format a manuscript

Manuscript Format: Step-by-Step Guide to Format Your Manuscript

Did you know there are specific industry standards to adhere to in formatting your manuscript?

Not taking note of these rules can set you back immeasurably when it comes to becoming a successful author.

Speaking from experience as a professional development coach and former literary magazine editor: neatness and precision count.

Just like a hiring manager often throws out resumes that boast “attention to detail” while they are riddled with typos, an agent or editor can be just as quick to toss a manuscript because the writer failed to comply with basic formatting and submission requests.

And then your chances are shot…all because of formatting mistakes I’ll help you fix in this blog post.

manuscript format

Give your story the proper chance it deserves.

Here are the basic manuscript formatting standards:

  1. Title page formatting
  2. Single page manuscript formatting
  3. Formatting chapters
  4. Proper letter design
  5. Submitting your manuscript to editors, agents, and publishers

Why Your Manuscript Format Matters

When a literary professional receives bulk submissions, they need to pare them down. The poorly presented options are often the first to go.

Don’t let sloppy work make you lose out on an opportunity.

But don’t worry! Today we’re going to go over every single thing you need to check for in a properly formatted manuscript.

Even if you haven’t finished writing your manuscript yet, you can save a lot of time by formatting it as you write!

#1 – Title page manuscript format

Step on the right foot by perfecting the very first thing everyone sees of your final manuscript: the title page.

Your title page should let the reader know what they’re reading, who wrote it, how to contact the author, and how long the piece is.

  • Contact information–your contact information goes on the title page of your manuscript for easy access.
    1. It should include your legal name, address, phone number, and email address
    2. The contact information should be positioned in the upper lefthand corner of the title page
    3. Single-spaced
    4. Left-justified alignment 
  • Title–the title of your manuscript
    1. Center-justified alignment 
    2. One-third to one-half way down the page
    3. If you have a subtitle, it should appear on the same line as your title
  • Author name–this is the name you are publishing the work under.
    1. Center-justified alignment
    2. One double-spaced line below the title (and subtitle)
    3. If you have a pen name, it goes here. Make sure you use your real name in the contact information section
  • Word count
    1. Rounded to the nearest thousand
    2. One double-spaced line below the author name
  • Agent’s information–if you have an agent already, their contact information goes in the upper lefthand corner, and the writer’s contact information moves to the lower righthand corner.

Here’s an example for what a title page for my book, without a literary agent, might look like:

manuscript format title page

#2 – Single page manuscript formatting

After the title page, there are also specific ways to format each page of your manuscript.

Here are the rules for the rest of the document after your title page:

  • 8.5 by 11-inch pages
  • One-inch margins on each side
  • Single space after periods–if you’re trained the old way with double spaces after each period, you can easily search + replace the document to swap double spaces for single spaces
  • Use a “#” to denote scene breaks–do not use extra lines or other symbols to indicate a scene break
  • Left-justified alignment
  • Book genre-specific paragraph indention
    1. For works of nonfiction, like textbooks and instructional literature, manuscripts should be left-justified alignment with no indentation and a line between each paragraph. 
    2. For works of fiction, use left-justified alignment with half an inch indention and no line between paragraphs.
      1. To indent paragraphs, don’t use tab or space. In MS Word, “paragraph” > “paragraph settings” > “indentation” > “special” > “first line” > “0.5 inch”
      2. After you format the paragraph indentation once, it should do it automatically when you start a new line
  • Headers–at the top right of every page (excluding the title page), you should include the following information:
    1. Your last name
    2. The book title (or an abbreviated version of the book title)
    3. The page number (start page count on the first page of the actual story. Do not include a page number on the title page)
  • “THE END”
    1. “THE END” at the end of your manuscript indicates the end of the manuscript
    2. Center-justified alignment after the last line of your story
    3. Important for beta readers, editors, and agents to ensure no part of the story has been lost in transit

#3 – Formatting chapters

It’s easy to want to throw your chapters together, one right after another, but there’s a more specific means of formatting your manuscript for chapters specifically.

New chapters should not run onto the same page as another chapter.

This is how to properly format a chapter change:

  • New chapter page break–always start a new chapter on a new page
  • Chapter title page
    1. center-align justify the title of the chapter, even if it’s just a chapter number
    2. One-third to one-half way down the page
    3. Start the chapter one double-spaced down from the title

Following that format makes a manuscript much more palatable, just like having your text double-spaced. Any technicality that makes your manuscript easier to read is something you want to take advantage of.

Here’s an example new chapter page from my work-in-progress, Taogan:

#4 – Proper letter design

The words themselves should also be as simple and readable as possible.

Your typeface is not where you express your creativity. Maybe further down the line, your interior formatting can take some more stylistic routes, but for your manuscript, you want it plain and simple.

Here are the industry standards for letter design:

  1. Size: 12 point
  2. Typeface: Times New Roman (Sometimes other basic typefaces like Arial are also acceptable. Always check the submission guidelines for your particular case.)
  3. Color: Black
  4. Line: Double-spaced

#5 – Submitting your manuscript to editors, agents, and publishers

If you’re traditionally publishing (and therefore, must not be totally aware of the differences and benefits of self-publishing your book), you’ll send your manuscript to literary agents.

If you can’t follow their submission rules, you won’t get an agent.

format manuscripts

If you’re acting as your own agent, you’ll send your manuscript to editors and publishers.

Again, if you haven’t followed industry standards and their specific submission rules, you’re shooting yourself in the foot before they even have a chance to read your manuscript.

If you’re sending your manuscript to a professional editor you’ve hired yourself, you still want to follow these manuscript formatting tips–and the tips below for a digital submission.

The standard manuscript format is organized, readable, and professional, even if you find a situation where it isn’t a requirement.

Check the particular agent, editor, or publisher requirements, as each might have their own specifications for what to include and how to format.

Digital

  1. If you’re submitting a digital file of your manuscript, it should be a .doc or .docx, unless otherwise specified. This is the most popular file type for submissions, and Microsoft Word’s track changes feature makes it a favorite among editors and reviewers.
  2. For an initial submission, an agent typically asks for you to paste the first pages or chapter of your manuscript into the body of an email. Past this stage, they typically request a .doc or .docx of the full work.
  3. You may also be asked for a cover letter, author bio, or query letter with your submission.

Mail-in

Some submissions are still open for mail-in options. If you take a mail-in route, you’ll have to print your manuscript.

If you need to print a physical copy of your manuscript for a submission, be sure to follow these printing guidelines! 

  1. Single-sided
  2. High quality, bright paper
  3. High quality, dark ink

There are many technicalities involved with producing a clean and professional manuscript, but you can use the rules above to make your own checklist!

Go item by item to format your story properly.

If you’d like to bypass the submission process, consider self-publishing your book!