There’s a reason for the standard manuscript format

In this day and age, many submissions are handled through email. Agents and acquisition editors will often look at the submissions sent to them on an electronic device, commonly a computer or tablet screen. For many submissions, the initial contact is contained in the body of an email (no attachments). If additional materials are asked for, agents and editors expect things to be in the standard manuscript format. Yet, agents and editors will still look at those added materials using electronic devices.

So, if everything is now electronic, why must we format our manuscripts using a format that was devised back in the day when everything was printed? Well, believe it or not, the standard manuscript format is very specific for a reason.

For those who don’t know, the standard manuscript format specifies not only the font and paragraph formatting, but it also defines paper size, headers and footers, and title page information. A manuscript formatted using standard manuscript formatting will use the following:

  • Courier 12pt (although Times New Roman and Arial are also acceptable in most cases)
  • letter paper
  • 1-inch margins
  • double-spaced lines
  • left justification of text
  • half-inch first-line indentation
  • chapter numbers and titles centered, in full capitals (using the same font as the main body text)
  • Name/TITLE/page# included on the upper right-hand corner on every page except page 1
  • all special text colors, highlighting, and hyperlinks are removed

Depending on the type of particular prescribed formatting you are using, italics might also be replaced with underlining; special characters (i.e., em-dashes and ellipses) might also be removed.

I could write a full post about exactly how to format your manuscript using the standard manuscript format, but why should I reinvent the wheel? Lara Willard has a step-by-step post on what you need to do using Times New Roman. However, many publishers request that you follow the SFWA format (detailed here and here).

The standardized formatting is actually for the benefit of the editor. When you remove any funky formatting, editors are able to focus on the words and the story itself. In addition, the standard format limits the word count for a given page to approximately 250 words. As such, the editor knows that if they have read through 50 pages, then they have read through 12,500 words. A 100,000-word manuscript should be in the order of 400 pages.

The little nuances of the prescribed format have their necessary uses too.

The first-line indentation allows for a reader to see where the paragraphs start. The left justification removes any bizarre line kerning that might occur on a given line. The double-line spacing helps to keep the lines separated, slowing a reader down, so they can focus on the details; the double-line spacing also allows for comments. The prescribed header helps to identify the manuscript.

All of this might seem minor and insignificant to the writer, but when you have a large number of pages to go through, as the editor, you NEED to work with a format that will give you known values.

When working with clients, I also like to receive manuscripts in the standard manuscript format. The modern world might be an electronic world, but I occasionally print manuscripts off, especially for short sections that I really need to focus on.

As mentioned in a previous post, the eyes register different things when they read off of paper. I can often be found with the red pen in my hand while reading work that I’m editing. However, when the cat jumps up into my lap and the pages go flying, I get extremely grumpy if a writer had neglected to include headers in their formatting — I struggle to work out which order the pages belong in.

For those pieces that are too long to print, I often convert the file to something that I can put on my Kindle. When a writer chooses to ignore standard formatting practices and doesn’t apply a first-line indentation, the result in my eReader is one long paragraph. This often causes confusion. (And for those who are wondering, I have encountered manuscripts where I was unable to change the formatting with a few clicks of the mouse, simply because a writer chose to not use standard word-processing practices.)

Whenever I come across a manuscript that doesn’t follow standard formatting, I do comment on it — regardless whether a writer is intending to self-publish or pursue traditional publication. As a freelance editor, I’m nowhere near as strict as publishing house editors are, so be warned now.

This industry is hard enough to break into; don’t give agents and editors a simple reason to reject your submission — such as not following standard manuscript formatting.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

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