Monday, April 1, 2013

8 Tips for Formatting Your Manuscripts So Editors Will Love (Not Hate) You

© Jinyoung Lee | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I recently took some submissions for a special project. I was looking for submissions that would be accepted for publication. I have to admit that I had to really wrestle with some of the submissions. I could tell the writers who sent me these were not professional writers. Most of them were "Newbies" -- never published. I could tell because the professionals who submitted didn't make these mistakes.

Now, I'm all for helping newbies. That's why I write this blog and offer info here for free every month.

I love helping new writers.

And  I seem to be a person most people feel comfortable approaching--which is what I want to be. For decades now I've been a writer whom new or wannabe writers come to for help and guidance, and I don't mind that a bit. I love helping new writers get started and I love teaching about and sharing what I've learned. But I have to admit I was losing my patience with some of the submissions I received.

Why? Because I had to wrestle so hard to accept some of these submissions for publication! The writers made it REALLY, REALLY hard!

Did you get that? I WANTED to accept their writing, use their stuff, accept their submission, PUBLISH THEIR WRITING! But some of them made it nearly impossible. A few actually did make it impossible--and their writing was therefore not accepted or published. (Find out why it was impossible to publish them in #1 below.) They could have been published, but they shot themselves in the foot.

[Editor's Note: I realize I shouldn't use "Reallys" let alone all caps and italics. I'm just that FRUSTRATED! ]

Don't shoot yourself in the foot.

I don't want you to shoot yourself in the foot. That's why I'm sharing these "8 Tips for Formatting Your Manuscripts So Editors Will Love (Not Hate) You." I'm not sharing these items to embarrass anybody (which is why I'm not stating which project these submissions were for), but to help you so you don't make the same mistakes. (I've already worked with these writers and helped them see what they did that was wrong and how to do it right.)

If you've made some of these mistakes, don't worry. It's okay. All is forgiven. Just learn, and do it better next time. And if you know of any new writers, or are networking with some, you might share the link to these 8 Tips to help them find success with their manuscripts.

The endless patience of editors...

Every year at writer's conferences I hear editors patiently repeat endlessly the same things they continue to encounter in manuscripts they receive. I understand that every year there's a new crop of writers who don't know any better, and that's why they have to keep teaching these things.

I believe most of these items are different from the list of "dos and don'ts" you might usually hear. If you're a professional writer or an editor who reviews submissions, I'd be interested in hearing what pet peeves you've run into so all of us can avoid doing what drives you nuts, too. Leave it in a comment below.

Here are my "8 Tips for Formatting Your Manuscripts So Editors Will Love (Not Hate) You":

1.) Be certain you put your contact information on your manuscript and your name on every page!

Yep, some submissions had no name on them, no address, no phone number...not even an e-mail address. "Well why didn't you just hit reply to their e-mail and get back to the writer that way?" you asked. I did. I received no reply. I had no other way of contacting this writer, and he or she never responded to my repeated e-mails.

I can't help but imagine this anonymous writer going through life frustrated that they can get published. Here I am wanting to publishing them, and they won't let me! There was a payment for this project, not to mention permissions needed. So I couldn't publish what they wrote without being able to contact them.

It's really basic: Put your contact information on your submission. Name, snail-mail address, phone, e-mail address. Don't put it only in your e-mail. You can, but we need it on your submission.

Do I feel bad for this writer? No. Honestly, if a person isn't intelligent enough to put their name on their submission, they probably don't deserve to be published. Isn't that snarky of me?

2.) Do not TYPE your name and contact info on the first line of ever page. (Use a header.)

Yes, we need your name on every page of your manuscript. Without this, you're in the same boat as #1 above. How do we know which pages go with your cover page if you don't put your name on every page?

On the other hand, I also had writers type their name at the top of every page. I mean, whenever their word program started a new page, this writer stopped -- right in mid-sentence -- and typed their name again. The problem with this is that when we copy and paste the manuscript, every so often we have this interrupting line that is your name! Don't do that.

Put your story's title (or a shortened form), your name (at least your last name), and the page number on every page by using a header. Like this:

"8 Tips for Formatting Your Manuscripts"              Butts - Page 2

3.) Do not put your contact info in the header!

