I have encountered many manuscripts while going through slush piles for literary magazines and applications for writing programs, so I have many thoughts on how to format your book. I’ve seen every mistake a writer can make—even made some gaffs myself when I was first sending my own work out.
The one super important thing you have to do before you send your completed novel manuscript to agents or editors is to take the time to format your book correctly.
Why small details like a standard manuscript format are important
Formatting is not the place to express your personality or to reveal personal taste. Your writing itself is what should shine. The truth is the gatekeepers who may read your unpublished novel are likely receiving hundreds of submissions on a weekly basis. You are competing with thousands of people, all whom have worked really hard on their books. By the time an agent or editor reads the manuscript you have spent years on, they may be hours into their workday and are feeling tired and hungry, while suffering eyestrain. I once oversaw an eight-hour day where a group of writers had to assess hundreds of writing portfolios for forty coveted spots in an MFA program.
There’s more: within two seconds of seeing a novel manuscript, an agent or editor can tell whether or not it has been submitted by a professional writer. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this knowledge-based intuition in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. As it’s often said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
So how can you avoid having your book dismissed within two seconds? Read on to discover the three big mistakes writers make when formatting their novel manuscripts and what to do when you format your book instead.
Mistake #1 when you format your book: choosing the wrong font
The number one mistake when it comes to choosing a font for the manuscript is to choose a sans serif font.
What does this mean? Serifs are the lines or strokes at the beginning or ends of letters, as seen in a font such as Times New Roman. A sans serif font does not include these lines or strokes. Common examples of sans serif fonts are Arial and Helvetica.
So why it is a mistake to use a sans serif font? It makes the manuscript harder to read.
The post “Serif vs. Sans for Text in Print” makes the case clear: “Serif typefaces have historically been credited with increasing both the readability and reading speed of long passages of text because they help the eye travel across a line, especially if lines are long or have relatively open word spacing (as with some justified type).”
If you want someone to enjoy the physical act of reading your 80,000 word manuscript, it’s best to make it easy for them to engage with the text. The font you should choose is Times New Roman. The font size matters too. You must use a 12-point font. You might think that a standard font like this doesn’t match the beauty of your words, but the agents and editors who you want to read your work will thank you for making their job easier by reducing eyestrain.
The takeaway: New Times Roman set at 12 points is the best font when you format your book.
Mistake #2 when you format your book: incorrect page setup
A friend once asked me to look over his application to film school. I’ve worked in three university admissions offices and guided hundreds of students through the arduous task of getting into their dream programs, plus I’d gone to his first choice institution. I asked my friend to send me the school’s submission guidelines in addition to all his work samples.
The first thing I noticed was that the margins on documents looked strange. There wasn’t enough white space on the page. I didn’t even need to measure, I could eyeball the margins because I look at manuscripts all day as an editor. The words were nearly touching the edges of the page.
“Why did you shrink the margins? It looks unprofessional,” I said.
“The treatment has to fit on a single page,” he said.
“That’s meant to be a single page with proper one-inch margins on all sides,” I said. “The first readers will unconsciously know that there is something wrong with your application as soon as they see that the margins are incorrect.”
“But my idea doesn’t fit on a single page,” he said.
“You’d better edit then, because everyone else’s idea fits on a single page,” I said.
This same advice applies when you format your book. The margins should be an inch on all sides (2.54 cm in Microsoft Word). If you are sending your manuscript to North American offices, you should set your page size to US Letter. For UK and European offices, A4 is the correct size. Finally, you must double space.
The takeaway: your page setting should be US Letter for North American and A4 for UK and Europe when you format your book. The margins must be an inch/2.54cm on all sides. You must double space. If you are sending a physical copy, use standard white paper.
Mistake #3 when you format your book: wrong alignment and paragraphing
It is tempting to set the alignment of your document to “justify” to remove the ragged edge on the right side of your manuscript when you format your book. Do not do this. This creates extra spacing between words, making the manuscript harder to read. Make sure you “align left”.
The first word in your first paragraph should be flush to the left, meaning you don’t indent. Then after, you may indent for new paragraphs. But when you start a new section, that first word in the first paragraph also starts flush left.
The takeaway: when you format your book, align left and do not indent the first paragraph of a chapter or a new section.
If you avoid these three mistakes and format your book properly, you will make your novel manuscript easier to read. Your submission will look professional. There is so much uncertainty when it comes to publishing, you may as well do everything in your power to control the known variables. By following these standard formatting practices, you’re one step closer to publication.