Proper Manuscript Format : Punctuation

Sentence spacing

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A reader writes to ask:

I have always used two spaces after the end of each sentence and someone recently said they believed that was no longer the correct method to use. Can you tell me if I should leave one or two spaces between each sentence in a paragraph or is it one of those inconsequential issues?

I receive more email on this topic than any other. For such a simple question, it stirs up plenty of passion, controversy, and bile on forums where these sorts of things are discussed. I would like to advise you that it's an inconsequential issue, but clearly it is not for many writers and editors.

The roots of this debate go way back to the days of typesetting by hand, when two different styles of sentence spacing emerged. French spacing was the practice of setting a single space between sentences, while English spacing meant using two spaces. The two-space method carried over into the realm of the typewriter when that device was invented. If you learned typing on a typewriter, you were no doubt taught to put two spaces after every sentence, and two spaces after every colon, too.

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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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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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A reader writes to ask:

I scoured your blog as well as the Internet, and am still having problems with underlining for italics. I am definitely using underlining but am fuzzy on the following:
  1. Do I use "underline words only" like this or do I include the spaces like this?
  2. Do I include punctuation like this: This is a sentence.
  3. Do I include quotes like this: "Buon giorno!"

As I've discussed before, you should always use underlining in your manuscripts to indicate words and phrases that are to be set in italics in the final printed version of your work. In trying to follow that advice, you've uncovered some interesting questions about the finer points of underlining.

The only hard and fast rule I have to offer is that, when underlining more than one consecutive word, you should be sure to underline the spaces between the words as well. Underlining the words only and not the spaces looks too choppy and distracting to the eye.

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A reader writes to ask:

How should I differentiate the character's thoughts from the rest of the narrative? Some people have suggested I put them in quotation marks, but I find that when I read novels in which the character's thoughts are in quotation marks, I initially think they're speaking rather than thinking. I have seen novels in which the thoughts were italicized, but I know it's not advisable to use italics in a manuscript you're submitting to an editor. Should I instead underline all the thoughts? It makes for long underlines, but maybe it's the best way. What do you think?

There are three basic ways of indicating literal thoughts in narrative: setting them off in quotes, setting them off in italics, and not setting them off at all:

"I have to get out of this place," John thought, "if it's the last thing I do."

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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 Punctuation

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

Publishing is the previous category.

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