Proper Manuscript Format : Book Design

A reader writes to ask:

I just wanted to know if you still include a header on the first page of your chapters, and if you still use Courier 12 in your manuscripts - as shown in your venerable novel manuscript format example template?

Is there a way to set headers to recognize the first page of chapters, and delete headers from these pages, if we wanted to?

To answer your first question, if I didn't still format my book manuscripts that way, I wouldn't still format my sample novel manuscript that way. What you see on that page is what I still do, and what I will continue to do until I see a compelling reason not to.

And speaking of compelling reasons not to, why on earth would you want to eliminate page headers from the first pages of new chapters? For aesthetic reasons? A book manuscript is a functional document. It has a job it needs to do, and part of that job is to have a header at the top of every page. The manuscript is supposed to be a blueprint for the finished product, not to look like the finished product. Just because published books usually don't have headers on the first pages of chapters doesn't mean the same should be true for your manuscript, no matter how weird it looks to you.

You don't know what an editor might do with your manuscript. Even if he receives it electronically, he may print it out before he reads it, in which case those page headers will be important when two manuscripts accidentally get knocked off his desk together.

Now, to answer your actual second question, yes, there is a way to remove the headers from specific pages, but in Microsoft Word it's hideously complicated. (You have to put invisible section breaks at the beginning and end of the page, and then remove the header from the section containing that page.) In WordPerfect it's much easier: you simply put a Suppress Header code at the top of the page, which is one of the many reasons I still use it.

But for the love of God, don't do it. That is all.

Testifying with boldface

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A reader writes to ask:

Is the occasional Bold word in a manuscript okay? Because every time I change point-of-view, I leave an empty line (which from now on will be filled with a #), and make the first word of the next paragraph bold, just to make it clear to the reader that the point of view has shifted. Or will that depend on who I send my manuscript to?

Your questions evoke a whole thicket of intertwined issues which I will attempt to unbraid for you. The first of these has to do with how best to indicate a point-of-view shift in your fiction. There's no right or wrong way to do this. Some writers feel no compunction about switching POVs without any typographical indication, which is fine if you have enough control over your omnicient narration. Using a scene break or even a chapter break to indicate the shift is the more common technique, and should be sufficient in and of itself. The first couple of sentences after the break ought to make the POV change perfectly clear without any need to employ trickery like boldface words.

This raises our second issue, which is the proper use of boldface text. Boldface is not seen much in fiction, at least not within the text itself. It is seen most commonly in non-fiction, where it is used to emphasize keywords and terms that relate to the subject at hand. From time to time you might see it employed in fiction for typographical effect—for instance, to indicate text that appears on a computer screen, perhaps in an instant-message exchange, or to highlight some other kind of quoted passage. It's rare enough, though, that in the olden days there wasn't a good way to indicate boldface from your typewriter keyboard. Instead, you had to draw a squiggly line directly on the page underneath the text you wanted emphasized.

Then why, you ask, do you see the first few words of a chapter or scene rendered in boldface in so many books? That's a stylistic choice that the book designer has made, not the author. This is the third issue for you to understand, that many of the typographical elements you see in a published book were applied by members of the publishing team during production. These are essentially decorations that are intended to make the text more visually appealing. They're not things you need to worry about as you're working on your own manuscript.

Just do your best to make POV changes clear in the text, and keep your formatting as simple as possible. With luck, you'll be able to let your publisher worry about the rest.

A reader writes to ask:

I read your article on proper manuscript submission and found it to be very informative. I submitted my manuscript to a publisher and received an email that they would like to print but it is lacking formatting. I did not know of the correct formatting until I read your article. Question: Do I resubmit with your recommended format (courier, double spacing, etc.) for printing or do I do something else for the printing version? New at this.

The format described here on my site is intended only for manuscripts being submitted for consideration by an editor or agent. It is not a format for "camera-ready copy," which refers to the layout you see in a published book. A publisher asking you to provide a manuscript ready for printing is most likely a vanity or subsidy publisher, one that you pay out of your own pocket. In traditional commercial publishing, the publisher pays you for the right to publish your book, and then does the bulk of the work to prepare it for printing.

