Formatting a Manuscript

by J.T. Ellison

Last week, I mentioned that I'd formatted a new document so I could start writing THE PRETENDER, and Sandy chimed in with a question: What program do you use to write with? I thought it might be fun to hear how everyone does their prep work, including the program you use and how you format your manuscripts.

Let me say, for the record, that there is no one right way to do this, though there are ways to make your editor and agent submissions easy to read.

To start, use a word processing program that is universally accepted. I'm on a PC, and most of New York is too. I can't tell you how many time I get emails with attachments formatted for Mac. I can't open them, and I always have to go back and ask the sender to reformat it into something that my computer can open. Right now, Word 97-2003 seems to be universal, and if the Mac people could chime in here on what they have, that would be fantastic.

I use Word 2007, but when I e-mail my manuscript to New York, I save it as a 97-2003 document. This system works just fine, allowing me the more sophisticated tools of the newer version of Word and easy conversion for submission.

So when I get started, there are a few things I do to make my life easier.

First, a header. A typical header looks like this:

Centered at the top, with the name and title on the left and the page number on the right:

J.T. Ellison, THE PRETENDER                                                    Page #

I used to do page X of Y, but found that New York preferred just the page number.

Then you set your margins: 1 inch, all the way around. Now, I cheat when I've got a work in progress, because I'm taking pages to critique group and I want to maximize what I bring, so my margins are 1 inch at the top and sides, and .8 at the bottom. That allows for approximately 25 lines per page.

Font is a big deal too, for several reasons. You want your editor and agent submissions to be readable, first and foremost. So choose Courier, Times New Roman, or Arial, in 12 point. In Word 2007, I use Calibri, which is a version of Arial. It's easy to read, easy on the eyes, and allows my editor a lot of white space to edit.

Double space your lines. Do not insert a break between paragraphs. The first line of a chapter should not be indented, the rest of the chapter's paragraph starts should have a .5 indent. Begin the first chapter of the book halfway down the page. Some authors start every chapter halfway down the page – it's personal preference.

You'll notice that moving your manuscript between the fonts will change the page count. TNR will be the smallest, Courier the largest. A manuscript that comes in at 320 pages in TNR will run about 413 pages in Courier. Arial comes in at 339. Now here's the thing: we all want to think our manuscript is a big, hefty behemoth of linguistic goodness. But if you're using page numbers to determine your worth, it's easy to lie to yourself and make your manuscript bigger than it really is.

I use word count to determine the length of my manuscripts, not page numbers. Word has an automatic word counter, and that's what I use. It's simple, straightforward, and no amount of fooling with styles will change the essence of it.

A personal suggestion: whatever font you choose to write in, when you're done and doing a final revision to turn it in, change the font throughout before you print it out. The mind is an amazing creature, able to independently insert what you KNOW should be on the page instead of what actually IS on the page. Reading it through in a different font allows you to catch some of the errors you might miss otherwise.

I also format the style sheet for the page, so my chapter heading, paragraph body, etc., are uniform and I don't need to format each time I change something. In Word 2007, there are styles that you can open and adapt to your preferences. Very handy and simple, you just type your heading, click the style sheet for heading, and Bob's your uncle.

Chapter headings seem to differ from house to house. Chapter One, One, 1, are all used. It depends on the style guide of your house, so ask. My house spells out the chapter, so my headings look like this: One. Twenty-One.

Another personal suggestion. As I write, I change my chapters around, add chapters, combine them, break them apart. It's a very fluid event. And all those changes mean I end up having to renumber my chapters, which is a pain in the tuckus. For THE IMMORTALS, I tried something different. I didn't use Chapter numbers, simply started each new one with the word Chapter. When I was done, I went through and numbered them. So I had Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc. But since my house doesn't like the word Chapter, I needed to delete them. I waited until the last possible moment, because, as always, I ended up breaking a big chapter into two smaller ones, and that messed up the numbering. But… I used the find/replace function, and was able to go through and renumber them effortlessly, and delete the word chapter from each heading. Voila. I saved myself oodles of time that I usually waste trying to get it all renumbered.

