How to Format a Manuscript: 10 Steps

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How to Format a Manuscript: 10 Steps
How to Format a Manuscript: 10 Steps

There are many types of manuscripts, from works of fiction to scientific treatises, and there are even more types of places you can submit a manuscript to be considered for publication. Expectations for format vary depending on the type of manuscript, subject matter, and editor preference, but there are some generally accepted standards for fiction and non-fiction (non-academic) manuscripts on which this article focuses. By formatting your manuscript according to these general guidelines and keeping it looking neat, simple, consistent, and legible, you'll improve your chances of impressing the publisher who receives it.


Part 1 of 3: Create a familiar look

Format a Manuscript Step 1
Format a Manuscript Step 1

Step 1. Know that editors prefer simplicity, familiarity, and consistency

Publishers have mountains of submitted manuscripts (well, these days they might have countless email attachments) to read at all times. You may think that bold colors, unique fonts, or some other attractive element could make your manuscript stand out, but editors generally prefer a standardized, "boring" look that allows them to quickly examine and evaluate the work.

  • Check if each publisher where you are going to send your manuscript has specific formatting guidelines and, if so, follow them. Guidelines are often posted on the publisher's website, but if you're unsure, you can contact a person in the procurement department for clarification.
  • However, if the publisher does not have guidelines, using the general guidelines outlined here should do the trick. Generally, if the format is common, simple and consistent, the chances that your manuscript will be immediately placed on the "reject" pile will be reduced.
Format a Manuscript Step 2
Format a Manuscript Step 2

Step 2. You must accept that there is no single "standard format" for a manuscript

This is true even though publishers and publishers regularly use this term or even abbreviate it as "SMF".

  • Rather than a single clearly defined universal standard, what exists is a set of generally accepted formatting principles that vary in specific details.
  • If the prospective publisher doesn't give you specific formatting guidance, don't go crazy trying to find the real "SMF." Choose the variations that make the most sense to you and stick with them throughout the manuscript.
Format a Manuscript Step 3
Format a Manuscript Step 3

Step 3. Get the basics right

Even though the "SMF" looks like the Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot (rumored to exist but never proven), there are certain formatting guidelines that are practically universal and you should always follow.

  • Use black text on white paper. Don't use modern, unique, or "pretty" colors of any kind. Also use good quality white 20 pound letter paper if you are submitting a physical copy of the manuscript. Don't staple the paper and pack it neatly and securely for shipping.
  • Make your manuscript legible by choosing a traditional 12-point double-spaced font. Don't use big letters, don't clutter up the pages to save trees or save on shipping cost, and don't use Comic Sans font. There is no consensus on the best traditional font, but Times New Roman, Courier, and possibly Arial are the best options.
  • Leave margins that give the editor room to write notes on the pages. Margins of 2.5 to 3 cm (1 inch) on all sides are the normal standard. You can make them a bit bigger if you want but there is no reason to have giant margins and a small area of text in the center.
  • Each page of text should have a heading with your last name, the title of the manuscript (or just keywords), and the page number. Commonly, this is placed on the right margin. Some recommend using hyphens or spaces, but slashes are more common: "Sánchez / My manuscript / 23".
  • Unless instructed otherwise, align the text to the left, leaving a jagged right edge (do not "justify" the text). This is considered more readable.
  • If you are submitting the manuscript electronically, save it as a PDF file unless otherwise specified. These files are easy for anyone with a computer to read and will retain the manuscript format exactly.

Part 2 of 3: Follow the "standard format" for the manuscript

Format a Manuscript Step 4
Format a Manuscript Step 4

Step 1. Lay out the cover

While some publishers advise using a combination of a cover page and the first page, especially if you're presenting a short story, creating a separate cover page is probably the best option.

  • The cover page should have at least your full name (legal name and pseudonym, if you are going to use one), the full title of the work, your contact information, and a word count (the true or a close estimate). Consider the following layout for the page (all double-spaced):

    • Put your legal name and contact information in the upper left corner of the page.
    • Put the word count in the upper right corner. With the ease of modern word processors, there is no reason not to include an exact word count in place of an estimate.
    • In the middle of the page and centered, place the title in capital letters. On the next line (centered), add "by". On the next line, add your name or pseudonym as you want it to appear in the work.
  • At the bottom of the page, you can choose to add the copyright information or your contact information or that of your agent (either of which is relevant to the manuscript).
Format a Manuscript Step 5
Format a Manuscript Step 5

Step 2. Format the header

Despite certain variations in style, experts invariably recommend that you include your last name, title (or shortened title), and page number as a heading along the upper-right corner of each manuscript page.

