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.

In the mid-20th century, with type no longer being set by hand, most publishers reverted to single-spacing between sentences. That's still how your work will appear in print, regardless of whether you use one space or two in your manuscript. These days, since your work is likely to go directly to print from an electronic file, using one space between sentences in a manuscript is more common. This makes the process of converting your file to a format fit for publication just a little more smooth.

Still, for many of us who've had it drilled into our heads that we should hit that spacebar twice at the end of a sentence, switching over to one space can be hard. Personally, I don't think it's that important. Most typesetting programs that I'm aware of make it easy to convert two spaces to one in an electronic manuscript, so I don't feel much obligation to save the typesetter a few keystrokes. In nearly twenty years of selling fiction, I've never had an editor or agent tell me I need to stop using two spaces, and I have no plans at this point in my career to change the way I type.

That said, the two-space practice is on the way out and is going to die. But despite all the Sturm und Drang, the choice really is still up to you. The rule of thumb I would offer is that if you use a proportional font like Times New Roman, you should definitely switch to one space, but if you use a monospaced font like Courier, you can keep on using two spaces if you want to. Your call.

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.

The basics still remain, even if some of the details continue to evolve. To those hundreds of sites that have linked to my format guide over the years, I hope you still find it useful and relevant, if not more so than before. To those who've disagreed with it in the past, sometimes vehemently, I hope you find more common ground here now. And to those stumbling across it for the first time? God help you poor kids for wanting to be writers.

Please let me know what you think of the revised and updated version of "Proper Manuscript Format," and best of luck with your writing.

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.

To get to the AutoCorrect console in Word 2007, click the big MS Word logo button in the upper left corner. Click the Word Options button at the bottom of the menu, then Proofing in the sidebar, then the AutoCorrect Options button. (In older versions of Word, simply choose AutoCorrect Options from the Tools menu.)

On the AutoCorrect tab in the dialog window that comes up, look under the Replace text as you type section. You'll see a lot of useful auto-corrections listed, not to mention some not-so-useful ones. If you highlight the list item containing the ellipsis correction, which should be about three or four lines down, you can click Delete to make that annoying replacement stop happening.

And now that squished ellipsis will never darken your tab stop again!

(By the way, on the AutoFormat tab, you can also turn off the option to change straight quotes to curly quotes, which is another automatic correction that drives me crazy. But I'm old-school that way.)

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.

In other words, you should do it like this.

As for your second and third questions, I'm not aware of any definite standard. It seems to me to make sense to include the punctuation when underlining complete sentences, but no one is going to penalize you for not including the period or the quotation marks. In those cases, just do what seems to make the most sense to you. My only advice would be to be consistent in whichever method you employ.

Update:  Paul Witcover, author of Everland and Other Stories and an experienced copy editor, offers the following advice: "Punctuation following an underscore is also underscored." Thanks, Paul!

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."

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

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

Each method has its adherents, and you're free to choose whichever one you think will help you make your prose as clear as possible. I'm with you on the quotes—I find it too easy to mistake those thoughts for dialog—but my own personal stylistic preference is for the third method. I find that italics gives thoughts such a strong literal flavor that seeing this technique employed often breaks me out of the story. I don't know about you, but rarely do I find myself thinking in complete literal sentences. (Except when I'm writing)

But I'm something of a cantankerous reader. I think it's safe to say that the italics method is the one most commonly used these days. It's a solid choice, and if you go that route, do not be afraid of long chunks of underlining. You are correct to avoid using italics in your manuscript; it's just too easy for editors to overlook when reading your submission, especially in Courier font. Underlining is the correct and accepted method for indicating italics in a manuscript (as demonstrated in the second example above), and no editor is going to blink at encountering a long string of it. That's what she's accustomed to seeing, even if it looks graceless to your eye.

I've written more about italics in the entry Italicizing long blocks of text.

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.

Quotations is the next category.

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