The New Manuscript Formatting Standard

Presenting your novel or short story in a standard format serves two principal purposes: It lets editors and agents compare your manuscript to others quantitatively without having to do any mental conversions; and it shows that you can follow directions, which will be important when an editor or agent tells you to “make your main character less unrelatable-to” or “cut chapter 17 in its entirety” or “add zombies.” The current standard manuscript formatting rules, however, were developed at least twenty years ago and are therefore woefully out of date. These are the new rules:

“Use black ink on white paper only,” dictates the conventional wisdom. Since nobody but Luddites, troglodytes, and hipsters are still using any kind of ink on any kind of paper in the Twenty-first century, the new first rule is: use color=#000000 type on a color=#FFFFFF background.

Similarly, “Print on only one side of the page” is 1990s three-dimensional mumbo-jumbo.

Proponents of the old school would limit your choices of typeface to just two: the monospace Courier and the proportional Times New Roman. These are still fine options, but now you may also use Haettenschweiler (a font based on Schmalfette Grotesk and used for the dollar amounts on the board of Jeopardy!). You should not, however, use Haettenschweiler as both your manuscript typeface and the name of a character in your story. There is such a thing as zu viel Haettenschweiler.

Time was, manuscript readers preferred generous margins all around the text, because they would physically jot comments in these margins, such as “This is so sweet,” “This is very sad,” and “This is the margin.” (Interesting fact: Comments in a margin are called “marginalia.” As editors tend to be harsh in their criticism, the rarer gentle comments merit their own name: “gentletalia.”) Because no one will be printing your raw material, much less writing on it, these days you do not need margins at all. Set the margins of your document to zero on all sides.

For the same reason, you no longer need to double-space your text. Single-space will be fine. You really just want to get as many words as possible onto each “page” of your manuscript. The old guidelines would get you 250-300 words per page. The new guidelines will get you a more effective 550-600, which is better. Editors and agents are busier than ever, what with everyone and their pets thinking they can write things worthy of publication, so the less these professional gatekeepers have to scroll, the happier they will be.

You will still need to put your contact information—name (or pseudonym/alias), mailing address, phone number, and e-mail address—on your manuscript, and in the same place as always: For a short story, in the upper left corner of the first page; a novel gets a dedicated cover page with the title and your information. A mystery novel, however, should not have your personal information on the cover. Instead, you should hide this data in the story itself, leaving it to the reader to tease it out. In this way, the editor or agent reading your work will see that you really know how to write a mystery, and, at the same time—if he or she contacts you—you’ll know that this agent or editor is right for you and your project.

Two additional points about contact information: First, if you belong to a professional organization, mention as much, but for the love of Pete, only if it’s relevant. If you’ve written a romance set in the Civil War-era American South, for instance, then by all means note your membership in, and service as the historian for, your local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan... but if yours is a science fiction story, you might just omit it. Second, you don’t need to put your Social Security Number on your manuscript. If a reader wants it, he’ll just look it up online.

Except for paragraph indentations—which should be subtle; indeed, a first-line indentation of 0.01" (the least that Microsoft Word will register) is plenty—the left margin of your text (which, remember, will be contiguous with the actual left page margin) should be straight. The right margin should be justified as well; a ragged margin looks sloppy, like ripped jeans or an untucked shirt or long hair.

After a period, type just one space. There is no excuse for typing two spaces after a period in 2013, since no one alive today was born when people still used typewriters, the reason for the obsolete practice. Use of two spaces will be viewed as an attempt to “pad” your manuscript and will likely get you blacklisted.

Underline text that you intend to have appear in italics. If your word processing software can actually italicize text, use italics to indicate text that you want to be underlined when published. Never bold anything, except to call attention to it.

If you want a line break to appear in your story, whether it falls at the top or bottom of a page or not, rather than simply leaving a blank line, type [THIS LINE LEFT INTENTIONALLY BLANK] on the line that should appear blank, as follows:
Finally, indicate that your manuscript is finished by typing “I AM DONE NOW.” Alternatively, begin the last paragraph of your manuscript with the word “Finally.”

Matthew David Brozik wrote this and many other short humor pieces, which have been published in print and online by The New Yorker, Adult Swim, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grin & Tonic, The Big Jewel, and no one.

Read more humor here. Or read some fiction here.