Have you finished editing your manuscript and need to get it ready for professional eyes? There are a lot of agents and publishers out there, but most publishers have very similar requirements. By following some basic general principles, you can get your manuscript looking clean and professional.
These recommendations are not meant to replace research or submissions guidelines. But they will be a good starting place for most publishers and can help fill in the gaps in the submission guidelines, which may not cover every part of your manuscript.
First, remove any comments and finalize any suggestions from previous edits.
If you are using Microsoft Word, you can use the review options to accept all changes and delete all comments automatically.
Make sure the manuscript is clean, complete, and no longer looks under construction. Agents and publishers want manuscripts that are ready to publish. Submitting a document with comments from your beta readers, previous editors, or yourself looks like you haven't finished making your own edits. Most places that you will submit your manuscripts will have editors, but they still want to know that you have done your best to get this manuscript as polished as you possibly can.
Second, trim your manuscript down to just the text of your book. If you have any additional materials prepared (such as a foreword, copyrights page, synopsis, cover image, or front and back matter), those need to be removed. Publishers and agents will request those materials specifically when they want them. Until then, they just make it harder to find the start of your story.
If you're worried about claiming copyright of your story, you don't need to be. Copyright laws are on your side. From the moment you write your manuscript, you own the copyright on the text. A publisher cannot print your book without your permission, even if you've never officially filed your copyright. During the contract process, you will need to confirm that you are the original creator and give them permission to print and sell your book. But none of that needs to go inside your manuscript now.
Art can also seem like a good idea to include. Many authors have cover art or interior illustrations made by themselves, their friends, their spouses, or a previous publisher. But these are not really part of the manuscript. The publisher will almost always want to create their own art. You should only include art in your submission if you are submitting a picture book or if you are not interested in publishing the book without the included art. In both cases, the origin of the art and the level of importance to your manuscript should be included in your query letter.
Next, choose a clear, clean font style. They may ask for a different one later, but I recommend having it saved in 12 point Arial or Times New Roman.
Do not use specialized fonts to indicate text messages, handwritten letters, etc. These quickly become a problem if anyone, including yourself, changes the font for the whole document. Your font differences will vanish, leaving it impossible to tell that something distinctive is happening, and sometimes leaving you looking like you've randomly jumped into first person present tense with no warning.
Also, ebook files cannot generally use multiple fonts. Most ebooks allow your readers to change the text to be the easily readable, whether that means the font style or size. This will override any fonts that you or your publisher have used. This is great for readers. (My dyslexic husband loves the font choices that Kindle allows him. It can speed up his reading times by hours!) But it means you need to think ahead.
If you've seen one of those submission guidelines that recommend Courier font, those are wildly out of date. That font has equally spaced letters that work wonderfully for printing newspapers and work terribly for quickly reading full pages of text. Modern fonts adjust the space for each letter to make words look distinctive and speed up reading time. Agents and editors much prefer these types of easy-to-read fonts.
Speaking of spacing, use line spacing of 1.15 to 2. Dense text can slow down readers, but too much space can make it hard to follow the line breaks and read the right line next. I personally prefer 1.5, but the submission guidelines may specify a slightly different spacing for your chosen agent or publisher. Choose something easy to read for now and double check the spacing requirements before you send it out.
Additionally, use automatic indents rather than tabs or spaces at the beginning of your paragraphs. Indented paragraphs are great to read, but manual formatting can easily get messy or annoying for them to remove later. Save them time and make their job feel easy by setting things up automatically for them. Indents between .25 and .5 inches are best.
Do not add two line breaks (press enter twice) between paragraphs. They add unnecessary white space to your pages, inflate your page count, make text harder to read, and appear old fashioned. A paragraph either needs an extra space before it or an indent, but never both. Current industry standards prefer indents in most cases.
Those steps should format your body text and get the majority of your manuscript looking crisp and clear. Once that is done, it's time to start thinking about finding your story structure. You'll want to clearly label the breaks in your story (both chapters and scenes) so that agents and editors can easily follow along.
