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Formatting Manuscripts – What you need to know!

Formatting Manuscripts – What you need to know!

What You Need to Know!

This isn’t about how to format.  It’s about what you need to format for some of the different areas of writing, editing and publishing.

Formatting is something all writers need to learn at the start of their career.  It will save you time, money and gain you experience of all the different types of formatting that are around today.  Remember as technology improves, formatting is likely to change too.

I have blogged about formatting before.  As a professional formatter and publisher it can be very irritating when work arrives with tab indents.  To me this is one of the biggest NO’s there is.  The other problem is all the different types of formatting needed for editors, submissions, publishing and even writing, never mind the different genre’s there are in the world today.  

So how do we start?  Great question!

First are you going to be an Indie Author or a Traditional Author and looking at submitting to one of the five big publishing houses?   You have to answer this before you start.  Why?  Well formatting is totally different process.  For a start you won’t need to learn formatting for submitting a manuscript to an agent.   Meanwhile, as an indie author you need to look around and think about what you are willing to learn, and what you don’t mind paying others to do for you.

Lets look at formatting for Traditional Publishing!

creative-108545_1280First of all you need an Agent.  The big Five Publishing Houses don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.  If you send one, it will end up in the bin without even been looked at.  Out of the many other Publishing Houses you may be lucky to find a small selection who will take unsolicited manuscripts, many of these are generally online publishers, many used to be called Vanity Press – Don’t touch them with a bargepole – as we’d say in the UK.

Finding an Agent when you have no idea what you are doing is a nightmare.  Even if you do know what you are doing, it can be a nightmare.  My best advise (a true learning curve) is to look into the genre of books you wish to write and find out who the authors agent is.  Make a list of names, see which ones crop up frequently.  Research them, think it over.  Are they right for you.  Will they accept your work.  Narrow the names down to the top five or ten.  The research is the important part.  Getting to know how an Agent works is more important than which authors they look after.

Next you need an outline and write a synopsis of your work.  The synopsis is your selling point, if you can’t sell yourself aka your synopsis then you have to learn.  Better still find a course or book on how to write a brilliant synopsis. Your manuscript could be brilliant, sadly with all the authors out there today, it doesn’t make much difference unless you can get someone to take notice of your work.  After all if J K Rowling’s Harry Potter was turned down twenty-nine times, what are your chances in the big bad world of traditional publishing?

How to format the synopsis – Well this is when it gets difficult.  You see different agents may want you to format your work a different ways.  There doesn’t seem to be a standard.  You will need to learn how to do Auto Indents, set up double spacing, do a header and margins and page numbers.   It can be as frustrating as hell to follow all their guidelines if you don’t know how to do them.  Are you willing to take the next step in your learning curve?  Of course it’s not hard for everyone, though I’ve been surprised by how different authors send in manuscripts set out differently.

Since I have never got further than this with Traditional Publishing, I can’t really say anymore. From what I’ve been told it is generally the Agent who finds the editor for your work and the editor is the one who works for a publishing house.  I can say you don’t get a reason for rejection, however that is possibly due to the volume of work sent to them.  It can take months to get a reply as well. So keep on writing and improving yourself .  Meanwhile, all  the best to those of you who follow the Traditional route.


It’s not so different, though in many ways it is easier.  The thing with been self-published is you can take your time.  There is no real hurry to learn, though it is an advantage if you do.  Not only a time saver, but a money saver as well.  Not everyone is computer savvy either so a step by step guide is something Plaisted Publishing is looking into writing.  However, different genre’s may require different formatting.  

A children’s picture book will not only be a different size, the font and writing will be as well.  The basic formatting are the same, the setting up of the book will be different, especially for the print version.

For all other books, other than sizing, most are similar.  Go and open a couple of books you have and see where everything is placed.  This will give you a good range of what your work could look like.

Formatting for an editor – This basically the same as for an Agent, though once again Editors have a preference of what they like. Please read their instructions carefully and if there is something you don’t understand ASK, after all they are working for and with you to make your manuscript the best it can be.

