December 2011 | Proper Manuscript Format | William Shunn
December 2011

Back in January, Slate's Farhad Manjoo set the blogosphere a-boil with a vitriolic philippic against the evils of ever placing two spaces at the end of a sentence. A veritable Greek chorus rushed to add its voices to his, including no less a figure than John Scalzi. On the flip side, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic spearheaded the opposition, and a flurry of spirited defenses of the two-space tradition set out to demolish the arguments at the center of Manjoo's emotional diatribe.

I stayed out of the fray at the time. I've already had what I hoped would be my definitive say about sentence spacing, and in fact I spent a lot of time last year thinking through some significant ameliorations of my former strict insistence on two spaces. It was never my intention, back in 1995 when I first posted "Proper Manuscript Format" on the web, to become a de facto formatting guru, but it happened anyway. This means I still get frequent emails from aspiring writers who want to know why this authority or that is telling them they should never ever, on pain of banishment to editorial hell, put two spaces after a sentence.

It's probably past time for me to expand further on my position that, while one space is fast becoming the reigning standard, it's still perfectly fine to use two if that's what you prefer.

We are all by now familiar with the argument that the two-space rule is a relic of the typewriter era, outmoded in these days of computer typography and proportional fonts. I am willing to admit this, to a point (even as I am unwilling to unlearn a practice that, through more than three decades of dedicated typing, has become as much a part of me as my two thumbs). But where this argument falls short is in its failure to recognize that the commercial publishing industry, at least in the U.S., had already begun phasing out the two-space rule sixty years ago—at the very height of the typewriter era. It wasn't the advent of the personal computer that made the practice begin to change. It was much earlier advancements in high-volume mechanical typesetting.

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Formatting text messages


A reader writes to ask:

My manuscript contains text messages from one character to another. How would you suggest I format them?

When you present an exchange of text messages in fiction, you're essentially presenting a different form of dialog. As such, if I were doing it, I'd treat the messages the same as any other dialog—except that I'd underline the text instead of enclosing it in quotation marks.

Underlining (or rather italics, which is what underlining in a manuscript indicates) is the generally accepted way to indicate in a story that you're quoting from written or printed material—say, a note or a sign. Or, in today's world, a text message or email.

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Testifying with boldface

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A reader writes to ask:

Is the occasional Bold word in a manuscript okay? Because every time I change point-of-view, I leave an empty line (which from now on will be filled with a #), and make the first word of the next paragraph bold, just to make it clear to the reader that the point of view has shifted. Or will that depend on who I send my manuscript to?

Your questions evoke a whole thicket of intertwined issues which I will attempt to unbraid for you. The first of these has to do with how best to indicate a point-of-view shift in your fiction. There's no right or wrong way to do this. Some writers feel no compunction about switching POVs without any typographical indication, which is fine if you have enough control over your omnicient narration. Using a scene break or even a chapter break to indicate the shift is the more common technique, and should be sufficient in and of itself. The first couple of sentences after the break ought to make the POV change perfectly clear without any need to employ trickery like boldface words.

This raises our second issue, which is the proper use of boldface text. Boldface is not seen much in fiction, at least not within the text itself. It is seen most commonly in non-fiction, where it is used to emphasize keywords and terms that relate to the subject at hand. From time to time you might see it employed in fiction for typographical effect—for instance, to indicate text that appears on a computer screen, perhaps in an instant-message exchange, or to highlight some other kind of quoted passage. It's rare enough, though, that in the olden days there wasn't a good way to indicate boldface from your typewriter keyboard. Instead, you had to draw a squiggly line directly on the page underneath the text you wanted emphasized.

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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 info at format dot ms. 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 December 2011

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