Grace's Mosaic Moments

Monday, May 9, 2011

Writing 101 - Formatting

Over the last fifteen years I have judged somewhere around four hundred contest entries for various chapters of the Romance Writers of America. I like to think I’m rather good at it. Unfortunately, in the past year I’ve noticed an abrupt decline in the presentation of the contest entries. No, I’m absolutely, positively, not one of those judges who believes you have to write in Courier at 25 lines to the page. Frankly, when I was entering contests twenty years ago, I always avoided those that specified anything so narrow. BUT, in order to put your best foot forward, you want to have an editor or agent absorbed in your story, not wincing over grammar, punctuation, spelling, or formatting. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by ignoring these aspects of crafting your manuscript.

Last fall, I encountered the results of an RWA chapter who decided that since most people were submitting to e-publishers, there was no need for formatting at all! (A shocking insult to e-pubs, by the way.) The results were entries with no headers, no page numbers, infinitesimal tab indents or block style, incorrect dialogue punctuation, etc. etc. Below is the article I attached to the score sheets of the entries I judged for that contest. Hopefully, other newbies will find it helpful.

More recently, I encountered a number of manuscripts that seemed to be first drafts - written but not edited by the author, and not proofread for errors the spell-checker can’t catch. My mind boggled. How could anyone who wanted to create a saleable manuscript be so careless? There will be more on editing in later chapters of Writing 101. Today’s blog deals almost exclusively with formatting.

Standard Manuscript Format

Although most print publishers, as well as e-publishers, are now accepting manuscripts via e-mail, it is essential that every author knows how to present a professional appearance. For example, formats used for college papers are not the impression you want to make. For the print market, you are shooting yourself in the foot if you do not present your work in traditional manuscript format. Even for the e-market—unless a publisher has specific guidelines to the contrary—you are still expected to use traditional format. With all the difficulties in getting someone to read your manuscript, don’t take any chances. (Picture a busy editor putting down the phone after a long call and not having a header on the page/screen to remind her what she was reading!) So . . .

Do NOT—repeat DO NOT—scream “Amateur” with the Editor/Agent’s first glance at your manuscript!

The “musts”

1. Set Top margin to .5

2. Set Left, Right & Bottom margins to 1"

3. Manuscript Title - set as Header, Flush Left

4. Set auto page number for Top Right margin
Note: Header & page number are usually set on “suppress” for the opening page.

5. Set line spacing to double (Some e-pubs allow 1.5, check guidelines)

6. Set auto indent to .5 (In both MS Word & Word Perfect - Format/Paragraph/Format)

7. Use Font 12 (or 14, if you prefer). Times New Roman is the new standard, with Courier (a 19th c. century font) finally beginning to fall by the wayside. But any clear font in 12- or 14-point is acceptable.

8. Italics may be used with TNR because they stand out clearly. So if you insist on using Courier, where italics are obscure, the old rules apply: use underline instead.

9. Center each Chapter Title 1/3 down the page. (Distance down can be less if you are submitting solely to e-publishers)

10. Hard Page End at the end of each chapter (Fastest method: Control+Enter)

11. Word Count. Knowing the correct word count of your manuscript is always important. To find the count in M S Word: File - Properties - Statistics. In Word Perfect: File - Properties - Word Count.


1. Do not use the word “Page” with the page number

2. Do not center your book’s title on Page 1. The Title will appear in the Header (flush left)

2. Do not center Date & Location - these are set Flush Left & italicized (underlined in Courier)
(Highlight words to be set flush left, Format- Paragraph - Format - 0)

3. Do not fail to put in a Hard Page End at the end of a chapter.

4. EDIT YOUR WORK. (Most successful authors go over their mss 3-5 times before submitting)

5. PROOFREAD! We all make errors Spell Check can’t catch. You want readers to enjoy your work, not spend time puzzling over your mistakes.

Note: many agents require query excerpts to be included in the body of the e-mail. Read instructions carefully. When an attachment is allowed, be sure you send it in the requested format. Word Perfect users, in particular, need to be careful to Save your wpd doc in rtf. MS Word users - if the instructions are, “send in RTF,” then send in RTF, not DOC. It’s a simple switchover when you’re in the SAVE menu.

As someone who has judged close to 400 contest entries in the last fifteen years, I can guarantee that taking the above advice will let you present your manuscript in the best possible light.

Grace Kone, October 2010

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May, 2011 - I will be adding more chapters to my series entitled, Writing 101.

Thanks for stopping by - and please come back. Comments and questions are always welcome.


  1. Hi Grace, great post--good reminders. I entered a few contests this spring and found all of them to be very specific in their layout criteria. I'm surprised people wouldn't make every effort not to be eliminated on something so simple and in their control.

  2. Hi Grace;

    Great post. I've also been a member of RWA for years and have judged many contests. While I have not seen the recent formatting issues you've described, (where ms is set up for e-pub), I have seen some strange things.

    This is a great series for beginners, and I suspect you'll get people like me, who are always on the lookout for good information.

  3. Great blog. I'm looking forward to reading more.

  4. These are useful reminders. I'm still a holdout for Courier unless I'm submitting somewhere that requires TNR. I just find the old font easier on my eyes. I have switched from two to one space between sentences, however.

  5. Hello, Grace! Wonderful idea for a blog. I'm going to recommend your new blog to my readers this week and share some link love. So many newbies get hung up on the format thing. This explains succinctly.

    Best wishes,
    Joan Reeves

  6. Thank you for all the encouraging words. Please pass along the Writing 101 info to anyone you think might benefit from it. Next time: Punctuation.

    Re Nancy's comment about learning to type a single space after periods. For old souls like me it's easier not to attempt to re-train my fingers. When the ms is done, I do a simple Search and Replace. Search for [period space space], Replace with [period space]. If you're really fussy, you can add: Search for [period double quote space space], Replace with [period double quote space].