Speaking of Find/Replace. It's a brilliant tool, but it has limitations. Don't ever do a global find/replace and think you've managed a neat trick. You always have to look through the document. Name changes are especially tricky – we've all heard horror stories about writers who change a character name at the last minute, do a global find/replace, and end up messing up other words and names.

Saving and backing up your document is vital as well. I am notorious for multiple backups, simply because the idea of losing my work paralyzes me with fright. To start, my Norton system has a global backup. There's one. Second, I use a program called Mozy, which you can set to any specifications. Mine automatically backs up my files when I've been dormant for more than 15 minutes. Third, my document has both auto save and automatic backup, so every ten minutes Word does a global save on the open document, and when I save and close for the day, there is a backup copy made. That way, no matter what, you'll never lose more than ten minutes worth of work. Fifth, I email the manuscript to myself, so a copy resides on the server. Sixth, once a week I move a copy to a thumb drive. Also, every time I do a revision, before I type a single word, I save the document as a new file and do all the work in it. My file names read like this: THE IMMORTALS WORKING MANUSCRIPT, THE IMMORTALS V1, THE IMMORTALS V2, V3, V4, V5, etc. I do it like that because I work with the entire story in a single document. I know some authors take it a step further and save each individual chapter as they go – I think this falls under personal preference.

Sound like a bit much? NEVER. YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MUCH REDUNDANCY. With that in mind, I've started using Dropbox, which allows you to move files between computers.

I also think it's a very, very smart idea to print as you go. That way,
in case everything else fails, you have a hard copy and you can input
it directly.

Anal? Yes. But it's how I work, and like NASA, I have failsafes in place so I'm never stuck out in space without my oxygen.

Like I said, there is no one right way to do this, this is just my way. I would love to hear how other authors do it.

Wine of the Week: Homemade Sangria

2 Liters Riunite Lambrusco
3/4 cup Brandy
1/4 cup Cointreau
1/2 cup fine white sugar
2 cups Orange Juice
2 Lemons, thinly sliced
2 Oranges, thinly sliced
2 Limes, thinly sliced
1/2 Liter Club Soda

Combine all the ingredients but the club soda and allow to ferment overnight. Add club soda, serve over lots of ice. Really Yummy!

30 thoughts on “Formatting a Manuscript

  1. Joyce Tremel

    I’m still using Word 2000. I recently tried a free program called yWriter5 that was designed specifically for writing fiction, but it was too complicated for me. I uninstalled it went back to plain, boring old Word. I save my work on a thumb drive, on two computers, and email it to myself.

  2. billie

    I use MS Word For Mac, 2004. Never had a problem with anyone not being able to open files, although I don’t know what the agents did when they submitted to editors.

    For the most part, I set up the Word doc as you describe, except I put Hinton/name of book on the left top of page, and the page number on the bottom right.

    I have never yet written a book that had numbered chapters! I wouldn’t have known that falls under “house style” but would assume it was my choice how to number them.

    Right now, my computer automatically saves to my external hard drive every hour. When I use the laptop on retreats I have never done anything to back it up – although my husband bought me one of those little drives you plug into the side.

    I do print out a hard copy of the final draft of each ms, and except for the current one, there are copies on three hard drives.

    I used to be more organized about all this!

  3. Dana King

    I use Word 2007, but save the final version as a Word 2003 file. I save most of the document formatting for the end, as I like to single space in Verdana font while I work for ease of reading. I back up, but not as often as you do, and I put my page numbers at the bootm (no one has requested otherwise), but everything else I do pretty much as you do.

  4. Chuck

    Hey JT! Loved the newsletter!

