Saturday, May 12, 2012

Organizing: Formatting Your Manuscript Like a Pro, by Randy Ingermanson

There aren't any ironclad rules on how to format the manuscript of your novel.

However, there are good ideas and bad ideas. Whenever I teach at conferences, I see all kinds of bad ideas. Bad ideas are bad because they make things hard on the editor or the agent. Bad ideas make you look like an amateur.

In this article, I'll explain some of the good ideas on formatting your manuscript.

Before I begin, I need to emphasize how critically important it is that you create and use a set of paragraph styles in your word processing software. To be specific here, I'll assume you're using Microsoft Word, which is the most common software.

To edit the standard set of styles in Microsoft Word, click the Format menu and then the "Style..." menu option. This brings up a dialog that lets you customize all the styles.

Most of the text in your novel should use the style "Normal" defined by Word. However, the default setting for the Normal style in Word is usually wrong for writing fiction, so you need to customize it as described below.

* Use a proportionally spaced font with a serif.

The issue is readability. A good font like Times Roman or Times New Roman is highly readable. Monospaced fonts like Courier feel old-fashioned and aren't as easy to read. Sans serif fonts like Helvetica are even harder to read.

* Use 12 point type.

Again, it's all about readability. Anything less than 12 point type is going to cause eyestrain for some editors and agents.

* Double-space the main body of your novel.

You do this by editing the Normal style so that the spacing between lines is 2. When you do this, the spacing between paragraphs is one blank line. You don't want any more than that, so make sure the style doesn't have extra space after paragraphs.

* Indent the first line of every paragraph half an inch.

You do this by editing the Normal paragraph style to make the first line indent half an inch. The WRONG way to do this is to type five spaces manually or type a tab character. The reason is that eventually a publisher will typeset your manuscript in Quark or InDesign, and if you've inserted spaces or tabs, they'll have to undo that to make it right.

* Use one-inch margins on both sides and on the top and bottom.

These are standard in the US. If you're using metric, a margin of 2.5 cm is almost the same as one inch.

* Use a footer on every page, with the page number centered horizontally.

Page numbers are a good idea, but they shouldn't get in the way of reading. The best place to put them is at the bottom of the page, in the center.

You don't need to preface the page number with the word "page". Editors are pretty quick to figure out why there is a lone number at the bottom of each page.

* Use a header on every page with your last name flush to the right margin.

The usual reason for using a header is the alleged nightmare scenario where two paper manuscripts fall on the floor and the pages get all mixed up.

I've been assured by a world-famous editor that this has never happened in the entire history of the world, but for some reason, just about everybody fears that it will, so you'll often see advice to put your full name and the title of your book in the header.

I have seen headers that contain the title, author's name, address, email address, and phone number.

In my opinion, less is more here. When an editor is flipping through the pages, the last thing you want is for her eyes to get distracted by all that info in your header.

There's a second reason I think putting your title in your header is a bad idea. The horrible truth is that your title probably isn't nearly as good as you think it is. About 50% of all working titles get changed before publication. About 10% of all working titles reek like a rat.

The real nightmare scenario is to have a dreadful title in the header of every single page of your fantastic manuscript. Then every time your editor flips a page, she's reminded of just how awful your title really is. Doubts begin to creep in about your sanity.

Don't do that to yourself. Your last name is all you need in the header to identify your manuscript. Really.

That's my opinion, anyway. Plenty of people disagree with me on this one.

* Begin the manuscript with a title page that has the title of the book centered on the page in a large type size. I typically use 36 point type. Use your best judgment on what size looks good. It depends on how long the title is.

Beneath the title, you can put a subtitle centered in normal size. Usually, the subtitle is "A Novel." You probably don't need anything more clever than that. If you think you do, then talk to three writers with more experience than you have.

Beneath the subtitle, put your name centered in normal size. If you use a pseudonym, use that here instead of your real name. If you have multiple authors, put each name on a separate line.

* Begin each piece of front matter on a separate page with a headline that tells what it is (Acknowledgments, Author's Note, and Dedication are some of the most common pieces of front matter). The headline should be in a larger font size than normal and it should be bold.

* Begin each chapter on a new page with a headline that says "Chapter __" and replace the blank with the number of the chapter. I normally use a special style for this that has a few lines of white space above it, so that the chapter headline is a couple of inches down the page. I also add in a little extra white space below the chapter heading.

* At the beginning of each scene, you might optionally include a dateline or other information centered in italics at the top of each scene.

I like to put the name of the viewpoint character here.
This is not standard, but I like doing it. It gives the reader an immediate cue on who she is for the next scene.

Editors have sometimes asked me if I really insist on doing this. I do. They've always been OK with that.

* Every time you have a break between scenes within a chapter, add some sort of visual cue. You can add an extra blank line -- that's the minimal amount you should do. Many authors use a line with three asterisks centered horizontally. That works for me.

* You have no business using underlines or boldface anywhere in the text of your story. This marks you out as an amateur.

* Using all-capital letters is also usually frowned on. Yes, I know that J.K. Rowling did this a lot in the Harry Potter series. When you're brilliant, you get a little extra license.

If you're not J.K. Rowling, then I strongly suggest you don't do this.

* Use italics sparingly. The trend these days is to use italics less often. I can justify italics for short sections of interior monologue and for emphasized words and for foreign words.

* I am going to be cruel here and allow you a grand total of one semicolon for your entire working career as a novelist.

This is just my opinion. There are tens of thousands of amateur writers who disagree with me.

There are probably one or two professional editors and agents who also disagree with me, so I won't insist that semicolons are on the same deadly level as underlining and boldface. But I have never seen a semicolon in a novel that couldn't be replaced by a period.

That's pretty much all the important things you need to know in order to format your novel.

Following these rules won't make bad writing magically good.

Following these rules will protect good writing from what my mother used to call "the appearance of evil."

Appearances matter.

If you don't believe me, try going into that five-star restaurant while ignoring the sign that says, "No shirt, no shoes, no service."

*This article is reprinted by permission of the author. Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 30,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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