Formatting for publication – This is what I do as a business.  It is something I’m excellent at, and have trained myself to a fine art.  However, there are always on going changes, be it with the program you use to type up your work or technology moving forward.  It is one of the many catches in writing.  Personally I work with Microsoft Word.  Some use Scrivener, Open Office and Libra Office.  Each one is different, needless to say Kindle and Smashwords only work with Microsoft Word.  For Smashwords they want Word 97 – 2003.  Smashwords also have special Formatting requirements, which once again can leave you frustrated if you are not computer savvy.  Even for me it took a while to learn their formatting.  Kindle will deal with the latest program.  Createspace prefers PDF’s though will take Microsoft Word.  You will need to size your work into a template for Createspace, so learning all the different ways is essential if you don’t want to be banging you head against a brick wall.

If you don’t wish to learn.  There are many business like mine who will give you a great deal and take the frustration from your shoulders.  

I’d also like to point out at this stage that I use Indie Editors and Book Cover Designers.  Both have their own formatting strategies.

Discrepancies I’ve Seen

Old typewriter on a vintage wooden floor isolated on white

Through the work I have done for Clients and Groups of Authors, I have seem many differences in how work is set out.  Some has made me want to scream, while others I’ve scratched my head at.  Why is the author doing this? What do they know?  What don’t they know?  What else do I need to learn so I can inform clients on what they need to be doing.

I am old school, pre-computers nearly.  I was taught to type on one of the old clanking typewriters.  Hard work on the fingers, and looking back it is the first time I was ever taught Formatting.  How to set out a letter, memo, invites etc

Below is a short list showing items which may need changing.  Part of the problem with formatting is also where you were brought up, and who taught you.  I will never say some of what’s in my list below is wrong, except the damn Tab Indents and using the Space-bar to centre a title:-

Tab Indents, Quote marks as Speech marks, Single spacing after a full-stop (period) and Left Aligned

Tab Indents as I’ve said previously are a big NO NO.  Space-bar – please don’t use this to centre your work.  It’s a nightmare to get rid of, the same as with Tab Indents. Don’t do them.  Quote-marks as Speech-marks.  I think it is  Author choice, personally if someone is speaking in a script I like the “HI,”  so that when I do a quote within the speech or manuscript ‘melon,’ it then (to me) looks better.  If the whole manuscript is done in single ‘quote’ marks then I will leave it.   Single spacing after a full-stop (period) annoys the hell out of me.  However, it is something which started with word-processors and then computers.  Once again I won’t touch this if it is consistent throughout the manuscript. With American clients I always use one spacing.  Left Aligned is a natural for most writers, and this is one thing I will change.  I Justify all work so it looks even.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, newsletter, advert or bookmark.  I will justify it.  Makes it neater.  This is a few of the things I do when working with a client.  There is much more.  

Consultation is only half the fun.

If you wish to know how to do Auto Tab Indents etc.  Please look out for an up and coming post to let you know how it is done in Microsoft Word.

14 Responses

  1. Fantastic advice. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Mysticalwriter and commented:
    Here is information for formatting~manuscripts & what you need to know!
    Originally saw over at The Story Reading Ape

  3. […] Formatting Manuscripts – What you need to know! […]

  4. jazzfeathers says:

    Formatting is kind of confusing, these days.

    I learned to format back in the days when there was a standard (you know, courir font 12, left justification, double space, all that), but now it looks like many things have changed and sometimes I get the impression there is no right way to go, since everyone has their preference.

    I don’t use the classic formatting anymore, but still, when I format something now, it always feels kind of off. You know. I kind of feel there should be a standad way to go.

    • Yes I know what you mean. I never realised what we did in Typing Class was formatting. Now i have a standard I use and it works well for eBooks and Print for all online publishing. The one thing I wish there were a standard for is formatting for Editors. The first time I looked at several Editing sites was a steep learning curve at the time. It certainly helped in the long run though.

  5. […] Source: Formatting Manuscripts – What you need to know! […]

  6. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Claire Plaisted of Plaisted Publishing house has posted a fantastic blog post about formatting for as well traditional as also Indie authors and has done a huge favor to me and I’m sure many other start-up authors as well. This is something that really has tied my stomach in a knot. Thank you Claire for this phenomenal information.

  7. Reblogged this on CKBooks Publishing and commented:
    Some good information here, but note – this publisher is in Australia (I think) so the quote and line spacing thing is different than in the US.

    In general, you don’t have to do any formatting to your manuscript if you plan on having someone else format it for you. They can do all that. You just concentrate on creating a great story! 🙂

    • We are in New Zealand. This type of formatting was for submissions to Editors, Agents etc which we noted a few years back when looking at other publishing houses worldwide.

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