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.

On the first page of a new section, I put the section heading about a third of the way down the page. I then put the section's first chapter heading about halfway down, with the chapter text starting a couple of lines after that. For subsequent chapters in the section, I again put the chapter heading about halfway down the page. (You can see an example of this in my sample novel manuscript excerpt.)

You also seem to be worried about how and whether to name your sections and chapters. There is no rule to dictate how to do this. Tolkien, in The Fellowship, did not give titles to the two large sections, but he did title each chapter within them. You could do it that way, or you could do exactly the opposite. You could use a date or a place or a character's name or anything else as a title. You don't even need to number your sections if you don't want to. Mix and match. The possibilities are endless:

Section 1
January - March

Part Two

Teen Trauma
1980 - 1983

Fall 1942

Book III


Day Five: Hunger


And the same goes for your chapter headings. Title or no title, it's up to you. Whatever you think is best for the book is fine.

So take a deep breath. The important thing is not the precise mechanics of what you do but being consistent about doing it.

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.

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

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