16 Manuscript Format Guidelines

By Simon Kewin

If you submit manuscripts to publishers or agents, you’ve probably come across the demand that you use “standard manuscript format” (or “SMF”) for your submissions. However, it isn’t always spelled out what this actually means.

Generally speaking, the term indicates that you should format your document with the following guidelines in mind:

  1. Type your document, don’t write it.
  2. Use a single, clear font, 12 point size. The best to use is Courier or Courier New. At the very least, ensure you use a 12 point, serif font and not something like Arial.
  3. Use clear black text on a white background.
  4. If you are printing out your submission (rather than submitting it electronically), use good quality plain white paper and print on only one side of each sheet.
  5. Include your name and contact information at the top left of the first page. Put an accurate word count at the top right. Put the title half-way down the page, centred, with “by Your Name” underneath. Start the story beneath that.
  6. If you write under a pseudonym, put that beneath the title but your real name in the top left of the first page.
  7. Put your name, story title and the page number as a right-justified header on every subsequent page, in the format Name/Title/Page Number. Generally, you can also just use a key word from your title and not repeat the whole thing on each page.
  8. Left-justify your paragraphs. Right margins should be “ragged”.
  9. Ensure there is at least a 1 inch (2 centimetre) margin all the way around your text. This is to allow annotation to be written onto a printed copy.
  10. Use double spacing for all your text.
  11. Don’t insert extra lines between your paragraphs.
  12. Indent the first line of each paragraph by about 1/2 inch (1 centimetre).
  13. If you want to indicate a blank line, place a blank line, then a line with the # character in the middle of it, then another blank line.
  14. Don’t use bold or italic fonts or any other unusual formatting. To emphasise a piece of text you should underline it.
  15. Put the word “End” after your text, centred on its own line.
  16. If you are submitting on paper, don’t staple your pages together. Package them up well so that they won’t get damaged and send them off.

It’s always worth checking the exact requirements of any market you submit to, but if they don’t specify any formatting requirements, or just say “standard manuscript format”, follow these guidelines. This will make a good impression and help mark you out as a serious, professional writer.

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19 Responses to “16 Manuscript Format Guidelines”

  • Susanne Dunlap

    This is so wrong! At least in part. Publishers do *not* want manuscripts in Courier. Times Roman is the preferred face. And they do *not* want emphasized text to be underlined. We live in a digital age. Use italics where they would appear in print (internal dialogue, foreign words etc.). There’s rarely a need for bold text.

    As far as headers go, as long as they’ve got the information, there’s no preferred format that I’m aware of.

    But yes and yes to no spaces between paragraphs and double-spacing. Change of scene can be indicated with an extra space. Change of POV or timeframe will need either the # or ***.

    I think the guidelines you’ve sent are more geared to screenwriters than novelists.

  • Simon Kewin

    Hi Susanne,

    I format story manuscripts all the time and it always surprises me just how often publishers do request something along the lines of standard format. Take a look, for example, at the current formatting guidelines from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

    Yes, these guidelines hark back to an earlier age of printed manuscripts, and yes, as I said, many publishers, will have their own requirements. I agree that it is increasingly common for publishers to accept italics, or even not to worry too much about the font. But still, much as we may not like it, many remain stuck in the past and new writers still need to know what they mean by “Standard Manuscript Format”.

    I do accept that Times New Roman is often accepted and perhaps the article should have listed that too.

    Chnage of POV require a separator? I can’t think of a single novel where that occurs. I can think of many where it doesn’t.

  • Karin

    I agree with Susanne. In the US Courier is more standard, but in the UK and Australia Times New Roman is much more widely accepted. When I get manuscripts in Courier, they’re usually from retirees stuck in typewriter days. Underlining is a waste of time from days gone by too. Italicise where you want italics to be.

    And yes, headhopping or change of POV should have a line break. Basically, it is a scene break for ease of reading. She is not talking about dialogue, but Point of View. If a manuscript moves from one character’s first person voice to another, then a break is necessary for clarity.

