Formatting 101

We all want to submit our best work, and when I was first starting out as a wet-behind-the-ears writer, that desire sometimes translated into hours spent agonizing over whether Times New Roman or Courier was the better font.  I searched and searched for a definitive formatting guide to tell me which typefaces were going to get me an automatic rejection.  Hopefully this guide (suggested by the marvelous and talented Jamie Michelle) will provide for fledgling authors the guidance I was seeking.  Formatting 101.

Step One: Read the Instructions! 

No matter which contest you are entering, which agent you are submitting to, or to which editor you’re sending off your masterpiece, odds are they have some kind of FAQs or Rules online which will tell you exactly what they are looking for.  For example, the Golden Heart’s are here, Samhain’s are here, and Harlequin’s are here.  That’s the place to start if that’s who you’re submitting to.

If your target doesn’t specify font size or spacing, then they are expecting you to know industry standard and use it, so the following tips are a guideline, but DO YOUR RESEARCH & FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS PROVIDED by whomever you are submitting to.  If they’ve taken the time to put them onto the interwebz, they want you to follow them.

The Basics:

**Note: I use Word 2007, so that is what I will be using to explain how to in these examples. If you use another program, there are online tutorials on how to do each of these things & your program will also have a “help” prompt.  Another resource you can refer to is the Golden Pen formatting page here.**

Font Type

Times New Roman or Courier are the two usual suspects (and good defaults if you don’t know what to use), but I’ve heard of authors who’ve submitted using others.  The most important thing is readability.  No fancy, swirly, barely-legible fonts.  Editors, agents & contest judges spend a LOT of time reading these puppies and you want to make your words as easy on their eyes as possible.  Your writing is what you want to stand out.  Not your type-face.  If your book requires  Edwardian Script to be exciting, you need to revise.  When in doubt, TNR.

Font Size

12 pt.  Just keep it 12 unless otherwise specified by the instructions. Once again, this is about readability. 12 is readable.


Generally, you will want your margins to be no less than one inch all the way around.  To set your margins, go to the “Page Layout” tab and click on “Margins”.  The “Normal” setting of one inch all margins will work perfectly.


Typically, you’re going to want to double space, but many contests will allow up to 25 lines per page.  (Double will usually yield 23.)  For 25 lines, don’t monkey with your margins.  Instead, in the paragraph box, on the drop down menu where you pick between “Single, 1.5, Double” etc, pick “Exactly” and type 25 into the box.


Page Breaks 

Between each chapter you need one of these.  If your submission is asking for a Synopsis & Manuscript in the same document, you will also need a “section” break between the two.  This will enable the page numbers in your header to restart back at 1. Also, you can put a section break between your cover page and first page of your manuscript.

To add a page break, you can use CTRL + the enter key or on the “Insert” tab, just click “Page Break”.

To add a section break, go o the “Page Layout” tab and under “Breaks” add a section break, using the “Next Page” option.

Headers & Page Numbers

Every page MUST have a page number and your header information.  I know it seems like you can just type your header information on the top of every page, but trust me when I say you WANT to use your word processing program’s headers – it’s much less time consuming than going through page by page AND it will automatically adjust if you add or delete a paragraph.

To add a header, you can either double click in the empty space at the top of the page where you want to add the header (and the header tab should automatically pop up) or you can go to the “Insert” tab and click “Header” and select the “Blank” option to see the same screen.

If you want to use different numbering from the previous section (between the synopsis & manuscript for example), the first thing you need to do in the Header tab is un-highlight the “Link to Previous Section” by clicking on it.


Then you type in your Title and Surname (for an editor/agent submission, most contests do not allow names).  Hit tab twice and your cursor should jump to the right side of the page where you can then insert a page number.  To do so, select “Page Number”, “Current Position” and “Plain Number” formatting.

If you would like the numbers to start over (such as after a synopsis & at the beginning of the manuscript pages), you will need to format the page numbers (see the yellow arrow above).  Set “Start at” back at one.

Your Information

In a contest you (usually) want to make sure all your personal information is wiped off – including metadata. To erase the traces of you, go to the properties (via the Office tab, “Prepare” & “Properties”.

Click the “Summary” tab and delete any personal information from the fields.  You can also check the “Contents” & “Custom” tabs to be sure they are clear of personal data as well.  Be sure to click OK and SAVE!

For a submission to an agent or publisher, you want to make sure your contact information is right at the top of page one, easy to find, so they don’t have to work to find your phone number when they love your manuscript.  Your cover page should have your phone, email, and mailing address.  I like to also include subgenre & wordcount. (Again, check your target’s submission guidelines for details!) Yes, you put all that on your query, but queries and manuscripts can get separated from one another and you want to make it as easy as possible for your Dream Editor to say, “Yes!”

All right folks!  Those are the basics… although I have a nagging feeling I’ve left out something crucial.  Anyone know what’s nagging me?  Do you have any formatting tips to share you’ve picked up in the trenches?

