What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript?

Q: Before sending my fiction manuscript off to agents, I want to be sure I have it formatted correctly. Can you offer up any specific guidelines on the specific manuscript format that agents and publishers want? —Anonymous

As an editor, I can tell you that queries and manuscript submissions (unfortunately) come in all shapes, sizes, fonts and (I’m not making this up) colors, making it a pain to sift through them. Sometimes the manuscript formatting has been so jarring that I’ve had to reject them without even looking at the overall idea—mainly because I couldn’t find the pitch through the clutter. Editors generally prefer submissions of any kind to be neat and uniform, like an online contacts folder, so they can find exactly what they want as easily as possible.

According to Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, here are the specific rules to formatting a manuscript you should adhere to before shipping your work off to potential agents and publishers.

Use a 1″ margin on all sides
Use a title page, set up the same as the title page in your package (see page 159).
Don’t number the title page. Begin numbering with the first page of the text of the book, usually the introduction, prologue, or chapter one.
Use a header on each page, including your name, the title of your novel in all caps, and the page number.
Start each new chapter on its own page, one-third of the way down the page.
The chapter number and chapter title should be in all caps, separated by two hyphens: CHAPTER 1—THE BODY.
Begin the body of the chapter four to six lines below the chapter title.
Indent fives spaces for each new paragraph.
Double-space the entire text.
Use a standard font, 12-point type. Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier is fine.
Use 20-lb. bond paper.

It’s important to note that guidelines may vary a little based on who you talk to or what you read, but by following the ones stated above you will make sure that your manuscript looks clean, is easy to read and won’t get rejected because of sloppy formatting.

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21 thoughts on “What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript?

  1. monbois

    Does anyone know how to format in fiction? All I can find are references to copyright, but what if I want to write:

    John looked at Mary.
    “Like a virgin,” Madonna on the radio.
    Mary smiled at him
    “Touched for the very first time!”

    Quotes? Italics?


    1. WilAvitt

      Hi, I know it has been several months since you asked this question and you may have had it answered already, but the answer is to use italics. Your passage should look something like this:

      John looked at Mary. Madonna was singing “Like a Virgin” on the radio.
      Like a virgin… (in italics)
      Mary smiled at him.
      Touched for the very first time… (in italics)


    About indenting 5 spaces at the beginning of each paragraph –

    In dialogue the paragraph may only be one word or one line.

    Indenting every line seems excessive.


  3. WesT

    I didn’t have too many issues with the list until I came to the last point: paper? Who submits on paper these days? For that matter who accepts paper submissions??

    One of the issues I did have with the list was how to separate the chapter number and title. It says they should be “separated by two hyphens”, but then their example shows an em dash: “CHAPTER 1—THE BODY.” Yes, many word processing programs do automatically convert two hyphens to a dash (either em or en, depending on how it is spaced), but when telling us to put two hyphens, it should show two hyphens.

    1. wa4otj

      When I began attempting to write Science Fiction short stories, just last year, I had a rude awakening! The two biggest magazines in the field ONLY want it on Paper! One of them uses a third-party service that receives a word document, prints it and delivers it to their office. The other one does not even do that! They demand a paper manuscript!! And YES, it must be formatted by THEIR rules!
      When I submitted ‘Chromosome Quest’ I had to mail a 30 pound envelop (Well, perhaps I exaggerate, but it was BIG) via Media Mail to New York!
      I have submitted several manuscripts, in addition to “Chromosome Quest”, and so far, it is just the same thing as throwing in the waste can. They just disappear into the void, gone, forgotten, ignored. Only one earned me the courtesy of an email rejection letter.
      My conclusion: For a new, unknown author to successfully sell ANYTHING to these guys carries about the same odds as winning the lottery. I’m not saying don’t submit. Far from it. I am saying have realistic expectations!
      Andy Weir submitted “The Martian” to several publishers without success. Then he went the ePub route, garnered some notice there with the eBook, and then suddenly Crown wanted his book. As an unknown author, zip, nada, swabo, nit and zilch! As a successful eBook author, suddenly he was hot property. The movie comes out in 2015!
      So, my advice is, yes, jump thru the hoops and send it to the publishers. But once sent, forget about them, and put it out as an eBook. With an eBook, the reader is King! It’s only you and the readers, no “Flappers” standing in the way deciding what the “King” is allowed to see and hear. Once the “King” shows interest the “Flappers” will fall all over themselves to help you. http://www.ChromosomeQuest.com

    1. squilter

      The book FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT published by WD doesn’t always give answers to all questions about e-mail submissions. To send in for a critique by the WD staff they will request that you use 1 1/2 in margins, which is different than the standard formatting of 1 in. given in the book, and which you probably used when writing your article/novel, etc.. It gets confusing, to be sure…and time consuming also to change the entire submission over to meet their requirements.

  4. Nikara Ross

    Thanks so much! I’m on my fifth (unpublished) manuscript (yes, really) and I still use this format until I polish and edit for my friends to read, which makes it much easier to edit before I add all the fancy stuff.