How to Format a Book: 10 Tips Your Editor Wants You To Know

How to Format a Book: 10 Tips Your Editor Wants You To Know

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.

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. You’d much rather paint a new world on the canvas of your book than talk about unadorned, 12-point Times New Roman.

But that’s why we need to talk about it.

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:

  1. I can hardly read this manuscript.
  2. 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.

Plus, once you have the basics down, you can create a template for future use.

While this article attempts to offer standardized recommendations, some editors, 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 U.S. Any accepted variations are noted, and comments are appreciated with regard to differences for international markets.

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 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 Word’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.

These ten 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.

When an editor receives a well-formatted manuscript, they can immediately begin the work that you’re actually paying them to do: editing!

To view other Editorially Speaking columns, check out Blake Atwood’s author page.

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22 comments

  • This was super helpful. Thanks Blake!

  • Two words from a fellow editor, Blake:

    Bless you!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  • C. S. Lakin says:

    Hi, as a copyeditor for the US book publishing industry, I would comment that perhaps each editor might prefer some variations here. I’ve found that justified text is not the preference of agents and publishers. Yes, it’s done at the book design stage, but even disliked and discouraged in ebook formatting by some. I request flush left text. And traditionally agents and publishers prefer page numbering on top left, so the page numbers are easily accessed.

    Writers can just use the shortcut control + enter to create page breaks at the end of chapters. And for those who don’t get how to set up to auto-indent (yes, I am bothered by tab indents too!), this is a good screen shot: http://www.livewritethrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Screen-shot-of-paragraph-dialog-box.jpg

    Thanks for sharing all these helpful tips!

  • Robin Botie says:

    Thank you so much. Yow, did I need this.

  • I wish I had a dollar for every time I receive a manuscript with multiple returns instead of page breaks. In fact, if I had a dollar for every return, I’d be retired by now!

  • Great practical advice Blake. Thanks

  • Great tips, and I know plenty of writers need them. I’d like to add, though, that editors may have their own requirements, and those of course are what should be followed. As an editor myself, I’m with C.S.Lakin above on the justified text. That’s almost impossible to edit (text jumps around), and I’d have to reformat to left alignment first. Not a big deal, but that’s what I’d do.

    Great that you reminded readers about those double spaces between sentences! Another easy fix (search and replace), but annoying. Writers should know better, regardless of their personal preference (what book has double spaces?).

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thank you, Leah. The article has been updated regarding left justification. And for what it’s worth, I do mention that “some editors, agents or publishing houses may have their own formatting stipulations.” For instance, I’ll only look at manuscripts that use Comic Sans—and I’m totally kidding about that.

  • P.D. Workman says:

    I was going to suggest left justified over full as well, but I see two others beat me to it!

  • Thanks for this information I thought I already knew since I already published my first book (with an editor). I was not aware of the need to left justify, but I am now thanks to you!

  • Megan Harris says:

    Man, this would’ve come in handy for a lot of projects! 🙂 I don’t typically tell clients how I want their doc formatted, but it is asked on occasion. For the most part, I have no trouble editing something that is single spaced, but I do find myself zooming in a lot more to read it. Great tips here, as always!

  • Writers have rarely asked me how they should format their manuscripts, so I get all sorts of things! Gray text, tabs, soft returns. But I have a macro that quickly deletes those things and implements everything you mentioned (full left indent, though). Although I don’t like editing in Times New Roman (the punctuation is too small), so I set it in Tahoma. 🙂

  • Carly says:

    Smashwords has a guide for formatting to get into their premium catalogue…Considering all the different readers available…Do not number your pages…this will cause chaos because the pages on one reader will be different from the rest when considering Nook, Kindle the Kindle app, iPad etc….and both Amazon and Smashwords only accept .doc and no .docx

    Otherwise great tips. Thanks for sharing and have a great day.

  • Marlita says:

    Great advice Blake. One question, though: is it ever acceptable to left-align on a non-fiction book? Specifically, mine is about art and it’s informal.

  • Thank you for this clear and considerate post. As an editor I appreciate your simple guide cell and as an author I learned that if anything is worth doing it’s worth doing it right and helping your team.

    Warmly Tanya Freedman WA Gloria Silk,

  • Laura says:

    We love this post and think our readers would find it super helpful! Please reach out to me regarding a link swap if interested. 🙂

    https://self-publishingschool.com/5-book-formatting-mistakes-to-avoid/

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