How NOT to Format Your Manuscript

In my day job as an editor in educational publishing, the formatting of a sample manuscript can determine whether I hire a freelance writer or editor, before I even read a word. If a freelancer hasn’t mastered the basics of producing a clean Word document, I don’t have time to work with them.

Some of the same formatting issues crop up in manuscripts submitted to our critique group. I don’t know whether bad formatting hurts your story’s chances with agents and editors, but I’m sure it NEVER helps. So, as a public service, here are some things NOT to do when formatting your manuscript, followed by some advice on what TO do.

Let’s start with two Word (.docx) files. NOTE: Click any image to enlarge it, in this post.

Good format, HIDE formatting
Bad format, HIDE formatting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viewed like this, both files look good. The headers have the right information. The font is Times New Roman 12. The text is double spaced and has the correct indents. These two files look the same when printed on paper or to a pdf. They even look good in a Word file when the formatting is set to HIDE.

SHOW formatting tells a very different story. Double-click the “Home” tab to show the ribbon, and then click the paragraph symbol to SHOW.

Click the paragraph symbol to SHOW formatting marks.

 

 

 

 

Good format, SHOW formatting
Bad format, SHOW formatting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh no! The Bad Format file uses tabs and spaces instead of alignment and indent tools. A closer look reveals that the header resides in the body of the text, rather than in the top margin where it belongs. That means the header must be repeated on every page, with careful attention to moving it whenever the number of lines on each page changes.

Could Bad Format possibly be worse? Yes. Picture book manuscripts (especially) are sometimes formatted like this:

Bad double spacing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hard returns at the end of every line is bad enough, but extra returns to create double spacing? Even typewriters had settings to avoid that!

 

 

 

 

Do your manuscripts look like this? Don’t despair. You can fix them. These hints and tips are about Microsoft Word, but similar tools appear in Google Docs, Scrivener, and other writing software.

Let’s start at the top:

HEADERS

Start by putting your document in “Print Layout” instead of “Draft.”

 

Then double-click the top or bottom margin of the document to open the header and footer. (Clicking either place opens both.) Your cursor is now in the header, where you can add your text.

Bad Format has its head in a bad place.
Good Format has its head on straight.

You can number your pages automatically using the “Page Number” menu at the far left. Be sure to first place your cursor where you want the page numbers to go in the header. Then, choose “Current Position” and “Plain Number” from the dropdown menu, as shown below. If you choose any other kind of page number, it will wipe out the author name, book title, and email address. You can even leave the number off the first page. (Click the boldface words for a link to instructions.)

TEXT ALIGNMENT

You don’t have to guess how to center the text. First, select the lines that you want to center. Then select the icon with the centered lines from the menu, as shown.

Instead of doing this . . .
. . . click this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’ll need to delete the extra tabs and spaces after centering the text.

PARAGRAPH INDENTS

First, select the text you want to indent. You can select the whole document using “Control-A.” Then hold down the SHIFT key and use your cursor to select the top part (downward pointing arrow) of the gizmo in the ruler. Slide the top part of the gizmo across to set the indent. Save your file and stop selecting all the text. Then delete the tabs and indents.

Instead of this . . .

 

 

 

 

. . . do this.

 

 

 

 

DOUBLE SPACING

Select your whole document using “Control-A.” Then, on the “Home” tab of the Word ribbon, click the page spacing menu and choose 2.0.

It’s tempting to use 1.5, but don’t. You’d be surprised how many people can tell the difference just by looking at a printout; that includes critique partners as well as editors and agents.

 

MORE HELP

  • Jen Malone has a fantastic post on this blog called How to Format a Manuscript that describes the basics of preparing a manuscript for submission.
  • Tutorial: Word 2016 on GCF LearnFree.org
  • Navigating the Microsoft Word Toolbar on Wikihow.org
  • Google search: Type in your question and see what comes up. Chances are that there’s an answer out there.
  • Local Courses: Many libraries, local governments, and community colleges offer free or low-cost training in Microsoft Office applications, including Word. It may not be as exciting as a course in plot or character-building, but it’s a worthwhile investment in your writing life, if you need it.

Have questions? More hints and tips? A great resource to recommend? Please share in the comments.