I had more than one writer put their entire name, address, phone number, and e-mail in the header on every page. We don't need all that on every page -- only on the first page.

What made this especially frustrating was that -- and I have no idea why this was so, but it was -- I was not able to access the headers to erase all that! I couldn't get rid of it not matter what I tried. Even when I tried to copy the manuscript to a new document, the header came with it! So frustrating.

I had to contact this writer and ask her to remove her headers so I could use her manuscript. I seriously doubt any other editor on the planet would have gone through all that. Don't do this.

4.) Do not change the margins.

I don't understand why some writers think they need to change the margins around their document. I had some submissions come in where the margins were way wacky. They made the left margin wider, the bottom margin larger. Why? There's no reason for this. Then, when I tried to copy and paste their manuscript into a new document with the correct margins, their wacky margins copied over too. ARG!

I also had some submissions come in where the font had been made larger -- to 14 or 16 point. This means I had to change it back to 12 point.

Listen to me. There are reasons why all margins are the same and why we want 12 point type. It has to do with word counts per page and stuff like that. But now I know it also has to do with being able to manipulate your manuscript into my project. Without having yours totally mess up mine! If I can't copy it in, I can't use it. (Don't for one second think I'm going to retype your entire manuscript just so I can use it. That's ridiculous.)

Don't do this. Simply open your Word program (or whatever you're using) and start typing. Don't mess with anything. Anything you do I have to un-do. The margins should already be set and the font should already be at a common font, like Times New Roman, at 12 point. Don't mess with it!

If you need larger type so you can see it, then use the function on your screen that makes everything larger. If you absolutely must make your font larger, then change it back to 12 point throughout your manuscript before you turn it in.

5.) One space after periods.

I know some of us have been around long enough that this has changed. But unlike in the "old days" when we used typewriters and put two spaces after a period, now only put ONE space after a period. This has to do with computers that now have fonts that do not give the same space to every letter. No need for two spaces after a period any more. Don't do this.

The one exception: If you're writing screenplays, you still put two spaces after a period. (You also use a font that does give every letter the same amount of space, like Courier. Don't mess that up.) This is very important in screenwriting since each page equals approximately one minute on the screen. Don't mess with fonts or spaces -- that can change that time/page ratio and your script will be rejected (because if you don't know that basic thing you're obviously not a professional).

6.) Block manuscripts, not indents. - Submissions for online publications.

If your submission is going to be published online, use a block format, which means do not indent paragraphs and do put an extra line between paragraphs (hit "enter" twice). Take a look at this blog (or any other). This is block format.

This is how you format your manuscript if it is going to be used online.

7.) Tab, not spaces. - Submissions for print publications.

 If your submission is going to be published in a print magazine or book, set your document to not put an extra line before or after paragraphs. Also, indent your paragraphs using the Tab key (never spaces).

This is how you format your manuscript if it is going to be used in print.

Again, if you do this wrong, I (the editor) has to fix it. Most editors won't -- they'll just reject your manuscript and move on to someone else who does it right.

8.) Double space means...

Double space means use the line spacing in your document and set it to "2." Do not press the enter key twice to put a blank line between every line of your manuscript. That means I have to go through your manuscript and take them all out. Again, there's not an editor on the planet who is going to do all this for you. We don't have the time or the energy.

A possible exception to this is if you are submitting for an online publication, you are using the block formatting, and instead of setting your document to insert a line after each paragraph you press "enter" to create a blank line between paragraphs.

There you have it. These are the things I saw repeated in manuscripts that drove me nuts. And you're not going to do these anymore (if you ever did), are you? You're going to follow my 8 Tips for formating your manuscripts so editors will love (not hate) you, aren't you? Good. <SMOOCH!>

What have you seen in manuscript formatting that drives you nuts?

Or what questions do you have about manuscript formatting?


  1. I can relate from simply being editor of a school newsletter. Some of the outrageous methods people used so it would look right to them on the screen had to tediously be undone before I could use them in the newsletter. My husband was a newspaper editor and had to deal with these problems there as well when people sent him material to print in the paper. These tips are for real!

