How “Fancy” Should Your Manuscript Be?

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader asks:

When sending in a manuscript, how much fancy things do you do? I mean the creative font of the, “Chapter 1,” or the swirly design that is sometimes in between paragraphs to demonstrate a lot of time has passed, or its a new scene. Does the publisher just decide it all?

Agents and editors do not want “fancy” in the manuscripts submitted to them.

Unless the agent or publisher you’re submitting to has guidelines that contradict these instructions, the following conventions are worth following.

1. Font: 12-point Courier or Times (or their variations).
2. Type style: Regular, not bold or italics
3. Page format: double-spaced, one-inch margins all round.
4. Print quality: inkjet or laser; fresh cartridge
5. Alignment: flush left (never justified)
6. Special spacing: extra line to indicate scene change or passage of time; (no fancy symbols or swirlies, just the space).

NOTE: Something that drives some editors wild is the presence of extra spacing between the paragraphs of a double-spaced manuscript. Students do this frequently because they type their drafts in single space with one space between paragraphs and then change from single- to double-spaced without deleting the space between paragraphs.

7. Chapter headings: the words “Chapter One/Two/etc” can be in the same size as the text (12 point). It’s ok to make “Chapter One” a little larger than your body type, for example 14-point instead of 12-point. Begin the new chapter about seven spaces from the top of the page.

8. Italics to indicate unspoken dialog, etc: Some guides on the web will tell you to underline anything that you want to appear in italics in the printed book. I don’t see much point in that. It seems to me that a page in italic type is easier to read than a page of underlined type.

Fancy type for chapter headings and interesting symbols between scenes can wait until the book is in production.

Visit The Rejecter to read an interesting discussion of manuscript formatting.

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13 Responses to “How “Fancy” Should Your Manuscript Be?”

  • Alberto Lung

    Nice post. Quick question… why NEVER Justify?

  • Iain Broome

    This is really interesting and I was aware of all of those apart from the never justify bit. Is there a reason for this?

  • Maeve

    I think it’s because justifying lines throws off the word count per page by creating more space between words.

  • PreciseEdit

    Based on our work with publishers and authors, I’ll add a few items (some of which might contradict what is above).

    1. Use tabs, not spaces, to indent the first lines of paragraphs.
    2. One space following a period, not two. We regularly have to remove the extra spaces when preparing manuscripts for publication.
    3. Absolutely no underlining to indicate italics. Use italics. Underlining is an old convention from typesetting days when people wrote by hand or on typewriters.
    4. Some authors use italics to indicate unspoken thoughts. This is a style choice. However, in a well-written story, the reader will be able to differentiate between narration and a character’s thoughts, so this is generally unnecessary. If italics are needed to indicate thoughts, the writing probably probably needs significant work.
    5. Start new chapters on new pages. Do this using the page break command, not by hitting enough times to reach the next page.

    Justifying the text has no effect on the word count per page. Justification, and other formatting issues, will be addressed in final layout. Only if an author is using a printer (as opposed to a traditional publishing company or a self-publishing company) should he or she apply formatting, such as justification.

    In every case, consult the publisher’s style guide for submissions. This is true of any type of publisher.

  • Peter

    2. One space following a period, not two. We regularly have to remove the extra spaces when preparing manuscripts for publication.

    Do you publish with French spacing?[*] Yuck. Your typesetting software should add more space (or at least, more “flex”; in tight lines there may not actually be more space) between sentences, and the only way for it to know for sure where a sentence ends (as opposed to a period in the middle of sentence, such as after “Mr.”) is for there to be some markup there – such as two spaces.

    [*] Note: “French spacing” means equal space between words and sentences. It’s often mistaken to mean the opposite, lately.

  • Zach

    Great advice! A manuscript must be all about the content.

  • PreciseEdit

    One versus two spaces after a period.

    This is an argument I have seen too many times. I’m always a little surprised when I see it pop up again, and I’m not going to rehash it here. Instead, I’ll quote Dave Collins, senior editor at Wingspan Press.

    “Don’t give away your age by putting two spaces after every period. That’s a convention from the non-proportional Pica days on the typewriter. Computer justification treats spaces as letters, and the double space will leave unattractive gaps in justified lines.”

    [Quote from the article “Preparing Your Manuscript for Submission,” found in the 2009 Writer Watchdog.]

    Zach: As you have rightly pointed out, the contents of the manuscript are far more important for publication purposes than the formatting. Most of our work (other than copyediting) is working with authors on the content. The formatting is the easy part.

    Kudos to Maeve for such a great topic and conversation starter!

  • Peter

    “Don’t give away your age by putting two spaces after every period. That’s a convention from the non-proportional Pica days on the typewriter. Computer justification treats spaces as letters, and the double space will leave unattractive gaps in justified lines.”

    Well, that’s just cluelessness. Unless you’re looking at it in a text editor – in which case you want double spaces anyway – computers treat spaces however they’re programmed to treat spaces, and typesetting/word-processing software that treats spaces as letters is simply broken. No wonder so much modern material is so badly typeset, with attitudes like this. (Don’t tell me, they think MS Word output is publication-quality copy!?)

  • Scott Rooks

    Very smart advise. Also always check with the publisher for submission guidelines as they all can be a little diferent but they all want perfection to their rules.

  • saeed


  • Karen

    Hello all,

    I am so glad that I found this blog!

    I’m not an author. I’m a virtual assistant who has been given the challenge of taking a 20-year-old, 450-page novel manuscript originally typed in a word processor program and retyping it from hard copy into soft copy (in Word) so that it can be edited and published.

    The original manuscript was typed in a font I don’t recognize and is also justified throughout. I know that the right should be a ragged edge, so I am formatting accordingly.

    I’m following what I *think* may be the standard manuscript formatting, but the more research I do, the more options seem to appear.

    I’m using Courier New, double-spaced, etc. I’m also indenting new paragraphs rather than adding an extra line between them. I’m starting new chapters on new pages and have tried to follow all the guidelines, but the one thing that I have found inconsistent is how to indicate “scene changes” within a chapter.

    Some say to use one space. Some say to use two double spaces. Some say to use the pound sign (#) or asterisk (*) to denote scene changes within a chapter.

    Does that really make a huge difference with most publishers? Your thoughts?



    P.S. Also, some materials I have read indicate new chapter and new scene paragraphs should NOT be indented, but other materials indicate that they should.

  • Karen

    Oops! I meant to say “the first paragraph” of new chapters and scene changes.



  • Kristin Fiore

    Just a note, 95% of websites I’ve been looking at for writers say to use underline rather than italics. They also mention 1.25″ margins, but that seems to be less of an issue.

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