Proper Manuscript Format : Word Counts

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.

Your options for making it smaller are limited. You need to give up the idea of getting 500 words on a page. No way can you accomplish that. You'd have to switch to single-spacing, and no one wants to read a single-spaced manuscript. You could cheat the margins a little, or make the font a little smaller, or adjust the line spacing enough to squeeze another line or two onto each page, but none of those tricks is going to buy you much, at least without making it obvious that you're trying to mess with the formatting. This will not incline most agents and editors to look favorably upon your submission.

There is one thing you can do to reduce your big stack problem, and one thing only: change your font from Courier to Times New Roman. I don't recommend it myself, as you'll know if you've studied much of my site, but since Times New Roman is a narrower font the switch will reduce the size of your manuscript by about a quarter, to maybe 450 pages. If you can live with that, go for it.


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 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.

For instance, I did it like this for my chapbook, An Alternate History of the 21st Century:

 
Publication History
 

"From Our Point of View We Had Moved to the Left" originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1993.

"Kevin-17" originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1995.

"Observations from the City of Angels" originally appeared online at Salon.com, 16 July 2003, under the title "Love in the Age of Spyware."

"Strong Medicine" originally appeared online at Salon.com, 10 November 2003.

"Objective Impermeability in a Closed System" and "Not of This Fold" appear here for the first time.

That's not to say this is the only way to do it, but I'm sure it would be an acceptable method.

A reader writes to ask:

I read somewhere that if you format properly you should get 25 lines per page, but I consistantly get 24. So when I use Word to give me a word count on 141 pages, I get 28k, but when I do it the way I think publishers want a word count for novels, which is by multiplying the number of pages times 250, I get 35k. That's a big difference.

I followed all of your rules, so I don't understand what I'm doing wrong.

Indulge me a moment, please, while I review a couple of standard typographical measures. The smallest unit in typography is called the point, which measures exactly 1/72 of an inch. Twelve points equals 1 pica. Therefore, we have 72 points per inch, and 6 picas per inch.

A standard typewriter uses 12-point type, which is a measure of the height of the metal block on which each individual letter is cast. This also equals the height of a each line of printed type the typewriter produces, meaning that a typewritten line is 12 points high, or 1 pica, or 1/6 of an inch. Single-spaced, this means you can fit six lines of type per inch. Double-spaced, you get three lines per inch.

Working from this basis, we see that the essential definition of a 12-point font is one that prints in a line exactly 1 pica high. You would think that a word processor would follow that definition and default to a line height of exactly 1/6 of an inch for a 12-point font, but MS Word doesn't. For whatever reason, its default line height is slightly more than that—about 0.185" as opposed to the expected 0.167".

That was a long digression, but that's the explanation for why you're getting fewer lines per pages than what you expect. You can fix this, but first let me point out that, as long as you're close to the standard, your exact line height doesn't really matter. No one is going to count your number of lines per page to make sure you have exactly 25 or 26 or whatever other number you might have heard is appropriate. No editor has the time or inclination to do that. As long as it looks good at a glance, you're fine.

What seems to concern you more, though, is the discrepancy between your estimated word count and the exact count that MS Word gives you. The first thing you need to understand is that your estimated word count will always be higher than the exact word count. An estimated word count is designed to give an editor an idea of how many pages a published book will run, which depends more on the number of lines in your manuscript than on the number of words.

(A dialogue-heavy page with a lot of short, choppy paragraphs, for instance, will likely have a lot fewer words on it than a page with a couple of long, dense paragraphs of exposition. But both pages have the same number of lines, and therefore take up approximately the same amount of space in a published book.)

The next thing to understand is that your estimated word count should be based on the average number of words on one of your pages, which is not necessarily 250. There are complicated formulas you can use to derive your own average word count per page, but I think a good rule of thumb is to call it 10 words for every line. (That's for a Courier font. If you use a proportional font, your number will be higher.) Therefore, for a 24-line page, use 240 for your estimate per page instead of 250. That will shrink your word count by a good amount. It will still be higher than the true count, but you shouldn't worry about that.

In fact, before I continue to explain how to reset your line height in Word, I want to emphasize how unproductive it is to get bogged down in these kinds of details. Your first and most important job is to write the best book you can. Your second most important job is to present that book in the form of an attractive, uncluttered, professional-looking manuscript. As long as that manuscript looks reasonably close to the expected standard format, you'll be fine.

