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Manuscript Layouts 101: More Important Than You Think

The laying out of a manuscript is one of the most essential, and one of the most often overlooked, parts of submitting to any agent or publishing house. Honestly, it will make or break your pitch and ‘getting creative’ with the rules seldom leads to more than a form rejection letter. ‘

“But I’m a creative person!” I hear you crying from the roof tops, followed by some muttered gibberish about artistic license. I get it, I’m a creative person too, but the reality of the situation is that if I receive a query letter and manuscript excerpt from you printed in 15 pt Edwardian Script font in chartreuse ink on paisley paper, I’m not even going to read it. You’ll be lucky if I even bother to send you a form rejection. That’s not me being a horrible, close-minded person; there’s a rationale.

Publishers and Agents spend hours upon hours a day reading submissions and manuscripts. We’re not complaining; we love what we do, but, this means that we spend an inordinate amount of time looking at black marks on pieces of paper (or screens). As an author, you want to put as few impediments between us, your reader, and your story as possible.

Think about it this way: if I, as a publisher, printed an ordinary book by an unknown author in white ink on black paper, would you buy the book? My guess is you wouldn’t. Why? Because it makes it extraordinarily difficult (painful) to read (not to mention annotate). We have trained our brains to absorb information in a certain way and anything that breaks that mould doesn’t make us want to pay more attention, it makes us switch off because, let’s face it, we’re lazy. Anything that makes us work harder than we are accustomed to working isn’t worth the effort, especially when it’s in a stack of other manuscripts that are easy to read.

This is why every publisher and agent makes it clear on their websites that they have certain formatting expectations, however they seldom tell you everything. There are some fundamentals you need to know. I’m going to build you from the paper up.

1) Use the paper size that is common to the country your agent/publisher resides in and only use white. This means that if you are submitting in the US or Canada use 8.5 x 11 printer/copier paper for your manuscript and either the same paper or a slightly thicker white paper for your covering letter, but for the love of all that is good and holy, use white paper! (If you are submitting to a UK publisher the same paper rules apply except that the standard paper size is A4.)

2) Your margins should be set to one and a half inches. This is just one of those do it things. If all the margins are the same, we know what we’re looking at, simple as. It also gives us enough space to make marginal notes while not making the manuscript unnecessarily long.

3) Double space your work. This is for the same reason as setting your margins to one inch. It provides enough space for notes. It also gives he page an airy feel and makes it easier for us to read it at an optimum pace. It may seem like a waste of paper to you, but it’s necessary for us to fully appreciate your work and give it the time and attention it deserves.

4) Justify your work to the left margin and leave the right margin ragged. This means that (unlike in a printed book) words appear with standard spacing between letters and words and nothing is hyphenated. This too is for ease of reading.

5) Use a professional, easy to read serif font in 11 or 12 pt. This means choose a font that is easy to read and has little ‘feet’. Acceptable options include Times New Roman, Garamond, Georgia and Baskerville. Use the same font throughout. No changing for gimmicks or chapter titles. Keep it simple.

6) On the first page of your manuscript type your name and contact details in the upper left corner and the word count of the manuscript in the upper right, parallel to your name. Beneath your contact information (name, mailing address, phone numbers, email address and website), leave a little bit of space, before typing your title all in capitals in the centre of the page. Beneath this, double space and type by, double space again and then type your name.

7) In the header on every subsequent page you should have your last name followed by a dash and the page number in the right corner. So in the upper right corner of every page except for the first I should see Authorlastname/page# (i.e. Becking/2). This helps us to keep your book together and avoid pesky lost pages. (I like to see the title of the book typed in the header of every page in the upper left corner. But this is not standard practice with all publishers.)

8) Never indent the first line of your chapters. You should not indent the first paragraph of a new chapter nor should you indent the first paragraph of a new section (marked by an extra space between paragraphs with the proceeding paragraph not being indented. This is usually employed as a marker of a temporal, scenic or perspective shift). All other paragraphs should be indented 1 inch from the margin.

9) Begin new chapters on new pages and you may centre chapter markers/titles at the top of the page. At the end of one chapter insert a page break and centre ‘Chapter #’ at the top of the page (but beneath the header), double space and begin typing without indenting as indicated in point 7.

These are the rules. You break them at your peril.

What you as a writer need to do, is to start thinking about these not as rules but as the basic white canvas that every artist starts with. What you do on that white rectangle is up to you, but you, as writers, are not illustrators or text designers, you are writers. We, the publishers, are hiring you to do just that. Words are to you what paint is to a painter. Astound us with your clever turns of phrase, your awe-some stories and your blissfully unique voice, don’t tell me what you’re thinking about for the cover art. Publishers pay other people to design those things and the author seldom gets a say in any part of it. Your job is to write and be the best writer and storyteller you can be. You don’t go to your mechanic saying the front left brake is down to the last 2mm of pad, it needs replacing, you say, there’s a squeak when I brake: they make the diagnosis and fix it, that’s what you’re paying them for. Publishing is no different, we just think it is because we have our heart and soul invested in every letter, every period.

It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the manuscript layout laws as early in the game as possible. That way it will be second nature to you when you are ready to start sending things to agents and publishers. Use this layout when submitting work to writing circles and writing competitions. It will make you look professional and competent. Like a good pair of underwear, these rules are your foundation.

Here at River Ram Press, we offer Manuscript Consultation services. Along with great feedback on your story arc, structure and characters, our talented editors will assist you in laying out your manuscript to industry specifications. If you’d like more information on this or any of our other editorial services please visit the River Ram Purple Pen Page.

Next week, I’ll be discussing the frightful query letter. Until then, best wishes for laying out your manuscripts and if you have questions, as always, ask away.


Jessica Becking

CEO and CoFounder
River Ram Press

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