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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Setting off a new paragraph


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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A reader writes to ask:

Thanks for all the useful, easy-to-follow information about formatting on your web site. If I were submitting pages by snail mail, I think I'd be set. But the vast majority of agents I'm planning on querying ask for sample pages along with the query letter, and ask that the pages be submitted by email in the body of the message. This seems to make irrelevant a number of issues of formatting. For example, if it's translated into plain text, then the font and the spacing and so forth, that's all suddenly out of my control. Can I assume most will be able to read emails in html? In which case I am trying to approximate the format the best I can or..? I can't find advice on this anywhere. Help!

Formatting submissions for inclusion in the body of an email is indeed a very different beast from formatting them for paper or as email attachments. These days it's rare to find someone whose email client doesn't support reading HTML, but you still don't want to try to duplicate standard manuscript format in email. Instead you should reformat the message to match the medium.

The generally accepted guidelines are to single-space the text of your story, double-space between paragraphs, and not indent the first line of paragraphs—in other words, to format it just like this blog entry, as if you were posting it online. (Some markets expect you to go so far as to place _underscores like these_ around emphasized text instead of underlining or italicizing. I think that's a little excessive myself, but it's probably important to editors who read email in a text-only client.)

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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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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 Paragraphs

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

Paper is the previous category.

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