The art and craft of beautiful manuscript presentation
Manuscript presentation makes a big difference to the way literary agents receive your work. Yes, sure, agents are looking for wonderful writing above all, so in that sense the way you format your manuscript is secondary . . . but getting an agent is hard, so you may as well make sure that first impression is a good one.
And of course remember this: literary agents aren’t mostly looking to accept a manuscript. They’re looking for early warning signs that say this author hasn’t taken enough care to be worth reading further. So lousy presentation can screw up your chances of success before your book has really given itself a chance.
It doesn’t need to be. Follow the tips below and you’ll be fine.
Format Your Manuscript Professionally:
- Use double or 1.5 line spacing
- Use a standard font
- Use font size 12
- Use standard margins
- Chapter breaks should be marked by page breaks
- Insert page numbers
- Indent paragraphs
- Don’t overuse the ellipsis… Or, exclamation marks!
- Title pages should also include your name, contact info, and wordcount
What Is A Manuscript?
Definition of manuscript
There’s a difference between a manuscript and a book, and it’s much the same as the difference between a writer and an author. A writer is anyone at all who writes. An author is a writer whose work has been published
The same thing is basically true of manuscripts / books, so a reasonable definition of the word ‘manuscript’ would be:
A manuscript is the text of your novel (or work of nonfiction),
before that text has been turned into the finished book.
In the old days, when the industry still worked with paper, the manuscript was literally the stuff you printed off on your home printer. When I sent my first manuscript out to literary agents, the damn thing ran to more than 180,000 words and it was enormous. Over 600 pages of printed paper, as I recall.
These days, your manuscript may well never be printed off at all, anywhere
Quite likely, you will work away at your manuscript on a laptop. You’ll send it to an agent by email. Any editorial work will be conducted by email and an e-copy of your manuscript. When the thing is ready to go out to publishers, it’ll go as a computer file, only.
It’s referred to as a manuscript though: it’ll only become an actual book once it’s been typeset and bound (and becomes an actual hard copy, dead-tree book), or once it’s been formatted and packaged up as an ebook. (As a matter of fact, I think some of the kudos that still attaches to trad publishing as opposed to self-publishing has to do with the way it marks out that transition.)
So your manuscript is basically just a computer file that lives (for now) on your home computer only, but may in time come to sit on the e-reader of your literary agent and (you hope) a whole bunch of editors too.
While the manuscript remains on your laptop and nowhere else, then you can format it just as you please. There are no rules at all. No one will see. No one will care.
I know one (really good) literary author who has poor eyesight and weirdly bad spelling. So he types in a huge font size – Arial, size 16, often all bold – and just ignores the spelling errors.
If he sent out his work out like that, it would make a terrible first impression on anyone reading it. But he doesn’t. That’s just the way he works..
So manuscript formatting rules only apply when you’re ready to go out to agents . . . and even then, you need to realise that there are no rules, exactly. There’s no standard manuscript format. No required novel template that you have to follow, or else . . .
So the only real rule of manuscript presentation is a simple, ordinary one:
Your manuscript should look like a clean, professional document.
If you obey that one single rule, you’ll be just fine. That said, there’s a follow-up quasi-rule, which can be expressed as:
You probably want to set out your manuscript in a way that is most helpful to a literary agent.
Those guys read a lot of new manuscript submissions, so if you make their life harder, you are – even if just in a small way – acting against your own best interests.
Ways you can make an agent’s life easier include:
- Helpful choice of filenames
Maybe the file on your computer is called novel.doc, because you hadn’t settled on a title when you started to write. That’s fine – plenty of my novels have started out that way too. But remember that an agent may be looking at your submission alongside 50 others. So don’t call your documents novel.doc / synopsis.doc / query.doc – you’ll confuse the agent almost instantly. Best practice would be to name your file something like The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald, first three chapters.doc. [Except I think that title might already have been taken . . .]
- Clean, clear title page
I’l give more detail on that in a second
- No unnecessary additional text
Your manuscript is just a working document, that has – prior to publication or the offer of a book deal – no special status in life. So don’t write dedications in here. Or Author’s Notes. Or long acknowledgements. If there”s a really compelling reason why you need to do these things, then OK. But in most cases, all that stuff can wait.
- Easy readability for the main text itself
More on that shortly as well!
Oh yes, and I should probably also say that in the screenwriting trade, there are fierce and important rules about formatting. They matter because of an equation like this: length of screenplay = run time = production costs. That equation does not apply to you novelists or non-fictioneers, and the result is that publishing industry requirements about format are much looser. And quite right too!
