Proper Manuscript Format : September 2010

A reader writes to ask:

My memoir is divided into sections rather than having chapter titles. Some sections have as little as one chapter while the longest has seven. In a book I can see each section, which has a title and date range, having its own page to introduce the following chapter(s), but in a manuscript what is the proper formatting for this? Do I put the section title on the first line followed on the second line by the date range then half way down the page start the first chapter in that section and when a new chapter starts have a page break and start the new chapter half way down the next page? Or do I give each section it's own page and if so do I start the title half way down the page?

I suspect you might suggest I title each chapter but I'd rather not do that especially the way the book flows. So, I'm open to any and all suggestions. I just want to get it right and get going on sending it out to agents.

Also, I have seen conflicting information about where to start a chapter on the page. Some say half way down others say 12 spaces down. Perhaps I'm a stickler for perfection but as this is my first manuscript I want to give myself every opportunity for success.

Your question, if I follow it correctly, is about how to indicate large divisions in your book manuscript, divisions higher up than the chapter level. You're calling these large divisions "sections," but if you flip through a few novels from your bookshelf you might also find examples where they're called "books" or "parts." The Fellowship of the Ring, for instance, is divided into two large sections called "Book I" and "Book II," and each of those sections contains ten or twelve chapters.

In print, the section heading and/or title will often appear alone on its own page, the better to indicate a major division in the book. You shouldn't do it that way in your manuscript, though. Your initial idea is the right one, and is similar to the way I do it.

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Long quotations within your text


A reader writes to ask:

Is there a guideline for when you want to include the text of some other text within your story? I'm thinking of something like Barry Malzberg's Herovit's World where parts of the novel were actually exerpts from the main character's novel that he was writing. In print these show up in a different font from the main text. How would this be done in manuscript? Would it be like a block quote? Or something different?

A very interesting question, and one that applies equally to fiction and narrative non-fiction. The material quoted in your work could be excerpts from a character's novel-in-progress, as you indicated, or could include such items as personal letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, or any other large chunk of text that your characters might read or write.

I wasn't positive of my answer right off the bat, so I polled a panel of three expert copy editors and/or book designers. The responses I got back differed in some details and caveats, but the basic meat of their answers was the same:

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Meet the Courier family

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A reader writes to ask:

I have a question about font. In your article, you suggested that only Courier or Times New Roman should be used, and you strongly recommended Courier. My version of Microsoft Word apparently does not support the Courier font, but it does have New Courier. I have attempted, to no avail thus far, to determine what I might do to change my Microsoft Word to allow the Courier font. Is New Courier an acceptable alternative (preferable to Times New Roman) or would you recommend using Times New Roman, assuming I cannot get the old Courier font to work on my Word version?

I should clarify that when I refer to Courier, I'm speaking of all fonts in the Courier family. This would include Courier New (not "New Courier"), which is the actual Courier font included by default with most computer operating systems. Courier New is absolutely fine and correct for you to use in your manuscript.

Some writers who prefer to use a Courier font find Courier New too light and spindly for their tastes. A favorite substitute for these folks is Dark Courier, which is free to download and install (at least if you're a Windows user).

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Sentence spacing

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A reader writes to ask:

I have always used two spaces after the end of each sentence and someone recently said they believed that was no longer the correct method to use. Can you tell me if I should leave one or two spaces between each sentence in a paragraph or is it one of those inconsequential issues?

I receive more email on this topic than any other. For such a simple question, it stirs up plenty of passion, controversy, and bile on forums where these sorts of things are discussed. I would like to advise you that it's an inconsequential issue, but clearly it is not for many writers and editors.

The roots of this debate go way back to the days of typesetting by hand, when two different styles of sentence spacing emerged. French spacing was the practice of setting a single space between sentences, while English spacing meant using two spaces. The two-space method carried over into the realm of the typewriter when that device was invented. If you learned typing on a typewriter, you were no doubt taught to put two spaces after every sentence, and two spaces after every colon, too.

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Formatting nonfiction

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A reader writes to ask:

Love your clear instructions on manuscript preparation and am wondering if the formatting is the same for memoir?

Yes, exactly. You should format a personal essay the same as a short story, and book-length memoir the same as a novel.

These are, in fact, the same formats you would use for many types of general nonfiction. As you move into more specialized types of writing, however—journalism, academic writing, scientific writing, technical writing—more specialized types of formatting are required, and you should consult a relevant style guide.

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Setting off a new paragraph


A reader writes to ask:

Why not have a triple space between paragraphs? (Because of the double space between the lines, the paragraphs are not distinguished.)

I infer from your question that you're confused about how to indicate the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next. You don't see how this can be done without inserting any extra vertical space between the two. If each line on the page is the same distance from the one after it, in other words, how in the world can the reader tell where a new paragraph starts?

Several different styles of paragraph formatting exist, but for the purpose of this discussion I'm only going to talk about two. The first is called block format. Each paragraph in block format appears as a simple, left-justified block of text, with vertical space separating each paragraph from the next. Many business letters are written in block format, as are most types of online writing, including this blog entry.