Commercial publishing can be hard to break into, with its complex systems of agents and editors and their rigorous ways of doing business. Getting your book published commercially can also take a very long time. What you get from a commercial publisher, though, is a certain level of professional treatment of your manuscript. If an editor likes your manuscript and wants to buy it for publication, he or she will guide you in rewriting it to make it the best and most compelling work it can possibly be. A professional copyeditor will help iron out spelling, grammar, and continuity errors. A professional typesetter will take your plain manuscript and render it in the sort of clean, beautiful format you're used to seeing in other published books. A professional marketer will, hopefully, help advertise your book in all the right places. A professional sales representative will convince bookstores to stock it, and a professional book distributor will deliver it to those stores.

Vanity publishing is much quicker, but if you go that route you will have to do most of these jobs yourself—not to mention paying up front for the privilege. The quality of your book will also likely not be as high. If you only want to print a few copies of your book for friends and family, that may be fine, but otherwise you should have realistic expectations about what the process will entail and what the likely payoff will be.

A big part of that process will be acquiring and learning to use desktop publishing software like QuarkXPress or Adobe Pagemaker. That is what you will need in order to turn your manuscript into the electronic files your publisher can use to print your book. The commercial publisher Wiley provides extensive guidelines for preparing camera-ready copy, which is not only a good reference for you but gives you some idea of the magnitude of the work involved. (For another discussion of book design, see this post from last year.)

There's nothing inherently wrong with vanity publishing. Just be sure that you understand going in exactly what services this publisher is going to provide for you, and what services you are going to have to provide for yourself. Be sure you're prepared to do all that work before you shell out any money.

A reader writes to ask:

I came upon your blog when asking a question about short story indentation at I don't know if you'll ever read this, but if you do and can spare some time, I'd appreciate a response.

I was just about ready to submit an anthology of short stories to the printer. I am self-publishing some of my stories.

Anyway, for some reason, this afternoon I looked at four short story anthologies in my personal library. In three of them, all of the stories begin without any indentation. In the fourth, there is an indentation, but the first letter of each story is formatted in an oversized capital letter.

I have begun each of my stories with a standard paragraph indentation, just as I note you indicate short stories should be formatted. But now seeing the formatting of the anthologies in my possession, I wonder if I should re-do the formatting of the first paragraph of each story.

You seem to be confusing book design with manuscript formatting. Let me try to explain the difference.

Manuscript formatting is what you do to prepare your book or story for submission to an editor. The editor's job is to decide whether or not to accept the manuscript for publication, and then to offer suggestions on improving the manuscript. He or she will likely make a lot of notes directly on the manuscript itself. That's why, when submitting a manuscript to an editor, you should do the things I suggest in my manuscript formatting guidelines, such as using a big, readable font, double-spacing, indenting paragraphs half an inch, and so on.

Once you and the editor have together hammered that manuscript into acceptable shape, the next stage is book design. This is the process by which your manuscript gets converted into the format in which it will be printed and bound. A lot of arcane knowledge and skill goes into proper book design, but at the very least a few basic things will happen. Your manuscript will be changed to a font more appropriate to a finished book. The text will be single-spaced instead of double-spaced. Your book will be given page numbers that appear in different positions on the left and right-hand pages. Paragraph indentations will likely be made smaller. The book designer will also decide what kind of fancy formatting to use at the beginning of each chapter (or, in the case of a collection, at the beginning of each story), and will apply that formatting consistently throughout the book.

All this is in the interest of making your book attractive and easily read by a reader as opposed to an editor. Though there are still rules and guidelines to follow, there is more latitude in book design than in manuscript formatting. When you pull a book down off your shelf to see how it is laid out, you are looking at book design, not at manuscript formatting.

That's what happens in traditional publishing, anyway. When you self-publish, you are essentially cutting out the middleman—the editor. You are not submitting a manuscript for anyone's consideration. You are paying someone to publish your book, and that means going directly to the book-design stage.

The big question to ask here is whether someone at the publishing company will do the book design for you, or if you have to do it yourself. If the company will do it for you, you may be able to offer some suggestions or preferences but you won't have to worry about questions like whether or not to indent or use initials or drop caps at the beginnings of chapters.

But if the company requires you to submit print-ready copy yourself, then you do have to make those choices, and, in fact, you may have a lot of work ahead of you. Word-processing programs like Microsoft Word can be used to create complex book layouts, but that can be tricky unless you're an expert user. Desktop-publishing programs like QuarkXPress or Adobe FrameMaker are more powerful but are also more complicated to learn to use.

In any event, find out from your publishing company how involved you will need to be in the book-design process before you start worrying about how your chapter headings are going to look.

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 Book Design

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Proper Manuscript Format in the Book Design category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Ancillary Material is the previous category.

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