Manuscript Smarts - How NOT to Alienate an Editor

by Marg McAlister


First, let me say that different publishers have different preferences. You're never going to find one set of guidelines that will suit everyone. However, most editors and most agents have fairly simple needs. They just want to receive a manuscript that is well laid out and easy to read, with decent margins AND page numbers. Oh, so you think that it's a bit too basic mentioning something like page numbers? I wish! Unfortunately, there are still inexperienced writers who send off their manuscripts on coloured paper with curly fonts that are almost impossible to read - and then forget to number the pages.

Here's your basic manuscript checklist:

  1. Use a standard, easy-to-read font like Arial or Times Roman. Anything similar to these will be fine. Do NOT use a font that simulates handwriting, and do not use italics! (Italics are used for specific purposes in writing - such as being a way to indicate a character's thoughts. If you use italics all the way through your manuscript, you can't do this.) Italics are hard to read in large blocks, anyway.
  2. Make your font large enough to read comfortably, but not so large that it looks as though it's intended for pre-schoolers or someone with vision problems. 12 pt Times Roman is a good size; 10 pt is often too small for editors who have been reading all day.
  3. Make your margins a sensible width. 2-3 cm (1 - 1.5 inches) is fine. Don't play games with the margins and font size to try to squeeze in more than the editor has asked for. For example, if you have been asked to send in a 2-page single-spaced synopsis, then you can assume that the editor means with standard margins and a 12 pt font. You won't be fooling anybody if you send off 2 pages with half-inch margins and a teeny tiny font just to fit more in. For most editors, less is more. Focus on succinct, powerful writing rather than trying to fit in more than you should.
  4. Use white paper, and print on one side of the paper only. Unless the editor has specified single spacing, then double-space your work so she has room to write comments and/or questions between the lines. (Again, does this seem to be stating the obvious? I'm afraid it isn't. Editors have received single-spaced manuscripts with skinny margins, printed on both sides of the paper ("to save the trees"). I haven't yet heard of an editor receiving a manuscript printed on the back of paper recycled from earlier drafts - but I wouldn't be surprised if this had happened!
  5. Do not include a frame (i.e. a box) around the text on your pages.
  6. On the cover sheet, drop down to about one third of the way down the page, then type the name of the book. Drop down another couple of lines and type "(c) copyright to [your name or pseudonym]". You can use a larger font for the name of the book. Then, in the lower left-hand corner of the page, put your real name, address, phone number and email address.
  7. Start each chapter on a new page.
  8. Number your manuscript from the first page through to the last page in chronological order. Do not number each chapter separately. (Yes, some writers have actually done this.) If you do the same, you could end up with twenty different Page Ones. Imagine if this pile of paper were dropped on the floor...
  9. Create a header or footer for your manuscript. In this header, include your surname, the name of the book, and the page number. Find out the correct way to create a header. You do NOT create a header (or footer) by typing these details on the top of every page. If you do this, every time you edit your work the header will move - and end up halfway down a page. Use the 'insert header' function in your word processor to put it in the right place. You don't type in the actual page number, either - you use the 'insert page number' function provided by your word processor. If you're not sure how to do this, access your word processor 'help' menu (usually F1) and do a search by typing in "page numbering" to find out the right way to do it.
  10. Print a fresh copy of your edited manuscript to send to an editor. Do not put it in a ring binder - in fact, don't bind it in any way. Just put a sheet of cardboard the same size as the manuscript pages front and back, and secure it with giant rubber bands.

That's about it... the basics of good manuscript presentation. You might be tempted to make it look pretty, or use the spiffy cover sheets that today's word processors can produce - but don't. That's fine for business presentations or flyers for your writing services, but not for basic manuscripts to send to an editor. It's your writing that has to make a good impression - not the paper, font or title pages!

© Marg McAlister


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