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.


Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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26 thoughts on “What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript?

  1. Avatarjay.black

    HI there! I have searched high and low and far and wide but I cannot find an answer to my question. I hope you will help.

    Using standard format to complete a novel manuscript, how do I punctuate (or perhaps italicize or block quote) dialogue that is not from a character, but from a television or radio in the room occupied by characters who have been engaged in dialogue but stop because, say, an important news story is being broadcast on the radio that all of the characters want to hear? How do I format what the radio announcer is saying?

    I’m sorry for the trouble but, as noted, I could not find the answer to this question anywhere. Thank you in advance!

    1. AvatarBrian A. Klems Post author

      Quote and italicize (and set off with additional space before and after each section). Publishers may change it to fit their own style. The key is staying consistent in how you handle it throughout the entire manuscript.

  2. Avataroldmarathonrunner

    I start by saying that like most of the professionals I know nothing. I am just a newbie.
    It seems that publishers are more concerned with throwing out submissions than they are with reading them. How many great,successful novels have been refused on numerous occasions. Why are they called professionals when so many are incapable of doing the job?
    How is a newbie supposed to chose the correct format of a novel manuscript when so many people who are published authors, contradict each other. From correct type font to positioning of details on title page one can find different suggestions. Above all we are exhorted not to look like amateurs. What a joke that is.

  3. AvatarCaprock

    Where can I find examples of query letters, with commentary about their structure and the best way to represent your story to get your future agent’s attention?


  4. AvatarCaprock

    Thanks very much for the advice.
    What about within the body of the text, when you change the scenery, zip to a different location, or just want to portray a little passage of time. I’ve seen it where there’s just an extra space between paragraphs — a little time passage. And then there’s a couple spaces between paragraphs with little symbols like asterisks in the space, and the setting is moved farther away, or the change in mood is more significant.

    Thanks for your time.

  5. Avatarmonbois

    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. AvatarWilAvitt

      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)

  6. AvatarAM HOLDEN

    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.


  7. AvatarWesT

    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. Avatarwa4otj

      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. Avatarsquilter

      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.

  8. AvatarNikara 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.


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