Manuscript Title Page Format
Applies both to novels and non-fiction books.
Your title page should contain:
- The book’s title in a large font
- A subtitle, if the book has one. Most novels won’t.
- A quick genre specifier, if you want it. “A crime thriller”, for example. I’ve added “A novel” to the page below, only because this page was prepared for the American market where “a novel” is quite often used as a kind of subtitle.
- Your name
- The book’s rough word count, rounded to the nearest 1,000 or 5,000 words
- Your contact info (Email, phone, address) in the bottom right hand corner, or otherwise somewhat secondary
It doesn’t need anything else. It doesn’t need and shouldn’t have a copyright notice. (See an example of the title page for one of my novels.)
Oh, and NO ARTWORK. Unless you are a professional illustrator, say, you just want to keep the front cover bare of anything except text. Remember that the publisher, not you, will decide what the final book looks like, so sticking your own imagery on the book will, in most cases, look a awkwardly amateurish.
Epigraphs, dedications, acknowledgements and all that kind of stuff can be left for when your book makes it into print. At this stage, you really don’t need that kind of thing. If you really must put in an epigraph, you can certainly do so on the second page or (probably italicised) on the cover itself.
Your cover page would ideally not have any page number on it but, as you can see from the image, I didn’t bother eliminating the number from my title page. It’s no big deal.
Manuscript Text Formatting Guidelines
Follow this broad template, and you’ll have a happy literary agent . . .
The following guidelines will mean that you deliver the kind of manuscript that any literary agent will instantly consider professional and easy to navigate. If you want to deviate from any of these exact strictures, you probably can.
The golden rule is to deliver something that looks like any normal, professional document AND one that is laid out like a book, not a business letter. (ie: indented paragraphs not line breaks in between.) And even that rule about indenting the paragraphs is often not followed by first time writers.
But are literary agents going to turn down great work just because they don’t love the paragraph formatting? Of course not. So don’t worry too much.
OK, enough preamble. For a nice looking manuscript, you want to present it in something like the following way:
- Use double or 1.5 line spacing.
- Use a nice ordinary font. (Times New Roman, Garamond, or Georgia are all good choices. Arial is quite common, but maybe better avoided as sans serif text is just harder to read at length.)
- Use a font size no smaller than 12, and no larger than 14.
- Use standard margins. Your existing defaults are probably fine, but check.
- Chapter breaks should be marked by page breaks, so each new chapter starts on a clean sheet.
- You can mark each new chapter with a number, if you care to. Or anything at all, really, just so long as it’s clear what’s going on. (If you’re worried about how long your chapters are, then read this and put your mind at ease).
- Don’t forget to insert page numbers (though, truth be told, all that matters less now that everything happens in e-form. It’s still a nice touch.)
- Indent paragraphs (using the tab key or the paragraph formatting menu – don’t rely on the space bar). Do not leave a double space between paragraphs except as a section break.
- Oh, and don’t overuse the ellipsis (“…”) or the exclamation mark. Professional authors use those things very sparingly.
This page shows my own choices: a nice looking chapter header (but mine is a lot fancier than you need.) Modest paragraph indentation, I like 0.3″. A personal, but not wacky font. (I usually use Garamond, though I’m not quite sure what I used in this example!) Line spacing that’s clear, but not too spacy. (I use generally use 1.5 line spacing, though you can go as low as 1.25 if you really want.) Plus a nice neat page number, of course.
It would be good practice to include your name and the title of the book in a header or footer, though I haven’t done so in this image.
Oh, and did you notice that the very first paragraph in that page was not indented? That’s technically correct and looks quite classy . . . but don’t worry if you haven’t done it. At that level, no one will care. (And that’s one big thing to remember about manuscript presentation. You need your work to look clean, professional and literate. If you check those boxes, then you’re fine. Really, truly, nothing else matters – except the quality of your actual book, which needs to be amazing.)
Manuscript Format: Dialogue Presentation
This isn’t a full guide to dialogue format, so do check more complete sources if you need, but for a quick refresher:
- Dialogue counts as new paragraphs, so it should be indented.
- When speech by one character is interrupted by a descriptive line, and then the speech continues, this all counts as one paragraph. Begin the next paragraph with the next speaker.
- Use single quotation marks for dialogue. When dialogue is followed by ‘said X’ or ‘chortled Y’ you should not capitalise either the s of said or the c of chortled. This is true even if the dialogue ends with an exclamation mark or a question mark.
