Monday, 4 March 2013

Formatting a Novel

(Image courtesy of _StaR_DusT_)

[This post was updated in November 2015 with the help of Ghostwoods Books editor Salomé Jones.]

The other day, a friend asked me how to go about writing a novel. She wasn't short on inspiration, it was more a question of layout.

These things are always tricky because everybody's preferences are different. For that reason, you really must check every publisher and agent website before submitting your work. If you Google the one you want to submit to, they will almost always have a specific section on their site titled: Submissions. Under that you will find invaluable tips on what they're accepting, what they're not accepting, and how they want you to format your MSS (manuscripts).

These guidelines can range from standard: attach a .doc/.pdf sample of the first three chapters, to the quirky: rich text format only, or copy/paste into an e-mail. However they like it, you'll need to comply in order to get past the recycling bin. This can sometimes mean completely reformatting your manuscript.

So, how do you format your work whilst you're writing it? What's the most acceptable approach?

Here's my style guide. But I urge you not to worry too much. Whereas it's good to start out on the right foot, it's even better to run ahead with your words and complete the MS. At the end of the day, if your story gets picked up, some nice person at the publishing house will do it all for you. There's no such thing as a perfect MS - there's always room for proofing,  minor edits and reformatting. Your aim is to get it looking more like a tuxedo than jeans and a T-shirt.

I'm using MS Word, but whatever you're using - Open Office, Mac, etc. - you should be able to do similar.

Font Size

Pick a standard font and size. Nothing fancy or swirly. If in doubt, Times New Roman eleven or twelve-point will do nicely.


Whilst I'm writing, I personally prefer my text fully justified so that both left and right margins are aligned. 

However, Salomé recommends:

Full justification is harder on the eyes. Ragged right is both easier to read and easier to locate things in.

I have seen several submission guidelines that have specifically asked authors not to fully justify their manuscripts but to left-justify ('ragged right') only. It's fine to write in any way that is easy on your eye, but for submission use what they tell you. If in doubt, left justify. Though centred chapter headings are recommended.

If you do fully justify your text, avoid creating line breaks with Shift+Enter, as it can cause large gaps between the words. Just use standard Enter.

Line Break

2. or 1.5 line breaks are the standard. At the bottom of that list you will also see the option to Remove Space After Paragraph. It's a good idea to do that.

Page Break

After every chapter, insert a page break so that the next chapter begins on a fresh page. To insert one using MS Word you can use the shortcut (hotkey): Alt+I then B. Or go to Insert and Page Break.

File Format

All submission guidelines will tell you which format to send your work in. If they don't ask you to print it out and post it, it'll usually be: .doc/.docx (Document), .pdf (Portable Document Format) or .rtf (Rich Text Format).

Salomé recommends sending in .doc format because:

PDF doesn't convert well to other formats. Word is the most easily converted. 

Which means a potential publisher or agent can easily pop it on their Kindle and change the font and spacing to their liking.

A PDF is like taking a photograph of the document. The main advantage is that it will always look the same on any computer, whichever operating system or programme version someone is using. This is especially useful if you're including special characters in your text, or images. They can't go astray over the page. However, they don't convert as well as a .doc through an e-reader processor like Calibre, and an editor can't make notes or changes using Review Function.

If your story is accepted for publication, you will need to provide a .doc/.docx version for editing purposes.

Paragraph Indent

Here's a sample of an original submission I made:

click to enlarge

Times New Roman 12p, 1.5 line spacing, no paragraph gap, justified.

Now, here's what it looked like after my editor got through with it:

click to enlarge

As you can see, it looks more professionally like a book. Still justified, we stuck with TNR 12p, no line spacing, no paragraph gap. However, the most noticeable difference is that the first lines have been indented.

When writing a manuscript, I didn't used to use first line indentation, and I haven't seen a submission guideline that has asked for it. This is something the publisher will do when laying out the text. However, if you would like to do it yourself (and there's no reason you shouldn't), there's a couple of golden rules to remember:

  1. Don't indent the first paragraph of a chapter or section.
  2. Always use the paragraph function to indent. Don't use the tab key.

Hitting the tab key will move your lines in from the margin. However, it's the difference between a .doc and a .pdf again. Using the tab key has the potential to make the formatting look messy when viewed with a different programme or operating system. Using the paragraph function will keep the indentation stable.

If you go on to make your work available electronically through something like Smashwords, this tip will save you valuable time reformatting your MS.

How to use the paragraph function to indent lines:

  • Highlight your work and right-click.
  • Select Paragraph

click to enlarge
  • Under Special select First Line, then in By tell it by how much you wish to indent. I tend to find that 0.7cm is about right.

That's all there is to it.

To remove the indent from a first line, simply place your cursor at the start of the first word and hit backspace once.

So, happy formatting. Like I say - don't get too fixated. What matters is the plot, your characters, and getting that manuscript completed. These tips should help you to tidy everything up once you're done, getting it into an acceptable shape for submission.

Also, check out this neat little guide by William Shunn.


  1. So helpful! I knew about the indentation tip- makes a big difference in looking like a 'real book'- but was nice to have a basics round-up. :)

  2. This is so helpful. Thanks pet x