How to Format Your Manuscript for Agents
Updated: Jun 18
A guest post by Amelia Wiens
So you’re planning to submit your manuscript to agents. You’ve dedicated so much time to perfecting your story. It’s almost ready. There’s just one hitch: how do you handle the formatting? Should the manuscript look like a book? Should it look like a report? Should the formatting stand out or should it be unobtrusive, letting the text speak for itself? Also, what is this styles feature you’ve heard about, and can it help?
To start off, know that agents are passionate about discovering and championing deeply engaging stories. They aren’t going to toss aside a story they love just because the author used a piece of unconventional formatting. So please don’t stress about making every detail of the document absolutely perfect.
That being said, first impressions can be impactful. If the first thing agents see is particularly sloppy or hard-to-read formatting, they may immediately suspect that the writing itself is sloppy too. Often agents share their own formatting guidelines online, so they may even suspect that you won’t be a good author to work with because you don’t read instructions carefully. That’s not a great place to start.
To give the best first impression, your manuscript should look professional and be easy to read. Below is a list of standard formatting guidelines to help your manuscript look clean and professional. These are also great guidelines for preparing your manuscript for editing as well. But again, keep in mind that agents sometimes post their own formatting guidelines online, so ensure you’re following agents’ specific preferences before sending them your manuscript.
Your Manuscript Should:
Have a standard page size (either Letter size or A4)
Use double or 1.5 spacing
Have left aligned paragraphs and center aligned titles
Be in an easy-to-read, 12pt font
Use 1 in (2.5 cm) margins
Include page numbers
Have a title page that includes your name, manuscript title, wordcount, and contact information
Use paragraph indents (rather than the Tab button) Use page breaks to separate chapters
When sending your manuscript to an editor, also keep in mind that it should be in a Word document. Agents may not mind as much if the manuscript is in a Google Doc or a PDF, but editors use features, plug-ins, and macros in Word that just aren’t available in other programs.
Write in whatever program you feel most comfortable in - just convert your manuscript into a Word document before sending it in to your editor.
In Google Docs, you can simply download the manuscript and it will automatically convert to a Word document. You can also access a free version of Word online through DropBox.
Word’s style feature can also help make formatting a lot easier, especially with big documents that use multiple formatting styles. I’ll get into the specifics of how to use the styles feature at the end. I’ve also attached a template manuscript that already has all of the formatting in place. Feel free to use it as you write and save yourself some hassle!
For those of you who do want to know how to make these formatting changes yourself, just follow the instructions below. Also, keep in mind that the following instructions are for the latest version of Word from Microsoft Office 365. If you are using an older version of Word, the following features may look a bit different for you.
Standard Page Sizes
In Canada and the U.S., the standard page size is Letter. In any other English-speaking country, it’s A4. To set your page size in Word, go to Layout > Size and select Letter or A4. Pretty simple.
Also, please keep the page in portrait orientation (with the vertical edge longer than the horizontal edge, which is the default in Word).
I have seen some writers submit manuscripts in landscape orientation with the text divided into two columns. I think these authors are trying to mimic the presentation of an open book. Please remember that your typesetter down the road is the one who will format your manuscript to look like a book. The goal for working manuscripts is to have the text be as easy to read and edit as possible, not to already look like the final product. Portrait orientation works best for on-screen reading and editing, so please stick with this default!
To change your document’s spacing, first highlight the entire document. To quickly highlight all, click anywhere in the document and press the buttons Ctrl + A (Cmd + A on Mac). At the top in the Home tab, select the line and paragraph spacing icon (see the image below). In the drop-down menu, select either 1.5 or 2.0, whichever you prefer. Your new spacing will now apply to your whole manuscript.
Left Align the Body Text, Center Align Titles
The ideal text alignment for a manuscript is left aligned with the right side of the paragraphs ragged and uneven. However, your manuscript title and chapter titles should be aligned center. On the title page, if you include any author information directly beneath the title, that information should be centered as well.
