The Best Manuscript Format: 13 Steps to Impress Agents & Editors

A manuscript is a preliminary draft of your book. You need to format it correctly for an editor, agent, or beta reader to take your work seriously. If the manuscript is not formatted correctly, the amateurish presentation will undoubtedly influence their impression of your story.

Manuscript formatting is very different from formatting a completed book. Your finished novel should look very neat and professional, but in a very different way than your tidy, streamlined manuscript.

Do I need to format my manuscript? Yes, you need to format your manuscript if you plan to query literary agents — an important step in garnering a traditional book deal. Note that each literary agent has their own unique submission guidelines that may vary slightly from one another.

However, self-publishing authors also need to format their manuscripts for editors, who often require manuscripts to be in standard manuscript format before editing. If an editor has to spend time correcting formatting errors, it will likely cost you more money.

Every writer should hire a professional editor to edit their work. Yes, even you.

Some authors format their manuscript as they write. Some authors format once they’re finished with their first draft. There’s no right time to format your manuscript, as long as it’s done before you send it to agents or editors.

As long as you’re the only one who’s looking at the manuscript, you can format it however you like. While writing, use whatever formatting helps you write the fastest.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. 13 formatting guidelines required to properly format your manuscript
  2. Technical help on how to format your manuscript in Microsoft Word
  3. The differences in manuscript vs. book formatting
  4. The best tools to use when formatting your book

Links in this article may earn me a small commission if you use them to purchase a product. This hasn’t affected my opinion. This does help me continue to write awesome articles that anyone can read for free!

What do I mean by “Manuscript”?

Manuscripts have been around for centuries. They're the original draft of your favorite novel, short story or nonfiction book that's still being written on paper with pen and ink.

Usually, this is not your finished book, but a finished draft that you send to someone like an editor, an agent, etc.

Why is Manuscript Formatting Important?

While it may seem like a small thing, how you format your manuscript can make a big impression. A correctly formatted manuscript shows that you're professional and that you take your work seriously. It also makes it easier for the person reading your work to find specific information, such as your contact information or the title of your book.

Incorrectly formatted manuscripts can be a turn-off for agents and editors, who receive hundreds or even thousands of submissions each year. If your manuscript is difficult to read or doesn't follow the standard format, it's likely that the agent or editor will simply move on to the next submission.

13 Steps to Format Your Manuscript

Below are the 13 steps you need to take to properly format your manuscript (including technical guidance for Microsoft Word).

Pro tip: Don’t use Google Docs to write a book that’s longer than 20,000 words. The online word processor can’t handle large documents, leading to serious latency issues. Once you get above 15k-25k word count, it takes several seconds every time you scroll or start a new paragraph.

Step 1: Page Size

Use the industry standard page size of 8.5”x11” — the exact dimensions of a standard piece of paper. In Microsoft Word, this option is found under File > Page Setup.

Hopefully, this goes without saying, but the page should be white. Don’t format your manuscript on a black- or cream-colored page.

Page Size Dialog Box Microsoft Word

Step 2: Margins

Set one-inch margins on all sides. 1 inch around the top, bottom, left, and right margins is the default for most word processors. This can be found in the “Layout” tab of Microsoft Word.

Step 3: Font

Set the font to black 12-point Times New Roman. Some editors may prefer a Courier font or a sans-serif font like Arial. In most cases, you shouldn’t highlight any of the text.

Standard Font Size for Manuscript Microsoft Word

Step 4: Indentation

Indent the first line of every new paragraph by 0.5 inches. Do not press the TAB key or SPACE-SPACE-SPACE-SPACE-SPACE. You can easily adjust automatic indentation settings in all word processors.

First Line Indent Microsoft Word

Step 5: Line Spacing

Double-space your entire manuscript. Do not set any extra space or a line break between paragraphs. All you should have is standard double spacing. (For some non-fiction books, you may forego paragraph indentation and opt for extra line spacing between paragraphs).

Double Line Spacing Microsoft Word

Step 6: Alignment

Make your text left-aligned, not justified. The right side will have a lot of rags (un-uniform line endings). That’s perfectly normal.

Left Aligned vs Justified Microsoft Word

Step 7: Page Breaks

Use page breaks. When creating a new chapter, don’t press ENTER over and over until you reach a new page. Page breaks make everyone’s life easier.

Page Break Microsoft Word

Step 8: Headers (including Page Numbers)

Place the book title, author’s last name, and page numbers in the header on every page.

Page numbers start with “1” on the first page after the title page. If you’re including front matter, such as a foreword, table of contents, or a copyright page, you should number those pages with Roman numerals. This can all be automated.

Step 9: Scene Breaks

Use industry standard scene breaks. It’s important to note that scene breaks are optional in a story as a way to break down chapters into smaller sections.

If you have scene breaks within your chapters, simply type and center 3 asterisks (***) or 3 hashes (###) or 3 hyphens (—) on an otherwise blank line. These are the standard markings for scene breaks.

Manuscript Scene Break Microsoft Word

Step 10: Italicized, not Underlined

Use italics for emphasis. In most cases, authors shouldn’t use underlined words. Italicization,  rather than underlining, is standard in manuscript formatting.

Italics Microsoft Word

Step 11: Single Space After Period

Type a single space after a period. Do not hit the spacebar twice after a period. Standard practice dictates one space after each period. (During the editing phase of my book, I search my whole document for a double space, using the “Find” feature in every word processor).

