Proper Manuscript Format : Indentation

Paragraph formatting box from Microsoft Word 2010
A reader writes to ask:

I want to submit a novel manuscript to a small press in the US and their guidelines say "indented, not tabbed."

What's the difference? Usually I just hit the tab key once. Should I be doing something else?

I have Word Starter 2010, and I can't see any distinction between "indent" and "tab."

How do I make sure I'm indenting and not tabbing? If I'm tabbing, how do I change it to indent?

This is an excellent question, and I'm sure the cause of much confusion among word-processing novices. There is in fact a distinction between tabbing and indenting—or rather, it might be more accurate to say that tabbing is only one way to indent a paragraph. I will try to explain a method for indenting paragraphs that makes your document more portable* and easier for your publisher to use.

Back in the Stone Age, when we still used typewriters, there were two ways to indent a paragraph. You could hit the space bar five times at the start of your first line, or you could set up a tab stop half an inch in from your left margin and just hit the tab key once. "Tab" is short for "tabular," because tab stops were useful for helping a typist arrange figures in tables.

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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.

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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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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.

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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 Indentation

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

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