25 responses to “Formatting 101”

  1. Brilliant, Vivi! There are some contests out there that penalise you for getting the formatting awry, so it pays to get it right.

    My tip isn’t going to be of much help for US readers, but it might help any fellow Aussies subbing electronically to the American market. In Page Setup, set your paper size to ‘US letter’ rather than ‘A4’, and make sure your margins are in inches, not centimetres. I was once marked down in an electronic contest for formatting — the US judge printed out the entry and found my page breaks, etc, were wonky. I’m certain it was because her paper size was set to US letter and mine wasn’t.

  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    At Sourcebooks’ 2011 RWA National publisher spotlight session, my editor Deb Werksman said that only about 10% of the submissions she reads actually follow the posted submission guidelines. Those writers who follow the guidelines make a positive impression right out of the gate. Those who don’t have ground to make up before Word One is read – if you’re lucky enough to even GET a read after not following the guidelines.

    Another formatting suggestion I have (contest judging season is upon us!) is that, when indicating a character’s interior monologue or thoughts, choose EITHER underlining OR italics, then stick with it for the remainder of the manuscript. It’s distracting to me as a judge when the author switches back and forth.

    I wasn’t aware of how to wipe metadata in Word 2007. Thanks for the tip, Vivi!

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Wow, I can’t believe it’s as low as 10% who get it right! Putting your best foot forward means having solid formatting – a necessity if you want to be seen as a professional, to my way of thinking.

      Very good point on picking either italics or underlining and sticking with it. Thanks, Tammy!

  3. liz talley says:

    Great information, Vivi! I’m off to pass this on 🙂

  4. Fantastic post, Vivi!!! I’m definitely passing this on. I was amazed in a couple of contests I recently helped judge how many entries didn’t follow even the most basic of formatting guidelines. And that is one thing we can control so easily that makes a huge impression.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      So true what a huge impression it makes. Formatting may just be window-dressing, but no matter how pretty your baby is on the inside, you want to make sure she’s dressed for success when you send her out into the world.

  5. Truly wonderful guide, Vivi. Much better than I would have done!

    If contest entrants read and follow this BEFORE submitting their entries, contest coordinators will have a much easier time of it! I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t coordinated a contest can have any idea of how much time coordinators spend on entries. Few contests will immediately disqualify you if you don’t follow the rules the first time, so coordinators spend hours dealing with the people who couldn’t figure all this stuff out on their own. Yes, it can be fun to get to know entrants, and I don’t regret the personal touch that chapter contests can provide, but when we add up the hours we’re forced to spend away from our own work and families to fix other people’s mistakes, I think we’d all rather that entries were just submitted properly in the first place!

    And none of this is exactly going away — if you think you don’t need to know how to separate your manuscript into sections and adjust your headers accordingly, you’re wrong, and you’re going to end up irritating someone down the line, or getting yourself disqualified from a contest. Not all contests will refund your entry fee if you’re disqualified, so this can be an expensive lesson.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Thank you for suggesting the blog idea, Jamie! Whether entrants lose entries fee for a formatting wobble or not, why make the contest coordinators & judges lives any more difficult than they need to be?

      And the Golden Heart is not flexible on formatting. Play by the rules, everyone!

    • Elise Hayes says:

      I’ll confess to being one of those clueless entrants. I did read all the formatting requirements and really did try to follow them, but I just assumed the standard margin setting on Microsoft Word was 1″ margins–and I was wrong. The very kind contest coordinator contacted me and gave me the chance to fix it. Now I know!

  6. Fabulous, Vivi. It’s amazing how many folks don’t know how to do these things—like me. I’m always scrambling to remember about section breaks so I can attach the synopsis. (I do wonder if it’s because I have an averseion to them, however. *G*)

  7. Rita Henuber says:

    Step one is my stumbling block. Thanks for putting this all together

  8. Vivi, Great post. I wish someone had layed this all out for me when I had started. I spent hours researching and trying to figure it out on my own.

    I’m passing this blog on also.

  9. Hope Ramsay says:

    This is a wonderful post. I think we should all bookmark it, because I can’t tell you how many times newbie authors ask formatting questions. This is like the definitive source with actual instructions. Bravo!

  10. Okay so due to some hiccups it has been a few years since I tried the whole submission thing. It used to be that new chapters started at about the 3″ mark on a new page. Still true? That is how I have my MS formatted but I am just checking. I have my margins and text and spacing and all correct but just want to be sure that is a detail I have right!

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Lila, yes, you will want to begin new chapters partway down the page, and while I don’t know that 3″ is a hard and fast rule, that is a very good estimate of about how far down you should be. Great question.

  11. Elise Hayes says:

    I bookmarked this page, Vivi, because your explanations of how to get Microsoft Word to do what you want it to do are so helpful! Now I’ll have a handy go-to guide when I have to try to remember how to get the #*@! program to start fresh pagination for the synopsis portion of a submission.

    Thank you!!

  12. […] Ruby-Slippered Sisterhood have a post on the basics of formatting your MS for submission, complete with a picture […]


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