Computer Manuscript Formatting

by Joan Marie Verba

One of the most important skills a writer can learn is how to format a manuscript for publication. That is, use plain paper, a one-inch margin on all sides, double-space text, indent paragraphs one-half inch, number pages consecutively, and do not staple the pages together. The same rules apply when formatting a manuscript on computer; unfortunately, many writers believe that since a word processing program can do all sorts of delightful things to a manuscript, that they should use as many of those special features as possible.

Don't. Editors want a computer-generated manuscript to resemble a typewritten manuscript as much as possible. As a general rule, if you can't do it on a typewriter, don't do it on a computer. Here are some items to keep in mind:

1. Use 12-point Courier for the lettering. Avoid proportional fonts such as Times New Roman or sans-serif fonts such as Helvetica. (If you don't know what those names mean, simply choose the font on your computer that most closely resembles typewritten letters.)

2. Use only one letter size. Do not make the letters larger for headings or smaller for footnotes. Stick with 12-point type whenever possible.

3. Use only one font in the manuscript. That is, don't have part of the text in Courier, another part in Helvetica, and yet another in Times New Roman. Use Courier throughout.

4. Do not use italic or bold. As on a typewriter, use underlines for emphasis, but use them sparingly.

5. Do not add graphics to the manuscript.

6. Avoid the temptation to make your manuscript page resemble a finished book.

7. Do not use special style sheets.

8. Do not right-justify text (that is, do not line up all the words on the right side of the page). Editors prefer "ragged right."

9. Turn off hyphenation.

If you wish to submit your manuscript on disk, speak to the publisher first to see what sort of formats and what size of disks the publisher accepts. Many publishers do not use Word Perfect, for instance. Find out how to save a file in ASCII format (in Word Perfect, ASCII is called DOS text; in Word for DOS, ASCII is called unformatted text; in Word for Windows, ASCII is called text only; check your word processing manual for further details about these and other programs). Send the file in ASCII if the publisher does not specify one.

Just as publishers have rejected manuscripts for not following standard format, some publishers are now rejecting computer-generated manuscripts that don't follow established formats. If you follow the above rules, you will avoid such automatic rejections, and show an editor that you can follow professional guidelines--always a good idea. Why give the publisher an excuse to send your manuscript back before reading it?

© 1995 by Joan Marie Verba.

Permission to copy this essay is granted provided the copyright notice (previous line) is included.