Formatting Your Manuscript for Your Editor

Microsoft Word is pretty awesome. I use it almost every day, and I know that it is easy to get caught up choosing fun fonts, colors, and design elements for your manuscript. However, throughout my experience as a freelance editor, I have found that the authors who spent time “designing” their manuscripts would have been better off using that time to refine their content instead. So much is involved in designing a book that it’s best for writers, especially first-time writers, to leave the design up to the book designer or typesetter—that is, someone who is knowledgeable of and has studied typesetting, typography, and all things that make books pretty.

When it comes to preparing your manuscript for your editor, think simple. Think minimalist. Editing is an early stage of book production. The look and “design” of your manuscript isn’t important at this stage. In fact, whatever your manuscript looks like at this point will be very different from what it will end up looking like later. For now, you want to prepare a clean, stripped down file for your editor. Doing so isn’t just a matter of making your editor happy. Your content is at risk when a compositor or editor has to spend time cleaning up the arbitrary formatting you applied to your manuscript. Carol Saller, senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, wrote,

There are two basic methods for restoring simplicity to a tarted-up text: (1) like generations of wallpaper, your fancy accretions can be scraped away a layer at a time, or (2) like a condemned hovel, they can be bulldozed and rebuilt from scratch. Neither method is foolproof; both risk minor violence to the content.

Nonfiction manuscripts are usually more complex (they might have various heading levels, figure captions, tables, etc.) and require more formatting than fiction manuscripts. However, the guidelines that I have listed below apply to both fiction and nonfiction and will help you prepare a clean and simple file that won’t drive your editor crazy. Note that this is not an exhaustive list. There are many other things you can do to clean up your manuscript, but these are standard formatting requests made by most editors and publishers.

  • Use Times New Roman, 12-point font.
  • Do not use two spaces at the end of each sentence. Use a single space instead.
  • Other than the use of italics and bold, don’t worry about getting fancy with your manuscript. Remember, your main focus right now is the content, not the design.
  • Don’t press the tab key to start a new paragraph. Instead, set your paragraph preferences in Word so that the first line of each paragraph is automatically indented.
  • While you’re in the paragraph preferences dialog box, you’ll also want to set the spacing of your manuscript to double spacing.

formatting your manuscript for your editor

  • Main text should be flush left, not justified.

formatting your manuscript for your editor

  • When you want to start a new chapter or page, use a page break instead of pressing Enter or Return a bunch of times to get to a new page.

formatting your manuscript for your editor

  • If your manuscript includes graphics or illustrations, don’t place them directly in the manuscript file. Instead, insert callouts where the images should appear (e.g., “Figure 1 goes here”). Send the images to your editor as separate files (e.g., jpeg, png, or tiff). There are editorial and design reasons for doing this. I won’t get into them here, but trust me on this one, guys.
  • In nonfiction manuscripts, make sure heading levels are easily distinguished. My suggestion is to use specific font sizes for each heading level. For example:

formatting your manuscript for your editor

  • Ask your editor if he or she prefers to edit the manuscript as one document or if he or she prefers each chapter as a separate document. I personally prefer to edit all chapters in one document, but everyone has their own methods for editing.
  • If you’re submitting your manuscript to a publisher, be sure to read the publisher’s submission guidelines. Publishers typically have specific formatting instructions, many of which may be similar to the ones I’ve listed in this post. These instructions can often be found on the publisher’s website, or the publisher may send them to you directly.

Now that you’ve read these formatting guidelines, can you figure out what is wrong with the formatting in the example below?

formatting your book for editing

You’ll notice that

  • a fancy font is used at the top of the document instead of Times New Roman;
  • the author made a poor attempt to add some design to the chapter heading;
  • manual tabs are used at the start of each paragraph;
  • small caps are used for the first three words (another attempt to “design” the text); and
  • double spaces are used after punctuation rather than single spaces.

Proper formatting would look something like this:

formatting your book for editing

Fellow editors, if you think I forgot an important formatting tip, please feel free to list it in the comments below. Authors, if you have any questions, send me an e-mail or leave a comment below, and I will get back to you.

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