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

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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 book format template for future use.

10 tips for nailing your book format

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Photo via Chinnapong/Shutterstock

Filed Under: Get Published

67 comments

  • Shirleykach says:

    Thanks for all the helpful info. Started writing my first fictional novel and went straight into it. On Chapter 6 and suddenly realized there are many things I don’t know. How many words per page, formatting, at what point do I need an editor, how to approach a publisher, where to start from etc. Are you able to help me? At what point do I go to the editor?

  • Gordon (Australia) says:

    Thanks for these tips, Blake. I am visually impaired, and to stop myself going crazy with boredom, I decided to write a piece of fiction. Actually, I decided this over six years ago (and and, 120k pages in, I’m still running with it! I have finished my book and was/am stuck on the formatting thing. Most of the software that does this automatically is not screenreader friendly, so I have resorted to doing it manually. A big task for someone with limited vision (especially when I can’t see how other books are formatted). This page is a great starting point for me. Well done.

  • T Richardson says:

    Found this article super helpful as I always have my nose stuck in a book and decided I would like to try my hand at writing and didn’t have a clue where to start but knew formatting it properly was a good place to start.

  • Cai Farr says:

    I am writing a fiction story for a contest. Should I include a cover page?

  • Thanks Blake,
    This has been so helpful and inspiring, i am beginning to put up the bits and pieces of my manuscript together right away

  • Elysia G says:

    Thank you sooo much for this information. I am wanting to finally write my manuscript about my life. I’m not sure it’ll be what people want to read but I’m passionate about it. Do you have any advice on finding a good editor ? Or recommend someone that will be somewhat of a hands on critique ?

  • Kerry Hansen says:

    Very helpful! Thank you!

    Because so many websites and books contradict each other, can you recommend a source that lays out the current industry standards? I like Chuck Sambuchino’s Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript (2009), but now it’s out of date. I read that he updated it but haven’t found it anywhere.

    Sorry to keep blasting you with questions, but I’ve seen contradictory information about chapter titles and section/scene breaks.

    CHAPTER TITLES
    I’ve read that the new way to write them is flush left, rather than centered, and at the top of the page instead of 1/3 down the page. What do you recommend?

    I’ve seen chapter titles written in two ways. Which is the industry standard?
    CHAPTER ONE–THE BODY
    Chapter One: The Body

    SECTION/SCENE BREAKS
    I’ve written some minor breaks within chapters and have seen enough advice about this to make my head spin. For a minor scene break (passage of time, etc.), I’ve seen everything from extra spaces to * * * to #. And then I’ve seen advice for major breaks, like when POV changes. Most of mine are minor breaks. How do you recommend I format that?

    Also, after a minor break, do I remove the indent for the paragraph that follows?

    Thank you so much! I truly appreciate you taking the time to answer all of our many questions. 🙂

  • Hallie says:

    This is the best, to the point, instructional summary on formatting a manuscript I’ve ever seen. I wish I’d seen it earlier 🙂

    Just signed up for your newsletter.

  • zullay says:

    Does that mean the title should be 12 point times new roman as well? Hopefully this is not a repetitive question, but too many comments to browse through. Thank you!

  • Proper formatting is a MUST, but that still leaves the age-old problem of finding a publisher that will even accept a new work that is unsolicited.

    And going the “self-publishing” route leaves you with a book that might sell 3 copies a year!

    And most new writers cannot afford to hire an editor. So, now what?

  • Thanks for this, very useful for my daughter just starting Creative Writing course

  • zero says:

    I use word to write on my iPad, and it requires a paid subscription to use page breaks. What would be a good alternate way of formatting the breaks between chapters?

  • Sherna Alexander Benjamin says:

    Thank you for this information and all comments I am finding it useful as I attempt my first nonfiction book.

  • truleigh says:

    Should you put the title of the book and the authors name on each page?

  • Emery says:

    Thank you super helpful especially for me being a middle school writer!

  • Stephanie says:

    I’m also in the Dallas area! After writing a book, having it edited, and having a professional book cover designed how would you suggest getting it published?

  • Zach Tabor says:

    Very helpful. Thank you. I have a question, though. I was asked by a friend (who is a retired professor) to transcribe a coursebook into Word – which he printed off himself – so that he can submit it for publication. It’s an anthology of selections from various writers – some translations of works from the ancient world, some translations of more modern works, some written originally in English. These selections are photocopied and compiled into the coursebook. Do you know, in general, how an anthology should be formatted, or do you know of anywhere I might get this information?

    I can apply the advice in your article without a problem. I really only need to know how to deal with three things: 1) footnotes and endnotes – do I include them? And if so, how do I place the selection’s endnotes on a particular page in the Word document (which is the last page of the photocopied article)? 2) line numbering in translations that indicate, for cross-referencing, the pagination of a more authoritative translation. They appear in a sort of column to the left of the text.

    I apologize for asking such a detailed question, but I cannot seem to find this information on my own. Thank you for any information you may have, and thank you again for this helpful article.

  • I’ve worked in SharePoint on large MS Word documents using Word’s Track Changes function and heard editors talk about how unreliable a program it is for big files. Isn’t that why InDesign is useful? Book manuscripts are such huge files. Should they really be sent as a single Word document?

  • Saw-lian Cheah says:

    I was wondering how to format a long poem at the end of a chapter and quotations from different sources in the Front Matter. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

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