  • The following would be a neat and simple heading: "Surname / My manuscript / 1". If the title were "My totally awesome manuscript to read and publish," then "My manuscript" would be a good abbreviation for the heading.
  • The cover should not have a heading or page number (think of it as page zero). Other possible introductory materials (the table of contents, acknowledgments, etc.) are also not taken into account for the page count and may instead contain a heading that uses lowercase Roman numerals (for example, "Surname / My manuscript / iii "). The page indicated by the Arabic numeral "1" marks the beginning of the text of the manuscript itself.
Format a Manuscript Step 6
Format a Manuscript Step 6

Step 3. Make sure each new chapter can be clearly identified

Editors don't want to have to search (or guess) where one chapter ends and another begins.

  • Each chapter begins on a new page. Leave the top third of the page blank except for the header.
  • At the end of the first third, centered, put the chapter number and title in capital letters. For example: "CHAPTER 1 - THE BEGINNING".
  • Begin the chapter text four to six lines (two or three double-spaced lines) below the title.
  • Do not indent the first paragraph of each chapter. Only the paragraphs that start a new chapter, section, etc., separated after a space in the last part of the text, should appear without indentation.
  • All lines of dialogue must be indented unless they start a chapter, etc.
  • Advice on sangria varies. Some advise five spaces and others 1.2 cm (0.5 inches). However, perhaps the most important thing is consistency throughout the manuscript.
Format a Manuscript Step 7
Format a Manuscript Step 7

Step 4. Address other possible components of the manuscript

Again, consistency and clarity should be your goals.

  • Every manuscript has an ending (and hopefully a captivating one) and placing "END", centered and capitalized, is the best way to clearly indicate the conclusion of the work.
  • In a manuscript that includes scenes, such as a play or movie script, some spaces can be identified by leaving a blank line except for a pound sign (#).
  • Footnotes are less common in non-academic manuscripts and as such are not clearly addressed as part of the "SMF". If you have footnotes, consistency is the most important factor. You should probably only consider using endnotes if they are just bibliographic references.

Part 3 of 3: Format a manuscript with a sample word processor (such as Google Docs)

Format a Manuscript Step 8
Format a Manuscript Step 8

Step 1. Set up the page

The default margins in Google Docs are already set to 2.5 cm (1 inch), but if you need to restore them, do the following:

  • Click on the "File" tab.
  • In the drop-down menu, click "Page setup."
  • In the box that appears, enter "2.5" (centimeters) for the top, bottom, left, and right margins.
  • Your document should already be in portrait orientation, not landscape. If not, change it there too.
Format a Manuscript Step 9
Format a Manuscript Step 9

Step 2. Choose the proper alignment, spacing, and font type and size

All of these can be changed by clicking the appropriate buttons along the top of the page. The default font and size in Google Docs is 11 point Arial, so this should be changed.

  • The preferred left alignment (with a serrated edge on the right) is the standard but you can easily position the buttons for the four alignment options (left, right, centered, justified) near the center of the row.
  • The button for spacing is just to the right of the four alignment buttons. The default spacing in Google Docs is 1.15 lines. Just click the button and choose "double" from the drop-down menu.
  • Buttons for font type and size are also easily located on the left side of the row. Just click on each one to produce drop-down menus with font size and style options. Always choose 12 points and it is generally best to use Times New Roman unless instructed otherwise.
Format a Manuscript Step 10
Format a Manuscript Step 10

Step 3. Configure the header

Remember that the heading must include your last name, title (abbreviated) and page number and be located in the upper right corner of each page of the main body of the text. The cover should not have a heading or be included in the sequence of page numbers.

  • Click on the "Insert" tab. Choose "Page Number" from the drop-down menu.
  • Four options will appear. Choose the one that places the page number in the upper right corner but excludes the cover (as indicated by a small animation of two sample pages).
  • Page headers are not displayed unless you are in print layout view. This option is found in the "View" tab.
  • Searches for the first inserted page number ("1"). Place the cursor to its left and then type the heading, such as "Last Name / Short Title / 1".
  • Click below the dotted line to return to the main body of the text.


  • When submitting a manuscript, always check the submission guidelines of the agent or publisher. Often times, they have their own shipping requirements that they expect you to follow.
  • Format preferences for academic manuscripts tend to vary by area. The humanities generally use the MLA style. History, journalism, and communications prefer the Chicago-style manual. The social sciences generally use the APA format. The hard sciences often have their own individual style guides. Check the magazine or publisher to whom you are sending your manuscript.
  • Correct your spelling and then check. If no one can help you, either wait several days before reviewing or change the way you read (for example, read the last chapter first and proceed in the reverse order).


  • Don't use a small font size or change the font width to manipulate the length of your manuscript. Editors recognize these techniques immediately.
  • Never try to be unique when formatting your manuscript to try and make it stand out. Doing so will only frustrate an editor who just wants you to follow the standard format.

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