To change your manuscript’s alignment, highlight all the sections you would like to change. Open the Home tab at the top, look at the paragraph section, and select the left align or center align symbol.
Setting the Font
Some of the most common and standard fonts for long documents are Times New Roman, Georgia, and Garamond. You could use another easy-to-read font, but I recommend sticking with a serif font as they’re the best for clarity in long documents.
To change your font, start by highlighting the entire document (Ctrl + A or Cmd + A on Mac). In the Home tab, click on the font drop-down menu (see image below) and select your desired font.
In the drop-down menu to the right, make sure the font size is set to 12. Also, please keep the font colour black. The goal is clarity. Your story should pop, not your formatting.
Inserting Page Numbers
This is also fairly simple. At the top of the Word document, go to the Insert tab. Select Page Number and then select where you want the page number to go. Usually for manuscripts, the page number is at the bottom center, but top right could work as well.
Your title page should have your title big and center. Go for a larger font, get the title in the middle of the page, and center it. Be sure the page also has (in a smaller font) your name, wordcount estimated to the nearest thousand, and your contact information. To see an example of a title page, check out my manuscript template attached to the post.
Indenting your paragraphs automatically keeps the first line of every paragraph further to the right. If you use the Tab button to manually create the indent for every paragraph, it’s going to cause irksome formatting issues for your copy editor and typesetter later on.
To set your paragraphs to indent automatically, highlight all your paragraphs. Then go to the horizontal ruler at the top of the page. (If you don’t see a ruler above your page, go to the View tab at the top and in the Show section select Ruler.)
You should see an hourglass shape on the left side of the ruler.
Click and hold the top half of the hourglass and drag it five notches to the right. All your paragraphs should now have automatic indents.
Word’s page break feature keeps a selected section at the top of a new page, regardless of any changes on previous pages. To add a page break, click to the left of the word that you’d like the next page to start with (for instance, “Chapter 12”). Then click Ctrl + Enter on your keyboard (Cmd + Enter on Mac). Voila! Your next chapter now sits neat and unmoving at the top of the next page.
The styles feature in Word allows you to save a group of formatting settings (font, alignment, spacing, indents, colour, etc.) so that you can quickly apply all these preferences at once to a selected text. It makes formatting separate elements a lot easier.
To create a style, format some text with the preferences you want to save. Highlight the text and right click. A little menu will appear by your cursor. Select the styles drop-down menu at the right and select “Save style.”
A new window will open up. Select Modify.
In the Name bar, write a short name for your style (Chapt. Title, Body Text, etc.). Also be sure to select the option “New documents based on this template.” Then select the Ok button.
Your custom style will now appear in Home tab within the Styles section. To apply a saved style to your text, highlight the text you’d like to change. Go to the Home tab at the top and in the Styles section select your preferred style.
All this may sound complicated, but it really is a simple feature to use once you get the hang of it.
Now, you can use styles to format your chapter titles, body text, section separators, and any textual items (emails, letters, text messages, etc.) to be uniform throughout your manuscript.
Using My Template to Set Your Styles
Creating separate styles for chapter titles, the body text, and textual items may be a difficult and tedious task for you. To simplify the process, the attached manuscript template includes my own formatting for these different elements. That way, you don’t need to make all the formatting choices yourself. All you need to do is highlight the text and save the style.
There are some instructions in the template that explain what elements you should highlight and save. The template also has a sample text (taken from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) so that you can see what my formatting choices will look like in your manuscript.
I hope you’ve found this guide helpful and I wish you all the best in your search for an agent who will champion your story and help you share it with the world.
Amelia Wiens is a freelance fiction editor who provides story-level and sentence-level editing directly to authors. Her genre specializations range from fantasy and speculative fiction to historical and literary fiction.
You can visit her website www.ameliawiens.com to learn more about her services.
Though Canadian, she grew up overseas in the deserts of Doha, Qatar. She is now back in the great white north and lives in the prairies of Manitoba.