    I saw a similar “list” for SMF the other day that advocated double spaces after a period. Wrong. Wrong. So wrong. The extra space would only have to be removed at typesetting anyway (and ditto with the underlining).

    The basic rule is this: follow the requirements for submissions listed on the website of the publisher or agent you are submitting your work to. If they vaguely say Standard Manuscript Format, then some of the above is true, but your best bet is always to adhere to any set requirements. If nothing else, it proves you can follow instructions.

  • NEB

    Here’s the advice I’ve received about formatting manuscripts being sent to British publishers who have not provided guidelines of their own:

    1. Indent the first line of every paragraph, with the exception of the first in each chapter or section.

    2. Don’t use spaces between paragraphs.

    3. Use a line space between paragraphs to indicate a section break – a change of scene, of viewpoint or to show time has passed.

    4. Use asterisks (*) to draw attention to a section break that falls somewhere where it might be missed e.g. at the bottom of a page.

    5. When writing dialogue, use a new paragraph for each new speaker.

    6. Use good quality standard A4 white paper.

    7. Print on one side only.

    8. Use 12pt Times New Roman, double-spaced.

    9. Set margins to at least 40mm on the left, 25mm top and bottom and about 13mm on the right.

    10. After the title page, begin the manuscript halfway down and place your name and contact details in the top right-hand corner.

    11. Place the page numbers in the top right-hand corner.

    12. Place the title at the foot of every page.

    13. Include a title page which should not be attached to the rest of the manuscript. It should have your name, address and contact details in the top right-hand corner. Put the title half-way down. Your name (or pen name) should appear beneath the title. The word count should appear at the bottom. If it is a short story being sent to a British mag, put ‘First British Serial Rights Offered’ or ‘FBSRO’ at the bottom.

    14. Use a paper clip for short manuscripts, a rubber band for longer manuscripts. Never staple unless requested to do so.

    15. Pack the manuscript flat without folding.

    And, in my experience, italics (rather than bold or underlining) seems to be an acceptable way of emphasising words … well, no one’s ever complained about me using it.

  • Simon Kewin

    NEB,

    Thanks for that. Yours is a very useful list. I must admit I’ve never put “FBSRO” (or whatever) on my manuscripts but I can see the sense of it if the magazine seeks a variety of different rights.

    And, yes, I do use italics myself too, and not had any complaints!

  • Simon Kewin

    Karin,

    I understand that Susanne is talking about POV. Having reiterated the standard advice for standard manuscript format, I was making the point that, in my experience, POV switches actually happen without a section break a very great deal of the time. It surprises me how often they occur mid-paragraph, actually.

    But, yes, I agree absolutely with what you say. Follow any specific instructions first. I was merely trying to compile a list of “standard” guidelines for when specifics aren’t provided.

  • Julie Ward

    I’m often baffled when I see punctuation outside of quotations. For instance:

    8. Left-justify your paragraphs. Right margins should be “ragged”.

    I’ve always read that punctuation is to be contained within quotations in a situation like this. Can you clarify?

  • Simon Kewin

    Julie,

    It’s a regional difference as I see it. Inside is, I believe, generally correct in the US (see this post). In the UK, where I am, If there was a complete sentence inside the quotes then we’d put the full stop there, but with a single word where a full stop isn’t logically part of the quotation (as with “ragged”) then we’d put the full stop outside as part of the containing sentence.

  • Precise Edit

    Great advice, Simon!

    Many authors with whom we work learned to write on typewriters, and their documents reflect typewriter techniques. Computers are not typewriters. When we help them prepare their manuscripts for submitting to publishers, we may have to spend a lot of time reformatting.