    Regarding today’s blog, I really enjoyed it. It appears I do everything just about the way you do, including a bit of fudging on my margins to save some trees, except when submitting to Manhattan. I’m glad to know I have my formatting down…now for the writing??? 🙂

  5. Jena Snyder

    I use a Mac and Office 2004 and have never had a problem sending a file to a PC user.I spent 16 years reading the slush pile and doing the typesetting and layout on a magazine, so I handled many hundreds of files, Mac and PC. Trust me on this one – to avoid compatibility problems, use standard word processing software like Word, even if some free program has cool bells and whistles.

    I’d suggest NOT using Calibri – if the person doing book or magazine layout doesn’t have the font, it will cause problems. My choice would be Times New Roman for ease of reading – a serif font is easier on the eyes.

    I’d also suggest that you don’t simply customize Word’s built in styles, because when you send the file to someone else, the styles revert to that user’s customization (or Word’s default). Ditto the margins. If you set your margins as 1″ top and sides and .8″ bottom, and I have mine set at 1.25″ all around, that’s what I see when I open your file.

  6. Rob Gregory Browne It’s open source, FREE software, a complete office suite that writes and reads any Microsoft Office file you can throw at it. And this is definitely NOT a case of getting what you pay for. They could be charging as much or more than Microsoft does, but that’s not the open source community’s philosophy.

    As for transferring files — if you have a home network you should be able to simply drag and drop your files between shared folders on the network, no extra software needed.

    For backup, I have another free piece of software called Cobian, which you can configure to back up to any other drive, any computer on the network and/or to outside storage like the ftp folder on your website server.

    My drafts all immediately go to my web server and are dated, so I can easily go back and find the draft that had that wonderful paragraph I changed my mind about throwing out. It’s also fun to go back to an older draft and remember how stressed I was at that point in the book and laugh at myself for being such a wimp.

  7. Louise Ure

    Great, thorough advice here, JT.

    I guess the only thing I do differently is to start new chapters two inches down rather than half a page.

    Oh, and I seem to save less frequently than you do. Yes, I’ve lost some pages, but oddly enough, when I rewrite them they’re better.

    DropBox looks like a godsend! Thank you for that.

  8. kit

    JTthank you for posting this …I am learning so much from these blogs…Now, if I might make a request? would someone write a blog on research and how they do it to get to the serious questions…you know, how to delicately ask if it would break city ordinances on hazardous waste to bury a body in lime in the backyard…that sort of thing.

  9. Michael Bracken

    “I can’t tell you how many time I get emails with attachments formatted for Mac. I can’t open them, and I always have to go back and ask the sender to reformat it into something that my computer can open.”

    I use both Macs and PCs and have ever since the first Macs and PCs hit the market. Most popular word processing, illustration, and page layout programs are compatible across platforms. What many people don’t realize is that PCs require a three-character (or more) extension to the file name to enable the PC to know what program the file was created in.

    For example: I create a manuscript in an older version of Word on my Mac and name the file “MyStory”. For a PC user to open the file, I need to rename the file “MyStory.doc”. (Newer versions of Word use the extension .docx and newer versions of Word on the Mac automatically add the filename extensions to make life easier for those of us who move files back and forth among platforms.)

    The file can be renamed on my Mac before I send the file or renamed on the PC by the recipient.

    So, if a Mac user sends you a file you can’t open, ask what program they used to create the file, make sure you have that program on your PC, and then add the appropriate extension to the file name. Chances are your problem will be solved.

    Or just buy a Mac. Macs users rarely have trouble opening files from PC users.

  10. Douglas Quinn

    I use the latest version of Corel WordPerfect, which I prefer of Microsoft Word. However, with either one, I always suggest formatting attachments in RTF (Rich Text Format), which can be opened and read by all.

    I understand, but not entirely sure, that documents formated in Adobe PDF can be opened by both MAC and Windows users.

  11. Bob Sanchez

    J.T., do you use a customized Word template? You can save yourself trouble by creating one that you use just for manuscripts. That way you don’t have to remember formatting details.

