Every publisher maintains a slightly different standard for what constitutes a “good” format for a manuscript, although several standardized frameworks — like William Shunn’s — make for a solid jumping-off point.
At Caffeinated Press, we believe best practices depend less on how a document looks on the screen, and more how it’s internally structured for interoperability among the different programs that contribute to a robust editorial process flow.
One overriding point: Very many authors use Microsoft Word (or LibreOffice Writer) to compose — not surprising, given that Word is truly the industry standard. However, Word isn’t an ideal tool for commercial publishing. Word uses proprietary file structures to present information in a WYSIWYG environment; it’s optimized to take the image on the screen and faithfully translate it into output on a local personal printer, even if the structure of the document under the hood is an unadulterated mess. Publishers don’t publish in Word; they use programs like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress, which struggle with Word formatting when the author uses Word in less-than-optimal fashion.
For example, we’ve encountered content from writers, presented as a Word document, that imported so poorly into InDesign that we had to reformat the entire document line-by-line. For a short story, we can fix it without too much drama. For a novel? Yikes.
As such, we encourage (but don’t require) authors to present their material in plain-text format using text-based markup. LaTeX is common for scientific writing, although it has a high learning curve. Much more accessible for authors are Markdown or MultiMarkdown. If you’re unfamiliar with Markdown or MultiMarkdown, you could either install the Writage plug-in for Word — it’s free and easy — or use Pandoc, which is more robust but also a heavier lift for folks with less-developed computer skills. With Writage, you could write in Word as normal, but export a final document in Markdown syntax.
If you prefer the familiar comfort of Microsoft Word, then at a minimum use styles instead of text formatting to add textual emphasis. For example, to italicize something, create an italic style (under the Style group of the Home tab) instead of either clicking the “I” button under the Font group or pressing Ctrl+I. Text modifiers from the Font group may not translate into InDesign consistently — they may get lost and no one will know — and it’s possible that a specific font on the author’s or the publisher’s computer system lacks an italic variation of a font (Word just makes it slanty even if you don’t have an italic font on your PC), leading to outright errors during file conversion.
Also: Use hanging indents instead of tabs; ideally, you will never press the Tab key anywhere in your story. The confusion between tabs and indents turns a story into a nightmare to lay out.
All of the above notwithstanding, please review following conventions we expect to see in a full, final manuscript:
All File Formats
- Do not embed your name or contact information in the manuscript or its metadata.
- Give your chapters short titles. Numbers alone make for unappealing navigation in an ebook.
- Follow standard manuscript conventions:
- Each speaker appears in a separate paragraph.
- Speech is indicated with double quotes; mental speech is indicated with italics; single quotes are never used to indicate speech.
- Use two hyphens with an offsetting space on each side to reflect an em dash. Do not let Word autocorrect your two hyphens into an en dash.
- Do not use ellipses. If a trail-off in speech must be indicated (and it usually doesn’t need to be), indicate as such through narration.
Microsoft Word/LibreOffice Writer/Rich Text
- Margins at 1″ on all sides.
- Left-justified text in Courier New, 11 point, or equivalent monospace/serif font. Do not use a sans-serif font like Arial or Helvetica.
- In a page header, insert the page number and a short/abbreviated form of the title. Do not use the author’s name.
- Start a new chapter on a new page. Indicate the chapter title by using ALL CAPS but apply no other formatting to it. Center the title and offset it with one blank line before and after the chapter title. Do not insert unnecessary extra blank lines.
- Insert a single center-justified hashtag between scenes, without offset line breaks.
- Never, ever, ever press the Tab key. Instead, set indents in the Layout tab (the paragraph group) and apply them consistently throughout the document.
- Use document styles (accessed in the Styles group of the Home tab) to effect italic text, instead of using the “I” button in the Font group of the Home tab.
- Do not use bold text, ALL CAPS or an underline to indicate emphasis.
- Do not vary the font, the point size, colors, the paragraph justification or paragraph indents. Ever.
- No drop caps or embedded images.
- All lines flush left (no embedded tabs).
- Use H1 for a story title, H2 for a chapter title, and H3 for a scene title. Do not progress beyond H3.
- Do not nest bold and italics.
- Offset scene breaks with a single escaped hashtag (i.e., use \# on a blank line) — do not use blank lines to offset scenes within a chapter.
- Do not embed carriage returns within a paragraph.
By structuring your content to match what a publisher needs to advance a story through the editing and production process, you’ll reduce both delays in development and potential errors that could occur because of broken translations from Word into the publishing-layout program.