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When publishers don't have formatting guidelines on their websites, how do you format your manuscript for submission?

These pages will give you some guidelines to follow when you submit it to a conventional publisher. If a publisher has guidelines on its website, follow them!

1. At what stage is my manuscript ready to send to a publisher?
When you have edited at least five times, copyedited at least ten times and proofread what seems like a million times. It will not make a good impression on a publisher if you send a manuscript that is still more like a draft than a polished work. Get honest advice (advice that does not flatter you as a writer) from people who have experience with writing, editing or publishing. If you don't know anyone who has this kind of experience, this is one of the things that services such as ours can provide.

Remember, all feedback is important. Even if they haven't understood you, don't just dismiss it with, "Oh, this person doesn't get what I'm saying." If that reader doesn't get what you are saying, then perhaps you need to think about making yourself clearer. Even-perhaps especially-negative feedback is extremely valuable to help you understand what you want and need to make clear.
2. Don't publishers have editors and proofreaders who do this work?
Yes, but they expect to receive a manuscript that has already been tidied up. If they have to do that basic work themselves, they might question your own dedication to and opinion of your work, and-this is crucial-it will increase the cost of publishing your book and thus also the sale price of your book because the publisher will have to pay its own editor for more work. If it's not worth your time, why should it be worth anyone else's? If publishers accept manuscripts, they will edit and proofread anyway, but they won't want to do it until and unless they have accepted it for publication.
3. But I'm paying them to do it!
If you are paying them, then you are self-publishing.
4. The publisher's guidelines are boring. So are the ones listed below. I want my work to stand out and look really great.
Your work will look great if you let the ideas shine. There is no way to let the ideas shine if you are distracting the readers by having flashy-but very hard-to-read-fonts, background pictures on the cover page, borders, etc. If you want the readers, editors and publishers to really pay attention to the ideas you are expressing, then you need to make the text itself as plain as possible. If your manuscript is too cluttered, everyone will wonder what you are trying to hide.
Even if you decide to hire an editor or proofreader, you should make your manuscript as unadorned as possible, since anything that is untidy or hard to read will cost you more when the editor has to spend time (and therefore your money) wading through unnecessary clutter.
It's true that in books the pages are often not as simple as what we are describing, but this formatting is something a publisher will think about at a later stage, when working on layout. When you submit, the publisher will want a plain version to read.

So, what should your manuscript look like?

After you have proofread it a million times, then you can format the pages. (See this example page (PDF) which illustrates the following points 1–7.)

  1. Have 1-inch (2.5-cm) margins top, bottom, left and right.
  2. Have page numbers at the top or bottom centre or right (not left; no one will look for them there).
  3. Use Times New Roman font, not Arial or Calibri. Why? It is hands-down the easiest to read. Don't make your readers strain their eyes just because you like the look of something. Remember, your goal is to make your manuscript easy to read.

    Iliad (Times New Roman)
    Iliad (Arial)
    Iliad (Calibri)

    There is hardly any difference in the second and third examples between the initial upper-case "i" and the second lower-case "l" in Arial and Calibri. The little bits at the top of the letters that distinguish between the "i" and the "l" in Times New Roman are called serifs. They make these letters easier to distinguish. If you can't bear to use Times New Roman, at least use a font that has serifs. But please use Times New Roman. There is a time and a place for using fancy fonts (invitations, typesetting, advertisements, etc.), but your manuscript is neither.
  4. Use 12-point font. Why? It is easiest to read. If it's bigger, you'll make people wonder what you're hiding. If it's smaller, the editor will not be able to scan it quickly without glasses. Don't obsess about the number of pages. If you are submitting electronically, it won't matter. If you are sending it by post (some publishers still require that you post your manuscript to them), then you should be prepared for the extra cost. This is, after all, your precious labour; don't skimp.
  5. Double-space your manuscript for the same reason that you use Times New Roman 12-point font: it's easier to read. Leave room for someone to make comments. The white space on the page will make it look more inviting to read. A page full of dense, single-spaced type is really, really daunting for someone to read.

    A. Single

    B. One-and-a-half

    C. Double

    Double-spaced lines look really far apart, but don't worry. It's standard practice; your manuscript will be easier to read, and your goal is to make it easy to read so that your ideas will shine through.
  6. Identify your paragraphs by indenting the first line of each paragraph 0.5 inch (1.25 cm) from the left. Normally one tab will give you this indent. Don't put a blank line between paragraphs; it will invariably get messed up and the reader won't know where your paragraphs begin and end. Remember, easy does it. Try not to have your computer set up so that every time you hit "Enter" it starts a new paragraph by indenting. This function is easy to get rid of. Ask someone you know how to undo that on your computer.
  7. Leave ragged margins on the right side of the page. (In Microsoft Word the command is called "Align Text Left" or "Left Justify".) Don't have straight margins on both sides of the page. If the right and left are both justified, then the software will add white space so that everything is even, and you won't be able to see other formatting problems. When your manuscript is published, the publisher will deal with making the edges straight. That's not your job. Your job is to make your manuscript easy to read.
  8. Save files as .doc or .docx.
  9. Required pages for your manuscript are as follows: The acknowledgements and dedication are not important at this point. The acknowledgements will probably change before publication, and no one at the publisher will care that your grandmother inspired you. They will only care once they know who you are, but at the point of submission, you are just some anonymous writer who is trying to attract the attention of the publisher by making your manuscript as easy to read as possible. A dedication will distract readers from that.
  10. The last thing you do is spell-check. If you have properly edited and proofread your manuscript, then you should have hardly any typos or misspellings. Do not rely on spell-check to find and correct all spelling errors. Spell-check will not find the underlined errors in the following sentence:

    There lacy brown dog jest well not ate the meet.
    (Their lazy brown dog just will not eat the meat.)

These guidelines will not get you published, but they will get you taken seriously, and that is what you want. Uncluttered pages that emphasize the content rather than the packaging will help you get noticed.