“Manuscript” literally means “written by hand.” Sounds like “handwriting,” doesn’t it? Not all that long ago most manuscripts (“mss.” for short; the singular is “ms.”) were handwritten. Some of us still do a fair amount of first-drafting in longhand.
These days, however, when we talk about manuscripts, we’re usually referring to the finished (at least for the time being) product that we circulate to our writer friends, hand over to an editor, or submit to a publisher. That manuscript had better not be handwritten. Go back to “H Is for Handwriting” (or take a close look at the photo at the top of this page) and you’ll see why.
Some manuscripts are handwritten, of course. They are generally found in archives and libraries, where they are pored over by scholars, not read by the general public.
Though often hard to read, handwritten manuscripts are undeniably full of personality. Standard manuscript format isn’t. That’s part of its point. It says little about the writer’s personality, but what it does say is important. It tells the agent or editor who reads it “This writer knows what she’s doing. She’s prepared a manuscript that makes it possible for you to focus on the writing.”
So what is “standard manuscript format”? Most how-to-get-published books and websites will tell you, but here are the basics:
- One-inch margins all around
- Serif font (sometimes a particular font is specified, like Times New Roman)
- 12 point type
- A header that includes the author’s surname, a word or two from the title, and the page number
My writers’ group members bring paper pages to our weekly meetings. Here’s one of mine. It illustrates all of the above points, plus the convention that the first page of a new chapter begins some ways down the page, usually between a third and a half. Note also that the header includes “draft 3.” Version control — keeping track of revisions and rewrites — deserves a post of its own. Maybe when we get to V?
Manuscripts submitted electronically can of course be reformatted by the recipient, but you want to create a good first impression. Freelance editors often wind up tweaking (at least) the mss. submitted by our less experienced clients, but we’re generally charging for the time we spend doing this. Unless you already have a big name or a hot topic, agents and publishers are doing you a favor by reading your work. Make it easy for them.
For both fiction and nonfiction writers, the Chicago Manual of Style‘s section “Manuscript Preparation for Authors” is a good place to start. Different genres, journals, and academic disciplines often have their own requirements, some of which are very specific and should be followed to the letter.
Learn the conventions and expectations that prevail in whatever field you’re in. This is especially true if your ms. includes citations — footnotes and/or endnotes, bibliography or reference list. As I noted in “B Is for Backmatter,” messily formatted citations make editors very cranky. Writers are well advised to avoid this whenever possible.