    1. Ah, thanks for the confirmation, Janice. Glad to know these are universal challenges and not me just being picky. Hopefully educating the readers of this blog/zine will help them, at least, not make these frustrating-to-editors mistakes.

      Thanks for your input.

  2. I loved ALL the points - you were spot on - except for one - #7. Tabs are not good. It's better to set automatic indents and NOT use tabs, and here's why: tabs create awful problems for making manuscripts digital. Some programs wipe them clean, but not all. Tabs just create a mess for the most part on any kind of reformatting.

  3. Oh man! Thank you for calling that to our attention, Tracy.

    Friends, to set your automatic indents, use the ruler at the top of your screen. I'm talking Microsoft Word. If you're using a different program you'll have to figure it out.

    1. In Word 2010, you can also set the indents in the paragraph dialogue box - under Line Spacing.

    2. Okay, great! Thanks, Tracy. I didn't know that one.

  4. Here's another question I received from a reader today:

    Dianne, I have tried every thing. How do I set my line to 2 instead of double spacing myself? Thank you for all your help with your 8 tips for formatting...Please help me.

    Here's my answer:

    Are you using Microsoft Word? I hope so because that's the only program I know! In the banner of commands at the top, above where it says "Paragraph" you will see the four boxes where you can left justify, center, right justify, and justify both sides of your text. Immediately to the right of those, the next box has three lines with an up arrow and a down arrow. That is the box where you set your line spacing.

    Click on that box till it opens. (I had to click mine twice.) The drop down menu has several choices: 1.0, 1.15, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, etc. Choose the 2.0 to set it as double spaced.

    If you've already typed in your document, you'll have to highlight all the text you want double spaced (probably everything except your name/address, etc at the top -- everything from your story/article title down) BEFORE you go to that little box and chose 2.0. When that's applied to the text, it will all go double spaced.

    Hope that helps! Good luck!!

    She wrote back:
    I could give you the biggest bear hug ever!!! Thank you so much!! That was so simple with your great directions. Thank you!!

    So it worked for her. Great! I love those bear hugs!

  5. Dear Dianne & Tracy, I've heard you shouldn't do something called a hard break. Well, I don't know if I do it coz I don't know what it is. I try to do everything automatically in Microsoft Word & not change anything. I don't do any of the above formatting faux pas you mentioned so hopefully editors love me.

  6. Hi Teresa! It's great to hear from you.

    I think what they mean by a "hard break" is a hard page break. For example if you force Word to go to a new page when it's not natural for it to do so (for exmample, the type hasn't hit the end of the page).

    Here's how you do a page break in Word (PC), if you ever need to:

    Click the "Insert" menu at the top. On that menu, it's the third item from the left (at least in my version). It's called "Page Break" and when you click on it, you automatically create a new page.

    Places where I use this is at the end of a chapter in a book manuscript so that the new chapter starts at the top of a new page. Or if I'm doing some kind of special formatting, like handouts I'm printing for a workshop and I want to force something onto the next page. But if you're writing magazine articles or devotions, editors wouldn't want you to put any page breaks in -- just let Word do it when the type runs from the bottom of one page to the top of the next.

    If you have a page break in your Word document and want to get rid of it (because it's invisible unless you click the "Show/Hide" that looks like the symbol for Paragraph), you can go beyond it and then hit "backspace" until you erase it. Or place your curser at the bottom of the page and press "delete" until the type on the lower page bounces up to your curser (then it's gone). Or you can highlight from the bottom of one page to the top of the next and then hit "delete."

    I hope that helps!

  7. A hard break for a line is when you force the next paragraph into a line break, rather than just hitting return or letting the processor move automatically to the next line. The hard break is when you press Shift+Enter. When the "show/hide" button is one, this hard break will look like left-pointing arrow with a "tail" that goes upward.

    These particular marks are nightmares for formatting manuscripts.

    Adding page breaks is good - a page break should be added at the end of each chapter. That forces the next chapter to the next page, and it keeps it there, even if you add or delete text from the previous chapter.

    Hope this helps.