    Here are the 11 manuscript formatting techniques we wish all authors knew. Some are also in your list, which is great! (From the article “Basic Computer Skills for Authors” http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/basic-computer-skills-for-authors/ )

    1. Allow lines to wrap normally in paragraphs.
    2. Use page breaks (not the Enter key) to start a chapter on a new page. (hint: crtl+enter creates a page break in Word.)
    3. Use one space after a period, not two.
    4. Use automatic first-line indents instead of tabs or spaces.
    5. Double-space throughout the manuscript.
    6. Use one-inch margins all around the text.
    7. Use one extra line to separate scenes in a chapter.
    8. Don’t use blank lines after paragraphs (other than for #7)
    9. Use standard 12-point Times New Roman (or another standard serif font)
    10. Obtain a correct word count.
    11. Send pictures or book graphics to be included in the text of the manuscript as separate files.

  • Simon Kewin

    Precise Edit,

    Thanks for the additions and clarifications. You make some excellent points there, which could well have been included in the original list.

    Thanks,

    Simon.

  • Susan

    Thanks for all the good info. I’d like to know if an “Author’s Thanks” or Table of Contents should be included in a submission? I’m trying to figure out if the author information and word count should go immediately before the body of the manuscript (eliminating the “thanks” and table of content) or if it could go before the “Author’s Thanks.” Thank you.

  • Joyce

    What about em dashes? Should one use “–” or “—”?

    Should quotation marks be straight or curved?

    Thanks,
    Joyce

  • Simon Kewin

    Joyce,

    The usual advice in “Standard Manuscript Format” is to use a double dash (“–“) – although I must admit I always use a single one nmyself! As far as I’m aware there is generally no preference as regards straight or curved quotation marks.

  • Sana Rose

    I am a new writer, from India, working on my first novel. As much as I know I should be concentrating on writing now, I have problems with preparing a manuscript. Like, whether an author’s ‘Acknowledgments’ and ‘dedications’ can/should be included in the manuscript.
    Also, I want to know whether the traditional publishers in the US and UK accept soft copies sent through emails, which is better than sending hard copy through snail mail.

  • Greg

    One thing that I find disconcerting as a writer and doing research on questions I may have is that any two or three websites will differ in what they “instruct” as the correct way to format your manuscript. I think Simon did well with laying out the format under the Standard Formatting rules and with Susanne’s corrections I feel these rules are the best bet to follow.

    I do have a question, though. It is said that using the First Line Indent feature in Word is preferable to using tab. When you use Tab, the default is .5 and when you use First Line Indent, the default is also .5, however when I go “old school” and hit the spacebar 5 times, it actually matches up with a .2 indent. So, my question is concerning whether I should be using a .5 indent or adjusting the default to .2?

    Thank you

  • Marsha

    The one question I have that doesn’t seem to be answered here or on many sites that show formatting is how many lines do I go down when starting a new chapter? I know it’s not very many, but I don’t know if there is a rule of two, three or four specifically.

    I’m working on getting my husband’s book ready to be submitted.

    Thanks,

  • Jerry Friedman

    Quotes and apostrophes are curved and are for normal writing. Vertical “quotes” are not quotes at all, but indications of feet and inches, as in I’m 6’0″ tall. If your word processor doesn’t automatically use the right quotes, like this web site’s text editor, use a word processor that does.

    Thanks for the list here. Any advice on other typographical elements, such as Part and Section Headers? Side bar? Lengthy quotes by another author?

  • William Price

    As a would-be writer keeping within the many guidelines offered online by most LAs, my experience is that many LAs do not often update their own websites; some of them for many years!

    The amount of refusal slips I have received from LAs stating they no longer accept new author’s works has me baffled when I refer back to their website, which still states: “Seeking new authors”, and it is then when I get a little hot under the collar…time wasters methinks!

    The new craze now is of course, pay them to publish you. My, my, the regular closed-shop is now in full operation, globally.

  • Katrina

    If I’m using a quote from Neil Gaiman at the beginning of my story, how do I format it? Do I put it at the top of the page before the chapter number or on a separate page before the body of the work?

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