    My worry about multiple backups is that if I’m not very careful, I’ll modify the wrong copy and lose a day’s work.

    As for moving chapters around, consider using Document View. That could be a huge help.

  12. J.D. Rhoades

    I loathe Word, but everyone I need to send a document to seems to have that and nothing else, so that’s what I’m stuck with. Word Perfect is a much better WP program IMO, but no one except the law firm I used to work for seems to use it any more. I’ve been impressed by OpenOffice, but again, no one seems to be able to handle an .odt file. Grrrr….

    JT, the suggestion of changing the font for proofreading is inspired. Thank you for that.

  13. Melanie

    I also have a Mac and my PC friends never have problems opening my files. I think I always include the “.doc” tag, so that must be it.

    I was a little confused about your statement:The first line of a chapter should not be indented, the rest of the chapter’s paragraph starts should have a .5 indent.

    Am I reading this wrong, or are you saying to not indent the first line but DO indent the rest of the paragraph. That sounds backwards (to me) and I just wanted to check that my brain didn’t go garbled there.

    Great post!

  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    Bob, there are ways of doing multiple backups with date and time stamps so that they can’t be overwritten and a new copy is created. You just go to the one with the latest date to find your current draft.

  15. Allison Brennan

    Ever since I discovered MobileMe with Mac, I’ve been hooked. Love it. Sharing files, calendars, contacts, etc. Love it. It saved my but in NY and I have my iPod Touch, my laptop, and my iMac all in sync with each other.

    I’m pretty anal about formatting. Courier, 12 pt (why? Because that’s what I’m used to. I tried to change, but couldn’t write because the words didn’t “look right” on the screen. I’m weird, I know.) And in copyedits, having the even spacing between letters makes it much easier to read the ce’s marks, and add my own.) to get exactly 25 lines, I go to format paragraphs line spacing exactly 25 pt. This only works for 1 in margins. Don’t know why, don’t care 🙂 But like you, JT, I only use the computer word count. If I used the old “industry standard” my 450-550 page manuscripts would be 125K words +/-; in word count most of my books fall between 100-110K. SUDDEN DEATH was 105K.

  16. Cornelia Read

    I’m all about the redundancy of backups. I do autosave on Word (Mac version, don’t know the specs) and I also email the manuscript to myself every day I work on it, via my Yahoo account. That way I have a snapshot of each day’s work (in case I want to restore something I deleted, etc.) and a version always exists on someone else’s server.

  17. Christine Cook

    A word to the wise about saving manuscripts to flash drives. These drives are designed for a finite number of saves. Granted, it’s a big finite number, but I had a friend who hit the limit and lost everything on that flash drive.

    Other than that, the only thing I do differently is that I put Lastname–TITLE–Page number on the upper right corner, and I notice you put name and title on the left. Is there an industry standard for this?

    Great post!

  18. Tom

    Thanks for the new information about thumb drives and MobileMe!

    JT is correct; three back-ups in different places are a minimum. I’ve seen two back-ups fail, but never three. Five is not too many, either.

    Michael, Doug and Melanie are correct. Interoperability in file exchange is as near a a file extension.

    Nisus (Mac-only) saves to .rtf as its default. No special handling required. It’s inexpensive. And you get great newsletters from Dave No Pants.

    Open Office is much improved of late. When corporate bean-counters learn how good it is, I expect major battles between them and Desktop Support departments around the world. It’s a fine platform-agnostic solution to file sharing and common access.

    Another reason to use standard fonts: agents and publishers can estimate the finished length of book based on know stats about the common fonts. Using a standard font makes it easier for them to say “Yes” to you.

  19. Ray Rhamey

    Here’s a font you might want to look at–I’ve discovered that Georgia at 11 points appears to the eye to be as large as TNR at 12, and is easy to read.

    On search & replace: to get rid of your extraneous “Chapter” entries, put Chapter in your find box and nothing in the replace box and they’ll all magically go away.

