Proper Manuscript Format : Indentation

A reader writes to ask:

I'm finalizing a manuscript and your templates are so helpful. One thing I can't seem to find addressed is the use of quotes - a poem or just a quotation from a person, at the beginning of a chapter. Since I would like to have one in my first chapter and it would then be the first thing an agent sees, I am worried about how to do it right. Can you help?

All you need to do is indent the quote one half inch from both the left and the right margin and put a line space after it. You can single-space the quote if you like. Otherwise, everything else is the same. You still start the quote on the same line of the page where you otherwise would have begun the chapter.

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:

Block-indent the quoted passages.

Block indentation means to indent an entire passage one half-inch from the left margin. Within the indented passage, you still indent the first line of each paragraph that additional half-inch. Leave the right margin as-is, and center the # character on its own line before and after the quoted passage to indicate line spaces.

Here's an example:

While she was in the kitchen preparing our drinks, I wandered around the living room examining the tchotchkes and knickknacks.  My eye fell on a small, vinyl-bound diary on the coffee table.  It had a lock, but the lock was unlatched.

With a quick glance at the kitchen door, I snatched up the diary.  It fell open to the last page Suzette had written on.  In blue ink, it said:


Of course I'm really nervous about this date tonight.  I like Richard, he's exciting, but I'm still not sure I trust him.  He gets that skeevy kind of look in his eye sometimes when we're talking at the copy machine.

Hey, I just had a wicked idea.  I think I'll put a hair here between the pages and leave the diary out when Richard comes over.  Then I'll know for sure how skeevy he is.


The diary grew slippery in my grip.  There was no hair between the pages.

Heart pounding, I crouched down to see if I could spot one on the black surface of the coffee table.

It's fine for the block-indented passage to run several pages.

If you'd like the quoted passage to appear in print in a different font from the main text, that's probably something to take up with the editor once your manuscript has been accepted for publication and is going into production. "But," as one of my correspondents says, "the important thing is to communicate one's wishes with sufficient clarity as to eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding."

Setting off a new paragraph

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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.

But block format is inappropriate for your fiction manuscript, and in fact for most kinds of commercial writing. Take a careful look at most of the books you own, or at the articles in most magazines. You won't find any extra vertical space between paragraphs. Instead, you'll see that the start of each new paragraph is indicated using a style called first-line indentation. In this format, the first line of each paragraph starts a few spaces in from the left margin, as in this example:

     The Manual tells us that in the beginning the Builder decreed six fundamental Machines. These are his six aspects, and all we do we must do with the Six. We need no other machines.
     I believe this with all my heart. I do. And yet sometimes I seem to intuit the existence of a seventh Machine, hovering like a blasphemous ghost just beyond apprehension.
     There is something wrong with me, and I don't know what it is.
As you see, no extra vertical space is required to mark the start of each paragraph. The indentation does all the work. If you take a close look again at my manuscript format guide, you'll see that I've used the same technique there. Every line in that article has the same double-spacing, and yet, thanks to the first-line indentation, you have no trouble picking out each paragraph from the next.

In the days of typewriters, a paragraph indentation was typed either by hitting the space bar five times, or by hitting the TAB key with a tabulator stop set at the appropriate horizontal position. In your word processor, you can set tab stops as well and use the TAB key to indent, or you can set up a paragraph style that automatically indents each first line for you.

When using Courier font, the first line of each paragraph should be indented one half-inch, or five spaces, from the left margin. In a proportional font, the indentations can be smaller.

(Please note, just to make things confusing, that when submitting a story in the body of an email, most editors will ask you to use block format. But that's a special case, not for general usage.)

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.

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