To make things as clear as possible, use different notations to indicate the various types of breaks. Some writing programs like Scrivener will use "#" to break up chapters when it pieces them all together for you. This can be very confusing and look like a scene break, making editors or agents think you've written the world's longest single-chapter book.
Instead, I recommend you number your chapters and label them with the word "chapter." You may use titles as well, if you like, but having the chapters numbered and labeled as a "chapter" will be the clearest and cleanest way to indicate the breaks to the editors or agents and to allow them to navigate them.
If you have a prologue or epilogue, make sure they are clearly labeled as such. Publishers often can only read a few pages of a manuscript before they must make their initial judgement. If they think they are reading Chapter 1 when it is actually a prologue, it can confuse them. There are different rules for prologues than first chapters. Characters may change ages, or perhaps your prologue is in a more distant point of view than your regular chapters. Labeling a prologue as a normal chapter can make your story seem disjointed and hurt your chances of acceptance.
For your scene breaks, if you have any, make sure to mark them clearly. Don’t just use extra line breaks. These can easily get ignored or deleted. Instead, choose a symbol that isn’t being used elsewhere in your book and use it consistently. # or ~ or *** are popular options. Do not use words or letters to mark a scene break.
Apply a heading style to your chapter headings. Use the same font as your body text, but make them noticeably different (bold, 14 point, centered, etc.) so they can easily be spotted when scrolling through the manuscript. A heading style also can be used to automatically generate easy navigation links or a linked table of contents, if needed later.
Put page breaks between chapters. If you aren't familiar with page breaks, they are a type of blank space that word processors will use to push text to the beginning of the next page automatically. Page breaks allows readers to easily identify a new chapter visually. But you must use the automatic formatting. Do not separate the chapters manually by adding line breaks (pressing enter) until the text falls on the next page.
Text moves around a lot when you change fonts, spacing, or make edits to the text. Manually creating the page break is going to risk leaving the manuscript messy and annoying to read later. Let the computer handle the spacing for you.
These formatting guidelines should help you create a professional, navigable manuscript that will be as easy as possible for editors and agents to read.
Once you have the manuscript set up with the right fonts and spacing, there are a few other things you can do to help your manuscript look clean and complete.
Run spell check one last time. You will have an editor clean this manuscript up later, but the cleaner it starts out, the less expensive it will be and the less time the editor will need. In traditional publishing, this gives you a higher chance of being selected. In self-publishing, this saves you time and money.
If you are one of the people who still adds double spaces at the end of your sentences, use an automatic search to remove those before you submit the manuscript. Modern fonts automatically increase the spacing after a period, so if you add two spaces you'll be adding extra extra space. The editor or agent reading your manuscript may not consciously notice these spacings when they read, but avoiding these mistakes will increase the professional look of your manuscript so they can easily picture this as a finished product that they can sell. It's the manuscript version of dressing for the job you want.
Name the file something simple and professional. The title of the book and your name are usually a good way to go. Do not include any notes to yourself about the version in the title. Things like "final," "updated" "with prologue" etc. make the manuscript look unfinished and can make it harder for them to search in a large slush pile. If you have a lot of versions of the manuscript, make sure to save your submission-ready copy somewhere easy to find or be sure to rename the file before you send it in.
After you've finished following all these steps, don't forget to read the submission guidelines for the publisher, editor, or agent that you are submitting to. View the submission guidelines as something of a test. If you can't follow their instructions during the submission process, you might show an agent or publisher that you will be difficult to work with. For many agents or publishers, an improperly formatted manuscript will be a warning sign and they will pass on your manuscript.
With that in mind, if they do not provide instructions, don't pester them for details. Provide a clean manuscript in the requested format and through the requested means and use your best judgement (or the above list) in order to make it look professional and easy to read.
While working in acquisitions at a publisher, the most frequent mistakes I saw were sending the wrong file type, naming the file incorrectly, and including very ugly cover art. We never outright rejected a manuscript for these things during my time there, but I can definitely tell you that when you open up a manuscript for review and the first thing you see is messy text, bizarre spacing, or a hideous mock cover, it makes it much harder to get emotionally involved in the text. Instead of creating hurdles for your writing to overcome, set yourself up for success by keeping things clean and simple.