Tag Archives: Novel Manuscript Formatting

Yet More on Formatting: What the agents want

agentAs a follow-up to my sage advice on formatting you manuscript, I asked three agents about how much it matters in their determination on whether to ask to see more or simply hit the delete key. I might add that although there’s varying opinions on its importance, ambivalence aside you always want to make the best impression, so why play fast and loose? Make it the best it can be. But then again this is only my advice and the more you get rejected, the more publishing space that leaves for me. Just sayin’. Anyway, what they said, verbatim…

Marisa Corvisiero of The Corvisiero Literary Agency:

“We don’t put that much importance on the formatting in our decision making. Of course a clean well formatted easy to read manuscript is needed, but unless it makes it difficult to read or is clearly an issue with the authors aptitude, a ms. will not be declined because it isn’t well formatted. However, an agent might not continue reading if difficult to read. They may not even be aware that they don’t want to keep reading because figuring out the format is tiring them out. We prefer Times New Roman font size 12. 1 inch margins. Clear chapter headers.”

Lois Winston of the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency:

“Professionalism is very important. If a writer doesn’t take the time to present a professional query and manuscript, it says to the agent and/or editor that this is a person who will be a headache and take up far too much of the agent’s or editor’s time. There are too many good authors out there who are looking to get published and very few publishing slots in comparison.

“Agents and editors routinely and immediately weed out the unprofessional ones without giving more than a cursory look (if that) to the work. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for any agent or editor to devote to a writer who won’t bother to learn how to present a professional looking submission. There are plenty of books and articles on the Internet that tell writers how to do this. Nowadays, most agents and editors won’t even bother to send a form rejection letter. They immediately hit the delete key.

“MS Word is the standard. I don’t know of any houses that use a different word processing software at this point. The ms. should be formatted in 12-pt. serif font. Times New Roman is the standard, but others are acceptable. (I once had a writer submit a sci-fi ms. in 8-pt.  “Star Trek” font. He probably thought he was being ingenious; he was ignorant and stupid. I couldn’t read beyond the first few sentences without getting a headache.)

“Mss. should always be double-spaced. Margins are 1” – 1-1/2”. Typos happen, and we all understand that. I doubt there’s a book that has ever been published that didn’t contain at least one typo, even after multiple proofing from various professional copy editors and proofreaders. However, a manuscript that is loaded with typos from the first page onward will be an instant rejection. Spell-check is a writer’s best friend—as long as you don’t use auto-correct.”

Margaret Bail of Fuse Literary:

“I don’t think there’s any “standard” requirements, but the expectation is definitely for a clean, professional-looking manuscript. It speaks a lot to the author’s seriousness about their career and profession. The decision of an agent and editor should be based on the story itself, not on the formatting (unless formatting is integral to the storytelling in some way), so fancy formatting really just gets in the way of reading the story. Besides, as an agent I’m going to have to clean up and “fix” any fancy stuff before I send it to an editor. And a side note–clean also means a well-edited manuscript. I don’t want to have to spend hours fixing an author’s grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. If I get that in my inbox I’m not going to request the ms, much less read it.”

So that’s it. Ignore this advice at your peril, or if not, well, you’ve been warned.

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Spiff that ‘script!

Remember when you were in college (or even high school for that matter) and you took a class called CompositionWe all had to follow some kind of standard formatting for our essays, whether it be standards set by the MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association).  It’s no different in the world of publishing. There’s a “somewhat”  standardized type of formatting writers follow when submitting work to be published. I say somewhat because all manuscripts, at least in their final form, are subject to a house style which is tailored to a publishing house’s  individual preferences. But you can’t know that unless you’ve been sold, so to up those chances, you’ll want to make your manuscript as clean and professionally-presented as possible. You may not think formatting has a place in this, as your story, your ideas, your own unique voice will supersede anything as inconsequential as paragraphing or indents or the proper use of voice tags. But first you have to get that editor or agent to read your work. And if you’re making it too difficult for them to decipher what you’re trying to say, you may never get them to read past the first few lines.

So make it easy for them, beginning with a few basics that are a part of ANY manuscript submission—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or otherwise.

  • Make sure your manuscript is the best it can be. Close all plot holes, make sure it has a catchy beginning and a satisfying ending, that your characters are compelling and human. That’s for another workshop, but you do want to make sure you’re happy with your manuscript before you send it off.
  • PROOFREAD! Correct ALL spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This goes without saying.
  • Be familiar with where you’re submitting. Check the publisher’s/magazine’s/journal’s submission guidelines for style and formatting. If you’re sending to a particular editor, check to see if they have an individual preference. I worked with a publisher once who did NOT like semicolons. I had to eliminate all from my manuscript. Most times you won’t know this in advance, but if the info’s out there, it’s up to you to find it. Plus it gives you an advantage, the more your know.
  • Check to see if the publisher/magazine/journal is accepting electronic or paper submissions. They may have different formatting guidelines for each. Most now use electronic submission, but there are still several out there that only take paper, and there are differences.

Okay, so you have your manuscript all spiffed up, and you’re now going to prepare it for submission. What would a properly formatted manuscript look like? I want to caution you that agents and editors as well as publishers, etc. may have different formatting guidelines, but most of what I am showing you is the general consensus of what an ms. should look like, and this is what has worked for me when I submitted.

The publishing industry standard is MS Word, 12 point font (usually Times New Roman). The entire body of the manuscript should be double-spaced.

TITLE PAGE

  • TOP LEFT –  Your name and all contact info, including address, phone number and email in single space.
  • CENTER, MIDDLE OF PAGE – Title of work in bold and all caps
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Genre of work with approx. word count
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – the word “by” (in small letters)
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Your Name
  • BOTTOM RIGHT – the word “Contact:” followed by agent’s name and all contact info in single space (skip if no agent)

FIRST PAGE OF MANUSCRIPT

  • TOP LEFT IN HEADER COMMAND – LAST NAME/Title of Work (written like that.) If the title is long, just use the first few words. You need to insert Header in “Header” so this info appears on each page.
  • TOP RIGHT – Start page numbering, starting with pg. 2, using “Insert Page Number” command so pages automatically advance. Leave the title page blank by using the command in Word.
  • CENTER, SKIP FOUR OR FIVE LINES  – TITLE OF WORK – in bold and in all caps,
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – the word “by” (in small letters)
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Your Name
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Again, Genre and word count
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Chapter One
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Title of Chapter (in italics, if you’re using one) The chapter number and title of chapter are open to style.

BODY OF MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING

  • Indent each new paragraph. For ease of use, I use on tab
  • Indent one tab for each new speaker or when speaker changes
  • Italics for internal dialogue
  • Capitalize the first letter of each word for Names
  • Capitalize the first letter of towns, cites, states, countries, streets, etc., proper nouns and copyrighted names and terms
  • Capitalize the letter I when you’re using first person (you’d be amazed how many times I see it isn’t)
  • Encase dialogue “In quotes”
  • Follow this formatting for voice tags: “I’m not going,” she said.  “You’re not going?” he asked. (Comma after last word, followed by the end quotation mark, followed by the voice tag (she said, he asked) followed by a period, or additional info. The voice tag is part of the sentence.  Do NOT add an extra space after the quotation mark, or Word will automatically capitalize the following word.
  • Use * * * * * for scene changes within chapters, or # for change of POV or impact within chapters.
  • End a chapter by INSERT PAGE BREAK command so the next chapter will start on a new page,

So that’s what’s worked for me. A clean manuscript will keep them reading, but a sloppy one is just one keystroke away from the delete button. Keep them as far away from it as possible.