Learn the Craft: Formatting

Unless you’re writing solely for yourself (and maybe for your family and a few friends) you need to know the craft of writing: formatting; point-of-view; chapter length; what tense to use, and so on.

Although getting the story you want to tell out of your head and into some sort of printable form is the most important step, the more you know about what’s expected (in the industry) the less rewriting and reformatting will be necessary later on.

There are no actual rules, but if you’re going to do something different from the norm, you should do it for a reason rather than out of ignorance.


Nowadays agents and publishing houses want a manuscript in a form that can be converted easily into a book (print or electronic). They expect (and demand) the formatting be in the industry’s standard form. (Even if you self-publish, you’ll have to follow standard formatting.) If an agent or editor receives a manuscript that they can tell will require a lot of formatting changes, chances are it will be rejected.

Always check the agent’s or publisher’s website (submission guidelines) for exactly how they want the manuscript formatted, but the general guidelines are:

* One (1) inch margins all around.
* Times New Roman, 12 pt font
* A header with your name/title and page number
 (Where these are placed may differ, but it’s easy to change this.)

Use the Header option in your word processing program. NEVER actually type this information on the page because if you do and then if you add or delete lines from that page, what you just typed will change position and taking all of those out of a manuscript is a headache.

* Use the “New Page” option rather than a series of returns to start a new chapter or go to a new page.
(Same problem as with the header. If you use the returns to get to a new page and then add or delete lines, you’ll change where that new page starts.)

* Use “First Line Indent” not the tab key to indent
First line indent is usually part of paragraph formatting.
Generally a .5 indent is used but some prefer .3

* Under paragraph formatting, use 0 pt before and after.
If you don’t, you get wider spaces before and/or after each paragraph.

* Use only one return (Enter) after a paragraph.

* Use a series (usually 3 or 5) asterisks (*) or symbols (#) centered to show a time break.
You’re not limited by what symbol you use, but be consistent.
DON’T show a time break simply by hitting the enter key and adding another space.
If the time break comes at the end of the page, using the added space may not show up.

* Only one (1) space after the end of a sentence. (Not 2 as so many of us were taught years ago.)

* Use real italics. Don’t underline the word to show italics.

* Center chapter titles (unless directed to do otherwise.)

I strongly recommend you toggle the ¶ from the Home menu bar. That will allow you to see a dot for every space and the paragraph symbol for when you hit Enter. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised by how many extra spaces show up on the page.

Some publishers want no indent with the first paragraph of a chapter and after a time break.
Most publishers no longer want a chapter to start 1/3 of the way down the page.

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14 Responses to Learn the Craft: Formatting

  1. I know a lot of new writers will appreciate this.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thanks, Pamela. I know I always like to learn a way to make the job of writing easier.

    • Nick M Nero says:

      Really important information. Would like to add a note about the first page/contact page/title page, which differs slightly from agent/publisher to agent/publisher but always requires name, contact info, etc. on one side of the page and genre, word count, date written, etc. on the other with title and author around the center of the page.

      • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

        Nick, I almost 100% agree with you. Yes, the contact/title page when sent to an agent or editor needs the information you mentioned. That tells the agent or editor how to contact you and if the story fits (genre and word length) their requirements. Where and how this information is placed, however, may differ from agent to agent or editor to editor. If the agent’s or publisher’s guidelines have specific instructions, follow those.

  2. Constance Bretes says:

    I agree with Pam. However, you never know what you will learn, I never realized I could use a First Line Indent option.

  3. Great post, Maris. Always a good reminder for seasoned writers as well as necessary information for new writers. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Melissa Keir says:

    The best advice is to check the submission guidelines. I can’t tell you how many people send us manuscripts that aren’t even in English. 🙂

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Melissa, I’m sure it’s very frustrating to receive manuscripts that are all wrong for what you publish. I’ve heard dozens of horror stories from agents and editors. I can’t understand why a writer won’t take the time to read what’s requested and then follow those guidelines.

  5. Diane Burton says:

    Good advice for the new writer. Always helpful.

  6. anne schelzig says:

    Thanks, Maris. Concise and very helpful.