  20. Sandy

    Many thanks, J.T., for putting together your thoughtful, interesting, and thorough blog entry. I have learned more than I thought there was to know! Thanks also to all those who took the time to explain their hints and processes.

  21. J.T. Ellison

    Goodness, I don’t know where to begin.

    Kit, I DID do a blog on research, which you can read here:

    Joyce, I think Word is the bomb. Any other programs are just too complicated for me.

    Billie ( The issue with Mac to PC is explained rather brilliantly by Michael Braken below, which I wasn’t aware of. Now that I know I can try to fix things. But I’ve sometimes had issues with files coming in that I couldn’t open. Now we know why. Thanks so much, Michael. I refuse to get a Mac because I am in love with the backspace key (though I know you have a two key system for it, this is just what works for me.) : )

    Also, for some of you Mac folks, I think your set ups will override formatting from other computers. On my PC, that doesn’t happen – however someone sends something to me is how it appears. That goes for New York too – the formatting I do in the manuscript makes it through to their machines and into hard copy.

    That said, there’s really no sense doing any fancy formatting for NY. The copyeditors will change it all anyway, the typesetting will go in and all your original stuff will be gone.

  22. J.T. Ellison

    Douglas, that’s true. I don’t think New York would want a pdf though, it’s hard to make marks in sometimes.

    Dusty, you’re such a contrarian… : )

    Bob, I do and I don’t. As sad as it may sound, I learn from each iteration of each book. And every time I think I know something, I quickly realize I don’t. So my templates change from book to book. What I do do is format the Normal template to have the vast majority of my formatting in it, so the only changes I’m making are superficial.

    Melanie, at the beginning of a chapter, the first line is not indented, but the subsequent paragraph opens are. You read that right. I know it sounds backwards, but it’s a typesetting mark.

    Allison, I just had a typesetting issue and made the decision to submit in courier when we’re ready for copyedits for exactly that reason – there’s plenty of space for the CEs to be seen. Thanks for mentioning it! And MobileMe… I use a version of it for PC and LOVE it…

    Cornelia, I do love being able to look back at my progress…

    Christine, I lost the synopsis of Judas Kiss (the big one, my pseudo-outline) because I was working on a flash drive. Thanks for mentioning that.

  23. J.T. Ellison

    Ray, that’s also VERY handy for when I get documents with double spaces between periods. I should have mentioned that the standard is single space between periods.

    Tom, an excellent point…

    Sandy, you’re welcome!

    Jena, I think I missed you earlier – but thanks for the insight!

    Louise, Chuck and Dana – GREAT MINDS…

  24. J.D. Rhoades

    “Dusty, you’re such a contrarian… : )”

    It’s true…I just find that Word likes to “help” too much so that stuff happens that I didn’t intend, don’t want, and have no idea how to make stop.

    To be fair, this mostly happens when doing legal documents with lots of numbering and sub-paragraphs and stuff like that.

    Rob, when I try to save a OpenOffice document in .doc format, it warns me that “some formatting might be lost” and I chicken out. Do you know if it does screw up your formatting and if so, how much?

  25. J.T. Ellison

    See, legal documents are a different beast that little ole manuscripts… I completely understand. I’ve worked in enough industries that had their own proprietary system for word processing not to understand that issue.

  26. kit

    JTthank you for looking that blog up …I realized it was off topic…and I did have a passing thought that there may’ve been a blog written on it before.

  27. Robert Gregory Browne

    JT, when you get that message you can ignore it. I’ve never seen any formatting get screwed up. I suppose if you had nested tables or something, you might run into problems, but standard novel format has never been affected as far as I know.

  28. BT

    Hi JT

    Call me anal as well. I have backups all over the place and multiple versions of my work. Just seems to make sense. I also work in the computer industry and have seen many sad stories about lost data – never want to go there so plenty of backups is the only way to go. Just make sure you are consistent and label everything well to stop any confusion.

    Thanks for the links – I’ll be looking into them.



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