I know. With the greatest of respect for book designers and internal formatters, formatting isn’t exactly the sexiest of topics for an author to consider. But, if you don’t know how to format a book it can cost you a reader. You’d much rather paint a new world on the canvas of your book than talk about unadorned, 12-point Times New Roman.
Unless you prefer your friends to be story nerds or those who lean toward obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it comes to grammar, you shouldn’t necessarily seek to befriend your editor.
However, you should seek to do everything in your power to be a professional friend of your editor. One of the simplest ways to do that, which too many authors fail to consider, is formatting.
Why Formatting is Important
When you skip over the basics of how your manuscript is formatted, you’re subconsciously showing a lack of respect for your craft (and your editor). If you send a poorly formatted manuscript to your editor, they very likely won’t say anything, but I can promise you that they’re thinking one of two things.
- I can hardly read this manuscript
- I’m wasting my time reformatting this manuscript
In these instances, an editor will either edit your manuscript as-is or spend the time you’re paying them for to do the work you could have (and should have) done yourself.
But once you incorporate the standardized basics of formatting a manuscript in preparation for your editor, you’ll see that it will save both you and your editor a lot of time and frustration.
How to Format Your Book
While this article attempts to offer standardized recommendations, some editors, literary agents or publishing houses may have their own formatting stipulations. Always be sure to scan websites for that information, and when in doubt, ask.
The following formatting recommendations hold true for both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts in the United States. Any accepted variations are noted, and comments are appreciated with regard to differences for international markets.
Here’s what’s expected for a standard manuscript format.
1. Use black, 12-point, Times New Roman as the font
Yes, Times New Roman is boring, but it’s essentially on every computer ever made.
Don’t use a cool font for effect. Save that for your book’s interior design, which comes much later after the editing process.
Font trivia: Times New Roman is no longer used by The Times.
2. Use the U.S. standard page size of 8.5×11 inches and set your margins to 1 inch on all sides
Starting a new document in Word defaults to these parameters, but if you’re exporting to Word from your word processor of choice, double-check the output to ensure your page size and margins are correct.
To set page size in Word, go to File>Page Setup and look at the drop-down menu for Page Size.
To set margins in Word, go to Format>Document.
3. Set alignment to left justified
Left justified text is also known as ragged right text. The text will align itself along its left side, leaving its right side nonuniform (unjustified).
To set alignment in Word, select all of your text, then click the left justification icon in the Home tab or select Format>Paragraph and choose “Left” in the Alignment drop-down box.
4. Use a single space after periods
If you were trained to type two spaces after a period, retrain yourself.
In the digital age, use a single space. (For why, see “Space Invaders.”)
Tip: if your manuscript has two spaces after a period, use your word processor’s Find and Replace tool. Type two spaces into “Find” and one space into “Replace” then hit “Replace All” with reckless, typing-teacher-be-damned abandon.
5. Use double-spaced line spacing
This may be the greatest help to your editor.
You want to ensure they see your every last word, so give your words room to breathe on the page.
Tip: if you’ve already written your book with different line spacing, select all of your text in Word, click Format>Paragraph, then select “Double” in the drop-down box under “Line spacing.”
6. Indent all paragraphs by .5 inches, and don’t hit tab or space to indent
This may be every editor’s pet peeve. Setting tabs and hitting tab aren’t the same thing.
If you’re a tab-hitter or space-space-space-space-spacer, select all of your text in Word, then set indentation using Format>Paragraph. Under “Indentation” and by “Left,” type .5. under “Special,” then choose “First line” from the drop-down menu.
Note: Generally, the first paragraph of any chapter, after a subhead, or following a bulleted or numbered list isn’t indented.
7. Format paragraphs according to genre standards
Fiction authors should use indented paragraphs without full paragraph breaks. Nonfiction authors may opt for no indentation so long as paragraphs are separated by a full paragraph break.
Tip: Crack open a book in your genre to see what the paragraphing conventions are, then emulate.
8. Use page breaks
To begin a new chapter, don’t just keep hitting return until you create a new page. Rather, use page breaks.
In Word, place the cursor at the end of a chapter, then click “Insert>Break>Page Break” in Word’s top menu.
9. Number your pages
Don’t begin numbering on your title page. Rather, begin numbering on the page your story begins.
To place page numbers in Word, double-click within the header area of the page on which your story begins and click “Insert > Page Numbers,” then select your preferred options. Choose to place your page numbers at the top left of the page.
10. Send your manuscript as one Word document (.doc /.docx)
You don’t have to compose your masterpiece in Word, but because Word’s “Track Changes” feature is still the de facto editing tool of choice, your editor will appreciate receiving a Word file.
And whatever you do, never send your editor individual chapters as separate files.
Alternate Option: Use Software to Help Learn How to Format a Book
While you can do most of these steps in Microsoft Word or Google Docs while writing your manuscript, when it comes time to turn it into a format that is used in the marketplaces, you’ll probably want specialized book formatting software. This kind of software can help you with both ebooks and paperbacks.
While there are a number of options out there, one of the best is Atticus. It will help you produce professional-looking books easily, with no technical background. Plus, with all of its features, you can customize your book and make it truly unique.
What to do next
These 10 easy-to-follow steps will put you on your editor’s good side. While each of these issues typically doesn’t take too much time to rectify, the problems are compounded when an editor has to fix more than a few.
Want more help formatting your book? Check out this related article on “Book Format: 7 Common Mistakes & How to Avoid Them.”
Just remember, when an editor receives a well-formatted manuscript, they can immediately begin the work that you’re actually paying them to do: editing!
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
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