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Monday, March 31, 2008

(My) Formatting Basics

One of my readers is wanting to get started writing a novel that's been brewing for a few years and asked me how I format a manuscript, as internet formatting rules seemed contradictory. I started an elaborate email answer, and then said, what the heck and put it here. My answer:

First thing: At this point format is not critical. One cool thing about word processors is that you can completely change the format in a few minutes. Right now, learning how to grab a reader with an opening, how to build tension, how to reveal the inner life of your characters is the nitty gritty [see other posts in this blog!!]. Your aim with format is to keep it easy to read and easy to edit.

That being said, here's what I do.


  • I set up my pages and paragraphs

    • double-spaced

    • 1-inch margins (approx)

    • with 12-pt Times New Roman font for easy reading

    • with widow-orphan control, keep follow, keep with next, and such paragraphing settings turned off (so all full pages are the same number of lines)

    • with the left margin justified, and right margin "ragged" (Remember, you are not typesetting the book, you are creating a manuscript.)

    • using a five-space indent at the beginning of paragraphs

    • with no blank lines between paragraphs




  • I insert a section break between chapters, so that I can format the page header to reflect the individual chapter and the page numbers (a critical element that many beginning writers forget!) Many writers use individual files for chapters and link them through an MS Word master document. As I write start to finish, a single doc works better for me.


  • I always drop down a third of the page for the beginning of a chapter, insert the centered chapter title (in my case it's almost always "Chapter X") then begin. Recently I've begun to take advantage of the Word table of contents facility, which makes it easy to pop back and forth between chapters as the manuscript goes. I strip this out of the manuscript before I turn it in. (Remember, you are not typesetting the book...)


  • scene breaks - blank lines between scenes within a chapter - should be marked with a centered "#" sign


  • I use modernisms like italics, instead of underlines, for direct thoughts and certain other emphasized words; and I use "smart quotes" because I like the look and I'm the one looking at this thing for a year or more.



If you start out like this, then, when you actually get to the point of submitting work, the things that might need to change are

  • the italics/underline thing - some editors think underline is easier to read

  • the font - the old custom was to submit in Courier New (a monospace typewriter-looking font that I despise) and some editors still want it.



More and more these two are obsolete requirements, but in ANY submission - agent, editor, contest, magazine - you hunt down the submission guidelines and follow them. Some things won't change: minimum 12-pt font, drop down at chapter beginnings, numbered pages, 1-inch margins. Magazine editors are more likely to be picky than novel editors or agents.

4 comments:

Kellie said...

the old custom was to submit in Courier New (a monospace typewriter-looking font that I despise)

I hated Courier New when I first started writing, but all of the guidelines I saw at the time listed that font, so I used it. Now, several years later, Times New Roman looks odd to me and a bit squishy and harder to read. If it's not in Courier New, it doesn't feel like a manuscript anymore. Funny what the eyes get used to.

I would prefer smart quotes, too, except all it takes is MS Word insisting on formatting the smart quote in the wrong direction for whatever reason that you spend five hours trying to hunt down because it's managed to trigger an OCD knee-jerk response as a means of procrastinating.... No, I stick with straight quotes now. :)

carolwriter said...

I think I've hammered all the reasons smart quotes can end up backwards. But I find PLENTY of other distractions that support procrastination when the going gets tough...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

This is a really good rundown. I used to work in an entire ms, now I put different chapters into different files. I'm not sure why, because I do end up having to go and combine them. But I have heard horror stories about those huge files...

carolwriter said...

I think old versions of Word did have a problem with large files. But my 189K mss didn't even make it bark. With newer faster machines, it takes no time to load. The only slowdown I ever saw was on an older version of Norton Antivirus that insisted on scanning Office files. It was VERY slow. I told it to quit scanning those I loaded from my own filesystem. Newer versions seem to work fine.

But keeping separate files can certainly work better for some writers.