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A reader writes to ask:

When sending stories via email attachment, some markets insist on RTF, so I'll go to my Open Office files, where all my stories are .DOC, formatted in Standard Manuscript Format (SMF), and save the .DOC as RTF. Opened as RTF, the first paragraph is lined double spaced and then everything else is single spaced between lines. Then every once in awhile, a market will send it back saying they want it SMF. They've called for RTF, but then they say SMF. Okay, so what should I do, go back to .DOC and send it? or is there something I can do to get the RTF to be double spaced between lines??

You are confusing file format with manuscript format. When a market asks for an RTF file, they are only talking about the file format (in this case, Rich Text Format), which has to do with how your document is actually stored on your computer disk and what word processors can read it. You still have to make sure that the contents of your RTF file are formatted according to standard manuscript format, and that means making sure it's all double-spaced.

Fortunately, that's easy to fix. After you export the document, open the new RTF file in Open Office. Hit CTRL-A to highlight the full document. Then go into the formatting menu and change the line spacing from single to double. That should get the full document double-spaced for you. Save it again and send.

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Choosing the right printer

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A reader writes to ask:

I came across your web site while searching for information on the correct way to format a manuscript. I failed to make a note about electronic file printing. Do you have any recommendations regarding the brand and model of a printer which can handle this type of printing?

I won't name any brands or models because almost any desktop printer you can buy these days is capable of producing a fine, readable manuscript. (It used to be advisable to avoid submitting dot-matrix printouts, but nowadays even those work plenty well enough.) I would suggest a laser printer over an inkjet or impact printer simply for the sake of speed, but you should look for something in a price range you're comfortable with, keeping in mind that paper plus toner or ink cartridges will be ongoing expenses.

Also, be sure to buy the correct high-quality paper to match your type of printer. Read the label before purchasing to make sure it's recommended for use with your printer.

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A reader writes to ask:

Thanks for all the useful, easy-to-follow information about formatting on your web site. If I were submitting pages by snail mail, I think I'd be set. But the vast majority of agents I'm planning on querying ask for sample pages along with the query letter, and ask that the pages be submitted by email in the body of the message. This seems to make irrelevant a number of issues of formatting. For example, if it's translated into plain text, then the font and the spacing and so forth, that's all suddenly out of my control. Can I assume most will be able to read emails in html? In which case I am trying to approximate the format the best I can or..? I can't find advice on this anywhere. Help!

Formatting submissions for inclusion in the body of an email is indeed a very different beast from formatting them for paper or as email attachments. These days it's rare to find someone whose email client doesn't support reading HTML, but you still don't want to try to duplicate standard manuscript format in email. Instead you should reformat the message to match the medium.

The generally accepted guidelines are to single-space the text of your story, double-space between paragraphs, and not indent the first line of paragraphs—in other words, to format it just like this blog entry, as if you were posting it online. (Some markets expect you to go so far as to place _underscores like these_ around emphasized text instead of underlining or italicizing. I think that's a little excessive myself, but it's probably important to editors who read email in a text-only client.)

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I wrote the original version of my manuscript formatting guide in 1993, modeling it after a much older two-page guide I received from Damon Knight in 1985. Back in those days, even for those who'd made the switch to composing prose on computers, the goal of formatting was to produce a document for submission that looked as much as possible like it had sprung to life rolling through the platen of a typewriter, offspring of holy intercourse between paper, typebar, and ink ribbon.

The world of writing and publishing has changed plenty in these past seventeen, or twenty-five, or God knows how many years. A manuscript used to be the mere blueprint for a printed book or story, instructions in a coded language to the typesetter who would laboriously rework the entire thing into clean, finished type. Now the gap between manuscript and book has shrunk to the size of a computer file. Electronic submissions mean that the only physical keystroke in the life history of a given letter in a published work may well be the one executed by the author himself.

The accepted and acceptable standards of manuscript formatting have evolved to reflect this. Proportional fonts are used more and more in manuscripts, while typographical tricks that were necessary on typewriters now no longer make sense. More and more writers are submitting manuscripts that would have looked unacceptable a decade ago, and more and more editors don't mind this one bit. With the almost complete dominance of the word processor, topics like word-count approximation and end-of-line hyphenation are no longer relevant to most of us. It was long past time to update my format guide to reflect this new reality.

You old-school writers and editors, don't worry. I won't abandon my Courier font and double sentence spacing (more on that topic in a future post) without a fight. If I have my way, the manuscripts I produce fifty years from now will look the same as the ones I produce today. But I did want to acknowledge that mores are changing, and that not everyone agrees anymore about what proper manuscript format even means.

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Looking for Bill's original properly formatted article on proper manuscript format? Click here.
Proper Manuscript Format Illustrated - Click here.
FLOG is Hugo- and Nebula-nominated author William Shunn's blog on manuscript formatting and preparation for fiction writers. It features formatting questions from real readers and writers like you. Submit your questions to format at shunn dot net. Identitying information will remain private. We regret that we can't always respond individually to submissions, and that we can't answer every question we receive.

About September 2010

This page contains all entries posted to Proper Manuscript Format in September 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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