That said, here's how to set your lines in Word to exactly the proper height. If you're using MS Word 2007 or a more recent version—the version with the tool ribbons at the top instead of pull-down menus—then go to the Page Layout ribbon. In the group of tools labeled Paragraph, click the little diagonal arrow icon in the lower-right corner to pop up the Paragraph dialog box. In the Indents and Spacing tab, find the Line spacing drop-down list. Choose the "Exactly" option from the list. Under the At label, set the value to "24 pt." Click OK to exit. (The process in older versions of Word will be similar, though not exactly the same.)

What this does is set your lines to display one every 24 points, or 2 picas. This effectively gives you a double-spaced manuscript with exactly 3 lines to the inch. This way, you should get at least one more line per page than you've been getting. But like I say, that's probably not a level of detail you need or ought to be worrying about.


A reader writes to ask:

I've been speaking with an agent who has expressed keen interest in my sci-fi/humor novel, and what she's telling me is that while she really digs it, the manuscript is simply coming in too long for most publishers to take a look at. Unbeknowst to me (rookie mistake), I need to reformat the mansucript using Courier 12 point, which is blowing my page count sky-high (I wrote in Times Roman).

The agent is also telling me that I need to get it down below 480 pages Courier for publishers to be willing to look at it. My mansucript is 120,000 words and change, but is coming in at 730 pages Courier 12 point. Any thoughts about anything I might be doing wrong, if anything?

Is she on point? Is the page count more significant than the word count?

I hate being so close and yet feeling like I might be so far.

I'd appreciate any feedback you can offer me.

A lot of points to address here in this message! As far as your mechanical problem goes, without looking at your manuscript I can't be sure what you're doing wrong in your word-processing program that's making your page count so high. Check your margins carefully to be sure they are 1 inch all the way around. Check to be sure you're double-spacing your text and not triple-spacing it, because that alone would explain why your page count is about 50% higher than it should be.

480 pages in Courier 12 is going to yield a manuscript of between 120,000 and 140,000 words, depending on your margins, so your novel should be fine as-is, without any cuts, if you can just get your formatting problems ironed out.

For the record, 120,000 words sounds about right as a cap for an average first novel, although longer ones certainly do sell and get published. Assuming for a moment that your word count is wrong and the book really is longer than your agent wants it to be, you have to weigh her advice in relation to your own instincts as a writer. Cutting a manuscript down to size is often a very effective exercise for improving a book, but it's not right for every book. Try to get your agent to offer more specific suggestions for why this book should be shorter, and for plot elements or other specifics that could be trimmed. Try to assess whether she is trying to make the book better or just trying to get you down to a target word count on general principle. She very well might be right to ask you to cut the book, but you have to make that decision yourself.

For the record, any editor worth his or her salt, especially at a major house, is going to understand that word count is what's important to the size of the published book, not the page count of your manuscript. Just a glance at the height of the stack and the size of the font will be enough for most editors to estimate a ballpark word count, which tells them how long a book they're really dealing with.

One last point. It's not necessarily a mistake to print your manuscript in Times Roman. Courier has traditionally been the accepted default, but times have changed and the editor who would reject a manuscript out of hand these days because it's printed in Times Roman is rare indeed. The best guide is still to use Courier unless an agent or editor explicitly requests a different font in his guidelines, but it's certainly not a dealbreaker to use something attractive and readable like Times Roman or Georgia. (You should definitely avoid sans-serif fonts like Arial and Helvetica, though.)


A reader writes to ask:

I've been writing a novel over the past year, and with the help on your site as well as a few other sites, I've been converting it into manuscript format. However, after having copied over the first two chapters, I've compared the word count from MS Word with the publisher method of word counting, I'm getting a difference of a thousand words (10.2k to 9.2k), which'll become a 10,000-word difference at Chapter 20. Is there usually that kind of overestimation, or is there a problem with my formatting? I've got a max of 60 characters per line and 25 lines per page, and I put chapter titles 2 inches into the page. Is there anything I should change to make the estimated word count more accurate, or is changing the line or page length going to set off any red flags with the publishers? I would appreciate your input.

That kind of overestimation is fine and expected. A publisher's word count is not at all identical to the one Word will give you, and is more useful to the publisher in determining how many pages that eventual published book (or story or article) will run.

Just offer your best estimate of a word count. No publisher is going to penalize you for that. In fact, since book publishers don't pay by the word, it's probably the last thing they're going to pay a lot of attention to. In addition, in the event that your novel is accepted for publication, you'll likely be submitting a Word document to your editor at some point. If an exact word count is ever needed, he or she can get that information directly from your document.

 
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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