Proper Manuscript Format : Odds and Ends

Formatting a children's book

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A reader writes to ask:

I'm preparing a manuscript for a children's book. Should I use the same format [as for adult fiction]? Or is there a different format for this type of book?

Yes, when submitting a picture book, chapter book, or other work of children's literature, you should use the same format you would when submitting any other book manuscript. If the book is to be illustrated, your publisher will most likely recruit the illustrator for you.

For much more detail about the kinds of children's books out there and how to sell them, consult a book like The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. It will have far more useful information on this segment of the publishing business than I can provide.

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Cheating the format

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A reader writes to ask:

I'm getting close to done writing a manuscript, set to your specs for 250 words per page, and it's threatening to break 600 manuscript pages (about 150k, assuming no half-pages). That's going to be a heavy stack of paper when I get it printed out. There seems to be some empty room on the pages as it stands, and I'm thinking of squeezing it into 500 words per page by increasing the line length and quantity, just so I can save some trees. Would you recommend for or against this plan? Do you have any other suggestions for my big stack dilemma?

I can sympathize with your desire to reduce your big stack, if not for environmental reasons then at least to keep postage costs in check. But when you look into your heart of hearts I'm sure you know what I'm going to tell you. Six hundred pages for a 150,000-word manuscript sounds just about right.

I've examined the sample page you sent along with your question, and honestly it looks perfectly fine to me. You're using a 12-point Courier font. You're averaging about 60 characters per line, which tells me that your left and right margins are set properly. You have 25 lines of text on the page, plus a header, which means the top and bottom margins are good. In short, you're doing everything right. You're just having a hard time digesting the fact that your manuscript is so big.

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A reader writes to demand:

Setting everything according to the various suggestions for Word to lay out my pages for writing a book, I find it impossible to get 25 lines on an 8½ by 11 when double spaced. Explain.

"Explain"? That's a rather imperious imperative sentence, but I'll do my psychic best to satisfy your command without your Word document in front of me for reference.

I'll summarize what I assume your problem is, though I've covered this issue in much greater detail elsewhere. But let me preface my summary by emphasizing that the number of lines per page probably doesn't even matter. As I try repeatedly to make clear, formatting your manuscript is about following general guidelines, not about breaking out your protractor and slide rule. It's an art, not a science. It's cooking, not baking. As long as your formatting falls in the general neighborhood of correctness, you'll be fine. Don't get so caught up in refining the finest details of your formatting that it bogs you down and distracts you from what's most important: writing the best novel you can.

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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

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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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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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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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Composing a cover letter

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A reader writes to ask:

I am going to FEDEX my short fiction story to [a certain American] magazine, who were the only gracious ones to send me a response to my e-mail query (out of hundreds of e-mail queries sent). Before i do that, i need to enclose a cover letter with it. Would you have a sample i could use?

That's a bit outside the scope of this blog, but since it does have to do with the image of yourself as a professional writer that you present to an editor, I'll judge it a fair question for consideration here.

A cover letter should almost always be short, simple, and to the point. What it contains will be different depending on the circumstances of your submission.

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A reader writes to ask:

I am submitting a short story collection, but the publisher requests just the first 50 pages.

How do I handle this in terms of what I would write for word count? Do I include the number of words in first 50 pages? The entire manuscript?

You mentioned including a list of where stories had been published. What should this list look like? A simple 1, 2, 3? Should I title the page?

In your cover letter—and this goes for novels as well as collections—you should mention the word count for the full manuscript. That's the information your editor needs in order to understand the size of the book you're proposing. There is no need to give a word count for the 50-page excerpt.

I'm not aware of a hard-and-fast rule for how to list the publication history for your stories, so use your best judgment. I would simply include a page headed "Publication History" at the end of the sample pages. (You can indicate in your cover letter that such a list will follow the excerpt.) It would be fine to single-space within entries on this page, and numbering them is not required. To get even fancier, you could use hanging indents for each item in the list.

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A reader writes to ask:

I've been writing in Microsoft Works, which I believe is similar but not identical to Word. When I type an ellipse by typing three periods in succession, the program automatically compresses them together, rendering the ellipse almost illegible. Instead, I've been choosing an ellipse from the "insert special character" option, but it still looks squashed to me. Is there any way to turn off the compression, or is the special character acceptable?

The special character is probably acceptable, but I hate the way it looks at least as much as you do. Let's see if we can't help you disable that annoying feature.

Assuming that Microsoft Works works similarly to Word, there's a feature called "AutoCorrect" that's enabled by default. Besides converting three periods to a single squished ellipsis character, AutoCorrect is automatically configured to make a lot of other corrections to your typing, all of which you can choose to turn off individually.

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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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