A Beginner’s Guide to Formatting a Manuscript

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Sample Submission Guidelines

If you want to submit a manuscript to an agent, but don’t understand the basics of formatting on Word, this post is for you. To avoid the telltale signs of an amateur – using tabs or spaces to indent paragraphs, or returns in place of page breaks – follow this guide.

Typically, agents ask for manuscripts to be double spaced, 12pt font, Times New Roman (or equivalent). Sometimes they specify the margins. Each chapter should begin on a new page. If you want to get fancy, you can insert a table of contents. Here’s how.

  1. Show Formatting

Can you see formatting characters on your screen? If so, spaces will appear as tiny blue dots, returns look like a backwards ‘P’ with a double vertical line (¶), tabs show as an arrow and page breaks are a blue line with Page Break written in small font. If this isn’t showing on your document, look in the Home tab of the toolbar for the button with a return character and click it. Click it again and the symbols will disappear. I recommend leaving it on.

If you can’t find the return symbol, do an internet search for ‘Word show formatting Mac/PC[pick yours]’. Follow the instructions.

  1. Select text

Click and drag your mouse to highlight the text you want to change. If you want to apply something to the entire document, Command-A on Mac and Ctrl-A on PC will highlight all text. Be careful with select all, as you might lose tailored formatting such as dot points, bold or italics.

  1. Set fonts

The standard font is 12pt Times New Roman. Exceptions to this could be if you have used a different font for literary devices such as text messages, newspaper articles or diary entries.

Highlight the relevant text and use the dropdown menus in your toolbar for fonts. If you can’t find it, go to Format > Font and a new window will appear giving you options.

  1. Format Paragraphs

The standard is double spaced with a paragraph indent. Everything should be spaced this way, including newspaper articles etc for literary devices mentioned above.
Select the text (could be the whole document) and go to Format > Paragraph. Select the following:
Alignment – Left.
Indentation left and right – 0.
First line – 1.2 cm (0.5 inches) or thereabouts. Make sure you are using the correct units. In UK or Australia, it will be specified in mm or cm, but in the US, it will be in inches.
Spacing before and after – 0.
Line spacing – double.

If you used tabs previously to indent paragraphs, you will have to remove them. Select text, go to Format > Tabs. Select Clear all and click OK. If it works, great (it doesn’t for me). If  you used a number of spaces rather than tabs to indent the paragraph, go to Edit > Find > Replace. Put the number of spaces in the top box and zero spaces in the bottom one and click Replace All. Otherwise, it’s a labour of love to scroll through the document and find all the tabs (look like arrows) or spaces (look like a row of little dots) and manually delete them. Note, you must use show formatting (step 1) to see the tabs or the spaces.

  1. Format Document (Set Margins)

If margins have been specified, eg 30mm or 3.17cm, go to Format > Document and set left and right margins to the correct length. As above, make sure you are using the right units.

  1. Format Chapters

Start each chapter on a new page. Don’t use returns to get you to the next page, as the number of returns required will change as you edit. Delete any extraneous returns and place the cursor at the end of the chapter. Go to Insert > Break > Page Break.

  1. Format Headings

The simple option is to go through manually and select each heading and bold it and increase the size.

Optional extra: If you want a table of contents, one extra step can set you up for this. Highlight the chapter heading, then in the home tab of the toolbar, use Styles to select Heading 1. If you have two layers of headings, eg Parts and Chapters, use Heading 1 for Parts and Heading 2 for Chapters. If you don’t like the fonts set for the Headings style, you can change them by selecting Format > Styles. Select the style you want to change and click Modify. Choose your formats and click okay then Apply to All.

  1. (Optional) Table of Contents

Go to the place in the document where you want to place your Table of Contents (TOC) and choose Insert > Index and Tables. Select the TOC Tab, choose your format and click ok. It will insert a TOC with all the headings you have selected (you can specify how many levels of heading you wish to show, eg only the parts, or the parts and chapters). Page numbers will be inserted automatically.

The TOC doesn’t update automatically, so after edits that change the page a chapter starts on, place the cursor on the TOC and insert it again using the above steps. Or for a short-cut: on a PC, hold control-A and click F9, or on a Mac, hold control and click on the TOC, a box will appear, click Update field, and you can then select to update the entire TOC or page numbers only.

Hopefully, by now you have a beautiful looking manuscript. Any questions? Let me know and I’ll do my best to answer. Good luck with your submission!

Next time: an interview with Natalie Muller, Publisher at Black Cockie Press
Next writing blog: have a chuckle about My Top Three Editing Disasters

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