How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: formatting that could make or break your manuscript


Welcome to Part Twenty-Nine of this popular series. This week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher shows you how to format your manuscript ready for submission to agents, publishers, et al. You may not think this deserves to be important, but it is – because it shows your professionalism and how serious you are about getting published.
How to write fiction without the fuss

Formatting your manuscript

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of writers: those who write in small chunks, which they edit carefully as they go, before moving on to the next; and those whose story pours out of them from start to finish, after which they return to edit and redraft.

If you are one of the first, you will probably want to get your manuscript in the right format at the outset; if you are one of the second, you will very likely do this job at the end.

Either way, ensuring your manuscript is correctly formatted is essential if you are going to submit it to an agent, publisher or editor. Why? Because it makes your work easier to read, to assess, to mark up and, in due course, to typeset. Additionally, because there are publishing industry standards which, if you appear ignorant of, or choose to ignore, make you look unprofessional, unhelpful and reduce your chances of being considered as a serious author.

The guidelines I’m going to give you are the basic formatting rules for fiction manuscripts, but many agents and publishers have their own specific requirements which they make clear on their websites or in publicity material, usually as “Submission Guidelines”. Rule 1 is to find, read and follow these – do not make the mistake of thinking it won’t matter if you don’t, or your own formatting ideas are better. You may well have to make changes, large or small, to your manuscript for each organisation you submit to. If you want to get a foot in the door with them – just do it!

How to format your manuscript without the fuss

Use only one font (typeface) throughout, for all body text and headings too. Stick to a common, much used font rather than something you consider more attractive or original. If you’re sending a manuscript electronically, you want to be sure the recipient has the same font on their computer, or your formatting may appear wrong to them. The two safest are Times New Roman, a serif font which some publishers prefer and may request, for fiction; and Arial, the most commonly used sans-serif typeface. Whichever one you use, stick to it – don’t try to get creative by putting some sections in a different font, or trying to represent, say, handwriting with a cursive font. This is a job for a typesetter, not the author.

Whichever font you choose, the size should be 12pt and black throughout. Make headings bold, and emphases, titles and non-English words italic (do not underlinethis was used in written or typewritten manuscripts to indicate what should be italicised in typeset). Do this by highlighting and using the tabs for bold and italic; do not change the typeface to, for instance, “Arial Bold” or “Times New Roman Italic”. Do not use CAPITALS for emphasis – or bold italics, come to that.

Margins, spacing and indentation

Margins should be one inch all around the page (this is the default margins setting for MS Word).

Line-spacing should be 1.5 (especially if your manuscript is very long) or double-spaced. (Synopses, though, are single-spaced so you can get them onto one page.)

Paragraphs should either have two line returns between them, or start the first line with an 0.5” indent, but not both. If you choose to indent paragraphs, the opening paragraph of a chapter or section should not be indented. Indents should be created with a tab, not by pressing the space bar several times. Fiction is traditionally typeset with indented paragraphs and some agents and editors like to see this in a manuscript. As an editor and publisher, I personally prefer non-indented paragraphs with a double space between them as they are easier to mark-up and make less work for a typesetter.

Full stops/periods should be followed by one space only – not two. Older writers, who learned on a typewriter, will have been taught to put two blank spaces after a full stop. This is no longer needed on computers, which produce more accurately spaced documents, and is not correct in manuscripts today. If you’ve left two spaces after every period in your story, it’s simple to change in Word: click on the “Search” boxes at the bottom right hand of your screen; click on “Find” and type two spaces; click on “Replace” and type one space; click on “Replace All”.

Line breaks should only be made at the end of paragraphs; don’t put in any hard returns in the middle of paragraphs to make a line end neatly. The whole shape and look of the manuscript will change in typeset and any interventions like this on your part will create extra work for the typesetter.

First page, headers and footers

On your cover page, which should have single line spacing, put your name and contact info on the upper left hand side of the page; genre and word count (rounded to the nearest thousand) on the upper right (both single-spaced). If you are represented by an agent, the contact details should be theirs.

small__8892894677Your title, centred and in capitals, goes a third of the way down the page; two lines below put “by,” and two lines below that, your name.

From the second page – the start of your story – you should be in double or 1.5 line spacing. Chapter headings should be in bold and can either be centred or justified to the left. The body text should be justified to the left only, leaving it “ragged” on the right hand side.

The Header should start on the second page of your manuscript and should consist of, on the left, your title (or part of it, if it’s very long) followed by a slash and your surname; on the right, the page number (starting from “1” on the second page).

The Footer can be used for a copyright assertion, best in a smaller font (8pt – 10pt), such as: How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss © Lucy McCarraher, July 2013. (The copyright sign is produced in Word by typing (  c  ) with no spaces.)

Chapters should start on a new page, but there is no need to leave a blank page between chapters.

Dots and dashes…

Dots, Leader Dots or ellipsis, as they are really called, which indicate an unfinished thought or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence… should be formatted like that. Three (no more) dots immediately after the last word, with a space before the next word.

Dashes come in two forms: en-dashes are the short ones used to hyphenate two words; em-dashes are the longer ones often used in place of brackets or to indicate speech has been broken off. (Create an em-dash in Word by typing an en-dash, immediately followed by a hard return, then a backspace to return to the end of the now longer dash.) The oft-asked question is, should there or should there not be spaces around em-dashes? In the US there is more of a preference for no spaces–like this. But in the UK, always have a space before and after an em-dash – like that.

Quotation marks come in doubles or singles for speech and quotation. The modern preference is to use singles, ‘like this’, with doubles for quotes within quotes. Italicise (without quotation marks) the titles of books, newspapers, journals, albums and TV shows, but not the titles of songs or articles, which should be unitalicised in quotation marks. Actual quotations of no more than two or three lines go within quotation marks as part of a paragraph; longer quotations form a separate, indented paragraph without quotation marks.

Numbers from one to nine are generally written in letters, while those from 10 upwards go in numerals.


Above all, be consistent in your formatting. If you are unsure of a correct, or whether to use a UK or US, spelling, make a decision and stick with it. Don’t write “OK” sometimes, “ok” at other times, and “okay” occasionally. Similarly, don’t use double quotation marks around some dialogue and singles around others – unless you have a typographical reason to do so. Nothing drives an editor madder! Again, it makes you look unprofessional and as if you haven’t bothered to consider such things.

Next week, in our final piece, we will look at presenting your now perfectly formatted manuscript to agents, publishers and editors: how to write a synopsis and covering letter.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

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