Authors sit with their favorite word processor or text editor — I, personally, am enamored of Scrivener for Windows — and let their creative magic happen. What many authors fail to understand, however, is that the tool you use, and how you use it, influences the relative difficulty of manuscript preparation by a publisher. And, especially for a small press, a manuscript that’s a significant burden to prep for printing might well be a manuscript that the publisher passes on accepting.

Nine tips:

  1. Trim size matters. Most books on the market aren’t formatted at 8.5-inches-by-11-inches, yet the default document template in tools like Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer mimic printer-paper sizes. What you carefully lay out in your Word document at 8.5×11 almost certainly will not resemble the final document. You won’t know what trim size your publisher will select until the project is mostly complete, so don’t waste the time creating a Word document that you intend to be replicated on the printed page.
  2. Strategize poetry line breaks. Because a book’s trim won’t match the default page setup in Word, any poetry you write that depends on line breaks and indentations will almost surely need to be reflowed. This rule is especially true when you’re shopping a small poetry collection; the publisher is likely to pick a smaller trim size (we’re working on a collection now, A Crowd of Sorrows, that’ll print at 5-inches-by-7-inches, with interior margins of just 3 inches) to ensure that the final product is thick enough to justify the cost of printing. Poems that rely on the visual placement of text are a real pain in the buttocks to work with. If you struggle with finding a publisher for your poetry, consider whether text flow may contribute to your difficulty. And if you do rely in visual indents — use consistently spaced tabs, never leading spaces, to obtain your intended effect.
  3. Re-think subheads and scene transitions. Skip on the temptation to add glyphs to differentiate scenes, or to use drop caps for new chapters. Authors are not responsible for document design and layout; the author must supply clean text for production, but text flow and page design are the purview of the publisher unless you’re self-publishing. All that fancy stuff you want to add actually makes your manuscript significantly more difficult to work with.
  4. Avoid embedded tables and images. Do not include embedded imagery in your documents — even if you’re presenting some sort of non-fiction work, or a work that includes a photo spread. Instead, supply those elements separately. Send high-resolution photos (pro tip: most commercial printers require images at 300 dots per inch, with CMYK color, but without an embedded ICC profile) and include tables as either vector images, or as a table in a Word or Excel document submitted separately. Indicate where a given table or image should appear by inserting an in-line text tag — e.g., “[INSERT SAMPLE.SVG HERE]” — knowing that the design team will flow text and graphics as best as the trim size supports. Depending on what program you use as an author, you might embed images that are functionally unusable for commercial printing, no matter how “nice” the page looks on your computer screen, so never rely on document embedding to transfer your non-text content. If your project relies heavily on visual elements, you’ll meet with the publisher to discuss interior design through the use of “dummy pages,” so you should still keep the text itself free of embeds.
  5. Use fonts judiciously. Keep it simple: Use Times New Roman or other standard serif fonts; avoid sans-serif fonts and, for the love of the Almighty, do not use Comic Sans. If you use effects like bold or italic in your text, verify that you actually have the font (not just the font family) installed. For example, on my PC, I have a font called Adobe Gothic Std B. I have just the one font, so in Word, if I highlight text written in Adobe Gothic Std B, then italicize it, Word will make the text appear italic, even though it’s not based on an italic typeface. However, because I don’t have an italic version of the font on my PC, if I import the text into InDesign, I’ll either get an error, or the italics will simply not appear. In other words: Use standard fonts, always, to avoid being “tricked” by Word into thinking you have fonts that you really don’t have.
  6. Be consistent. The entire manuscript should be formatted in the same way. For example, it’s bad form to submit one chapter with manual (i.e., tabbed) indents while other chapters use hanging indents. Use paragraph and character styles in Word to keep things straight.
  7. Don’t mix-and-match your fonts. There’s no need to change your font family within the text — e.g., if you’re offsetting something like a letter or message in your novel, a technique that Tom Clancy was fond of, please don’t render it in some sort of typewriter-looking font like Courier when the rest of your manuscript is in Times New Roman. Let the designers figure out the right offsetting during production. Again, as a writer, your task is to supply text, not formatting.
  8. Think about paragraph breaks relative to trim size. It’s a standard convention that no paragraph ends with just one word on the final sentence. Most book designers, then, will insert an optional line break to reflow the text so the final line in the paragraph doesn’t consist of an orphaned word. As you write, consider how you make paragraph breaks; too many very short paragraphs is likely to lead to a passage that looks ugly on the page given word spacing to support embedded line breaks.
  9. Submit text that supports easy importation into design software. A straightforward .DOC or .DOCX file, if the text is clean and free of embedded elements, imports fairly cleanly into Adobe InDesign. InDesign also supports .RTF and .TXT files, too. Other formats may be hit-or-miss; InDesign can’t open Scrivener projects, for example, unless you compile it to an InDesign-friendly format.


The biggest take-away for authors is that the more they try to gussy up a manuscript to make it appear like what they envision the book to look like, the harder it is for publishers to work with the project. Be consistent and don’t get fancy; there’s plenty of time for beautification when you’re meeting with the designers before the book hits the printer.

You’re submitting content, not formatting, and the more the line between the two blurs, the more difficult it becomes to work with a given project.

9 Tips for Formatting Your Manuscript
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