Tips for Formatting Your Manuscript

Sunday, April 28, 2013
When I was in graduate school, I fell in love with designing the written word. I took a class on document design and created a compilation of my writing to print and send out to agents and publishers. (Whether or not I thought I would be discovered with that compilation is for another post.) Electronic books were on the horizon, but I was working with print.
Interested in print or e-books? Photo credit: flickr | kodomut

Fast forward ten years and the professor from that class has contracted me to design a book. Yes, a print book. It's a strange place to be in because, well, I am also dabbling in designing e-books. WOW has a great addition to how to format for Kindle or Nook. But keep in mind that there are overlapping design concepts in both print and e-books that you can apply as you write:

  • Consistency: When you plan your book, add details about how you want your chapter headings. Maybe you want chapters and numbers. Maybe you want the chapter title with a single numeral above. Decide what it is and stick with it. Throughout the entire manuscript.
  • Font: I've had to break my kids' of their desire to write reports in Comic Sans. I'm not that much of a meany that I always insist on Times New Roman. But there are happy mediums in the font world. Select one and stick with it throughout the manuscript. If you can't decide between two, use one for your chapter headings and one for your text. Just make sure it's legible.
  • Page breaks: In Microsoft Word, CTRL + ENTER gives you a page break. With a Mac, insert a page break. Remember to insert one at the end of your chapters. Hitting a return until you hit the next page makes for inconsistent formatting. 
  • Page numbers: You may notice on e-readers that page numbering is different than with a print book. But when you're writing a draft or working on a print project, use page numbers for your own reference. It's especially useful if you print out your manuscript.
  • First paragraphs: At the beginning of each chapter, the first paragraph isn't indented like the following paragraphs. In Word, you can create a special style for that paragraph that does not include an indent and apply it at each chapter.
Those are just a few suggestions at styling your manuscript for future design--whether print or electronic. What questions do you have about formatting a manuscript for print or e-readers? (I'll try to get an answer by the next time I post!)

 Elizabeth King Humphrey writes and edits in Wilmington, North Carolina. She's making plans for a full summer of writing.


Margo Dill said...

Great post and this is so important--more than people realize. I was at a conference this weekend and agents were there, and they all commented on how a poorly formatted manuscript might not EVEN GET READ--no matter how brilliant it is. If you can't make it look professional, then they figure that you won't be professional to work with.

Unknown said...

There are so many details to make sure we have it right. I’m a little surprised to hear what Margo Dill says above, that it may lead some agents to pass on reviewing someone’s work, but I assume those are the really bad cases. You’ve helped me clarify a couple of issues I was trying to sort out as I work through another revision of my WIP. Thanks!

Margo Dill said...

@Ceejae I know--it seems so nitpicky, but I went to a session by lit agent Carly Watters and honestly, her first tip out of 10 tips for writers when self-editing for submission was FORMATTING. Honest!

Angela Mackintosh said...

I'm so glad you're doing this, Elizabeth! Now I can come to you for some e-book formatting questions. Although, I'm working on an e-book that I'm creating with InDesign because it's graphic intensive. Any experience with that?

Thanks for the advice on page breaks and first paragraphs, that's helpful.

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