23 comments

  1. There are so many writers and editors who are working on the MS word. Actually, it provides various features to make the publishing the manuscript easy. Many writers prefer to do formatting the manuscript for publishing but I can’t suggest you to do that as it is not so helpful.

    Like

  2. A great post, I do have a quick question. When using double line spacing, in MS Word there is an option to “Remove space after Paragraph” without this, which is default it would seem, there is a gap between paragraphs; this is very noticeable especially with a large amount of dialogue. Should you remove these spaces, or are they fine to remain?

    Like

    1. Hi Simon, I think the goal is to make your manuscript as readable as possible, so the reader notices your words and not their formatting. If the gap between paragraphs is very noticeable, then that will get in the reader’s way and your work would show better if you remove the spaces. My version of Word has a check box for “Do not add space between paragraphs of the same type” which I am guessing is the same as “Remove space after paragraph” in yours. I usually check that box to prevent the extra space between paragraphs. Hope this helps!

      Like

  3. Thank you for all the great info. Wish I had known this when I started. Now I’m ready to submit and have fixed most of the problems except one. I can’t seem to find a way to delete the extra line between paragraphs. I assume manually deleting them is a no no. What is a better way?

    Like

      1. It is a visible line because I originally made 2 paragraph returns instead of 1 like I should have. I’ve tried reformatting it in layout/paragraph, and even select the “don’t add space between like paragraphs” and it looks good in the example box, but I click ok and it still goes right back to having extra blank lines after the paragraph. I selected 0 before and 0 after, but it doesn’t do what I tell it to. I even tried making a new document, formatted correctly then copy the entire manuscript into the correctly formatted document, the extra lines are still there and won’t go away. I have a meeting with two agents this week and I’m desperate to get it formatted correctly before then. Also, they said to bring my manuscript. How do I do that. Surely not on paper. On a flash drive? and how do I package that, in an envelope with my business card? As you can tell, my first book. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

        Like

  4. I think I’ve got most of this, but there are so many small details. I’ll by combing through this a few more times. Thank you so much.

    Like

    1. Tiffany, thanks for commenting! This was exactly my goal, to make writers aware of straightforward “manuscript housekeeping” errors that could be getting in the way of their stories’ success. Good luck!

      Like

  5. Marianne, can I say wow?!? This is incredibly informative and oh so useful. Formatting is always in the back of my mind, but whenever I start a new manuscript, I conveniently forget. I echo that formatting paragraphs is the toughest part.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Laura. Just remember, you can always adjust formatting later on, and it doesn’t have to be done line by line. You can also do some of these things right up front, before you start working. Type a dummy paragraph, choose the whole file, and format. Then everything going forward is formatted the same way. You’ll note that I didn’t tell you how to change your default paragraph settings. That’s because… shock and amazement… I DON’T KNOW HOW! Or rather, by the time I actually learned how, I’d already figured out my own simple workarounds and they worked, so I saw no reason to change my habits. Which only underscores what I say to Joyce, below: Word provides multiple ways to achieve the same ends, and whatever works for the writer is what’s best.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Your post is helpful, Marianne. I have a question and an additional item. I have been formatting paragraph indents using the paragraph format part of the ribbon rather than by adjusting the little margins arrows as you have done. Is there an advantage to either? Also, you say, “You can even leave the number off the first page.” However, you don’t mention how. On my version of Word when I format my header I also click on “different first page”. that eliminates the header from showing on your first page and begins the numbering correctly as page 2 on page 2. Is this a normal practice? I’ve been doing that all along assuming that it is correct not to see the header on the first page of the document. Which is better?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paragraph indents: You’ve pointed out a great example of how Word has multiple ways to achieve the same result. It doesn’t matter what path you use, as long as the indent is there. I prefer manipulating the ruler but the popup works just as well.

      Leaving numbers off the first line: The post was getting long, so I linked the boldface words “leave the number off the first page” to instructions. But thanks for adding instructions to the comments! Like you, I’ve always assumed this was best practice. In typeset materials, it’s standard to omit running heads or running feet (those lines next to the page number that tell you what book or chapter you’re in) on pages that carry that information; I assume that’s why we omit the header or footer on the first page of a manuscript (its “title page”), which likewise carries the manuscript’s title and authorship. To me this is minor compared with the presence or absence of a header and page numbers for the file as a whole.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s