- If the speaker quotes someone else within dialogue, you show that inner quotation with double inverted commas. Like this, for example: ‘No,’ said Hugh patiently. ‘What Sophie actually said was, “Go to hell, you bloody idiot!” Words to that effect anyway.’
- For more help on writing dialogue in the first place, then nip over here.
Again, though, that rule about quotations within dialogue is hardly ever going to matter . . . and no one at all will care if you get it wrong. It’s your novel or non-fiction which matters!
Dialogue Format: An Example
‘This manuscript is nicely presented,’ said the agent.
‘Indeed it is,’ said the publisher. She paused briefly, to strike off a few zeros from an author’s royalty statement. ‘It is well presented. And intelligent. And beautifully written.’
‘But Oprah won’t like it.’
‘No, indeed. Nor the Chief Buyer at Walmart.’
‘So we’ll reject it!’ they chorused, laughing wildly.
Their limousine swept on through the rainy streets, leaving a faint aroma of cigar smoke and Chanel no. 5 lingering on the mild springtime air.
Use the example above for guidance – or, if in doubt, open any paperback book. The way it’s laid out is the way yours should be.
Manuscript Presentation: Punctuation Basics
Your presented manuscript needs flawless punctuation. A few last tips.
- There is one general rule for punctuation. It is there to help avoid ambiguity.
- Commas are tricky, but often missed out before names. Get into the habit of putting them in and you will avoid absurdities like ones noted by Lynn Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
- Hyphens are an endangered species, and only the writer can save it. Again, it is vital to avoid ambiguities and absurdities – for instance, the white toothed whale. Is it the whale or the teeth that are white?
- It is a good rule to avoid lists of adjectives but, when you have them, check to see if any should be hyphenated. You can have a dining room, but a table there becomes a dining-room table.
- Semi-colons are also endangered, yet can bring a deal of subtlety to a writer’s style. A semi-colon links two related sentences; the second often elaborates or adds context to the first. A semi-colon is stronger than a comma, not as strong as a full-stop.
- Colons are used where one sentence introduces another. The rule is simple: use the colon when one sentence introduces the next.
The three mistakes that our editorial team sees most commonly are these:
- Not enough use of commas.
Commas are like a tiny pause within a sentence and they can divide sentences into little blocks of meaning. They can make (especially) long sentences much easier to parse and comprehend. And commas are free. Use them!
- Use of commas instead of fullstops / periods.
Yes, we like commas, but commas aren’t there to divide one sentence from another, if you use commas where you mean to use fullstops (periods), you will end up with sentences that never seem to end, writing of this sort will drive your editor mad, punctuation-related homicides are rising sharply as a result. (*)
- Misuse of apostrophes
The mistake which will have most agents screaming has to do with apostrophes. These are simple, so get them right. (‘It’s’ means ‘it is’, It’s raining, for example. ‘Its’ means the thing belonging to it, The mouse gnawed its cheese, for example – and ‘its’ is correct. No apostrophes are added to other possessive pronouns like his or hers, either.) If you’re unsure, look these things up.
* – Oh and if you wanted to know how that sentence ought to look, it’s like this:
Yes, we like commas, but commas aren’t there to divide one sentence from another. If you use commas where you mean to use fullstops (periods), you will end up with sentences that never seem to end. Writing of this sort will drive your editor mad. Punctuation-related homicides are rising sharply as a result.
If you wanted a semi-colon instead of a period after “mad”, that would be very elegant and your editor would probably want to give you a kiss. Instead of shooting you. Which has gotta be a win, right?
Writing a book is hard. Getting an agent is hard. Getting published – well, that’s still harder.
And getting well published? Actually making a career out of this thing? That’s never been even remotely easy, and (if you’re talking about traditional publication) may be harder than it’s been for decades.
So get help. Don’t start spending crazy money, but get help.
Did you know, for example, that we at Jericho Writers have an entire video course on Getting Published that covers everything you need to know, soup to nuts, nothing left out? That’s ten hours of tuition from a presenter whose books have sold worldwide, hit bestseller lists and been adapted for the screen . . . and issued by Jericho Writers, a company that has helped hundreds of authors like you right through to publication.
Now, OK, that course isn’t cheap (take a look – yikes!), but we make that course available to members of our club completely free. And they get full access to our How To Write course. And our filmed masterclasses. And our amazing Jericho Cinema. And AgentMatch, the world’s premier literary agent search tool. And so much more besides.
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
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