much easier to spot underlined words than italicized ones. I convert them in the final manuscript, but sometimes I’ll submit something for critique that still has the underlines. I’ve had a couple of reviewers more or less call me stupid for this, so I make it a practice to let them know that I do know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Do not use bold fonts for emphasis. Why? Because there has never been a standard for using bold text in books. It’s always been underlines or italics or all caps (use all caps very judiciously because it can make you look stupid if overdone).

I think that’s enough for now. In Part 2 I’ll cover how to set up proper formatting and how to find and fix your formatting goofs.

I may also do a Part 3 with some additional formatting tips.


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