Single Space After Period Microsoft Word

Step 12: “END” Your Manuscript

Type “END” or a hash (#) after the last line of your manuscript. Center align it. This way, whoever reads your manuscript will know they’re not missing pages.

Manuscript End Microsoft Word

Step 13: Export

Finally, export your manuscript. Export it all as one document, not separate files for each chapter.

When you export your novel manuscript, you should export it into a DOCX file format. Give it a helpful file name: “Lastname_Title_Date” so that people can easily search for it. 

Manuscript Save Dialog Microsoft Word

This file and naming format is what most editors and agents prefer. However, always consult manuscript submission guidelines for each submission.

Now, it’s time to breathe a sigh of relief.

Title Page of Your Manuscript

The title page of your manuscript will not look like the title page in your final product.

Your title page should include, in descending order:

  • Contact information (in upper left hand corner, single-spaced):
    • Email address
    • Phone number
    • Address
    • Your agent’s details and contact info, if applicable
  • Book title (centered, about one-third or halfway down page)
  • Author name or pen name, preceded by “a novel by” or “by”
  • Approximate word count (rounded to the nearest thousand)
  • Copyright details, if applicable: for example, “©2021 Dave Chesson”

All of these components of the title page should be the same font as the body text, including the size. Only the alignments will be different.

Manuscript Cover Page

What is the purpose of a title page? The main purpose of the title page is to tell editors and agents who wrote this book and how to contact them. Obviously, it also tells them your book’s title.

What are the different parts of a manuscript? There are really only 2 parts of a manuscript:

  1. Title page.
  2. Body text, split up by chapter breaks, which can be split up with scene breaks.

How to Format New Chapters

In a manuscript, you should properly format new chapters in these 3 ways:

  1. Use a page break to begin a new chapter. (Don’t press ENTER until you reach a new page.)
  2. Center the chapter title either one-third or halfway down the page. (Almost everything else is left-aligned, except the manuscript title and the chapter title.)
  3. Type the chapter number (e.g., “Chapter 1” or “Chapter One”) on one line, then the chapter title (e.g., “Amanda’s Vision”) on the following line.
Manuscript First Page Chapter

If you make minor adjustments to this new chapter formatting, be sure to make them consistent across the entire manuscript.

Also, there’s a little conflict over first paragraphs on new chapters. Should they be indented or not? Standard manuscript formatting dictates that you do not indent the first paragraph of each chapter. 

However, this is a somewhat subjective matter. Few editors or agents will scoff at an indented first paragraph. If you can spare the time, feel free to un-indent those first paragraphs. If you aren’t able to, or don’t like the look, it’s alright to skip this minute step.

Why do I need to format my manuscript?

You need to format your manuscript because it tells editors, agents, and publishers that you know what you’re doing.

Why is formatting important? Formatting is important because if you properly format your manuscript, editors and agents assume you took the time to learn about other important aspects of publishing. 

When your manuscript is formatted correctly, potential agents and editors are more likely to see you as knowledgeable on marketing, book categories, story structure, etc.

Most publishing professionals will throw out an improperly formatted manuscript on sight because they don’t want to waste their time on an author who has no regard for simple publishing etiquette. It tells them that this writer is careless, lazy, or can’t follow directions.

Your manuscript is not for publication. Your formatted manuscript is for:

  • Editors
  • Beta readers (who are usually less picky than others on this list)
  • Potential literary agents
  • Traditional publishing houses, if you’re vying for a book deal (for which you will likely need a literary agent)

Do I need to buy a formatting program to format my manuscript?

No, you probably don’t need any special program to format your manuscript. Whether you’re using Word, Scrivener, or Google Docs, most word processors possess the basic formatting tools needed to properly format your manuscript.

When you are ready to publish your final draft, you may need to purchase a special formatting program like Atticus or Vellum. You may also hire a book formatting service (like Damonza or Ebook Launch) to make your finished book look as professional and neat as possible.

Just like an unprofessional-looking manuscript can turn off agents and publishers, a haphazard final book format can deter potential readers and encourage negative reviews.

Manuscript Format Example

What does a manuscript look like? Here is an example of what a manuscript body text page looks like:

Manuscript Format Example

You can use this example as a manuscript template.

Manuscript Formatting vs Book Formatting

What is the difference between a manuscript and a book? A manuscript is a preliminary draft of your novel or short story, formatted for sending to editors and agents. A book is a finished product, the final draft — formatted, proofread, and ready to be published.

Where your manuscript should be formatted to look like a draft or an essay, your book should be formatted to look like any other professionally sold book on Amazon or in a brick-and-mortar bookstore like Barnes & Noble.

If readers crack open your book only to find weird margins, uneven rags on the ends of lines, widows and orphans, inconsistent spacing, distracting fonts, etc., they are much less likely to buy your book. If they’ve already bought it, they may leave a bad review online because of how unprofessional it looks.

If you need to format your book for market (especially if you didn’t recognize any of the words in the above paragraph), read my comprehensive mastery guide on How to Format a Book.

More Resources for Authors

Now you know how to format your manuscript for editors, agents, beta readers, publishers, etc. I’ll leave this How to Land a Book Deal article right here in case you want to read it.

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