Manuscript Matters

For the second year in a row, I’ve served as a judge for a local writing contest, and for the second year in a row, I’ve been humbled by the variety and sincerity of the work submitted – and a bit horrified at the way the submissions have been formatted. So I thought I’d lay out the guide lines for a proper submission.

First, some terms: technically, a manuscript is a hand-written document, dating back to the days when that’s how authors submitted their work to be edited, typeset, and published. In the early twentieth-century, typewriters came into vogue, and an author was  expected to submit a typescript, a typewritten document. By the late twentieth century, the typewriter was replaced by the personal computer. At the beginning of this technological change, computers were used to generate letter-quality typescripts, which were then typeset for printing. With the advent of the internet, those typescripts turned into eFiles; and with the advances in photo-offset technology, those eFiles are now transformed digitally into books.

Despite all these technological changes, the parameters for a professional submission still hark back to the typewriter days. What this means is that your eFile submissions should be formatted to look as if it were typewritten. If your submission is accepted, it will then be formatted according to the publisher’s design, whether in a periodical, as web content, or as a book.

So what does a typescript look like? Here are a few simple rules:

  • Use a twelve-point, serif, font; your document should look typewritten, even on-screen.
  • Use black ink.
  • Use 1” margins top, left, bottom and right.
  • Justify the left margin only.
  • Double space.
  • Use a running header in the top right corner with your last name (unless contest rules require anonymous submissions), the title of your work, and the page number.

While it may appear that these are fossilized rules, they’re not. They are the gold standard for ease of reading and will be much appreciated by all the contest judges, agents, editors, publishers and any others who read your submissions. These are people who read a lot; you want to make it easy for them to do so.

More on Typeface

No question, all those fonts on the computer are inviting. Save them for your holiday greeting cards.  For most of the era of the typewriter, 12-point elite type was standard, although a few machines offered 10-point pica. Until the behemoth IBM Selectric came along, you were stuck with whatever typeface that came with your machine; the Selectric introduced script fonts. Generally, elite was chosen for being easy to read.

Typewriters all had serif fonts. Serifs are the little lines at the top and the bottom of individual letters, vestiges of the typesetting days, when printers used them to align typeface. They have a current use: serif fonts are easier to read, and you want to go gentle on your readers’ eyes. The most widely used and accepted serif font for typescripts is Times New Roman.

The san serif fonts have their uses, mainly in advertising. They take formatting well: bold, outline, filled in, shadowed, etc. These are hugely useful fonts – for graphic designers, not for prose submissions.

More on Font Formatting

Generally, it is best to write in sentence case: Initial capital followed by lower case words (except for proper nouns), with terminal punctuation at the end. A skilled prose writer will be able to create emphasis through diction and word choice rather than bold, italics, or change of font.

There are times when bold and italics are called for. Back in the typewriter days, words meant to be bold were typed in ALL CAPS, and titles of books were underlined, because italics weren’t possible. If you are writing for a specific market, it’s best to follow its specific style sheet, especially for citations. In absence of solid guidelines, what matters most is that you be consistent (i.e. treat all book titles the same throughout a typescript).

If all this sounds dry as toast, it’s meant to. It’s the language and story that matter, not blue ink or Gothic initial caps. Those are matters for the designer who will format your work for publication. Submitting professionally formatted files is the best way to cross that threshold.

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, and a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio. Learn more at

33 thoughts on “Manuscript Matters

  1. Excellent post. Formatting is just one of those things we tend to overlook but if you are entering contests, it’s essential to pay attention to – it will mean the difference between having a judge look at what you’ve submitted or passing it by. Everyone has different rules so how you format a poem as opposed to prose, a lengthy manuscript as opposed to a short form, etc. is something I find confusing. I almost always make sure to pay careful attention to what is being called for in the contest rules and following the guidelines to the letter!

    • Laura,
      You make an excellent point about checking individual guidelines and following them exactly in each instance. Following the directions accurately can be the difference between being read to the end and not being read at all. This means that someone with lesser work may best you, simply because it was the best work the judge read – not necessarily the best work that was submitted. So give your best writing your best chance by formatting it as indicated.
      Thanks for your important addition to the post.

    • Hi Robert,
      Now that you mention it, this post is designed in a sans serif font and is so easy to read I never noticed it before. But I also write my own posts in Times New Roman and then paste them into the blog template, so I’m working in my old familiar.
      I won’t tell you to switch. You must decide by weighing what works for you with what you’ve learned from this post and from any other information you can gather. It may be that I’m hopelessly old school. But what inspired this post was that I’m old school enough to be a judge, and as such, found it worth educating my readers what I look for.
      Best not to lose sleep over this one. Just make a decision and stick with it. Consistency is key.
      Always nice to hear from you,

  2. Thanks! I’m sharing this with my writers group on Saturday. Often we ask each other to read each other’s work – so that the author may take in reaction etc. When I’m given the opportunity to read someone’s work I take it very seriously and do my best – but want to weep, when I single spaced lines. Great post.

  3. Thank you so much, this is a very useful post. I agree, these people read a lot, we must make it easy for them. I was once working with a production house here in India and my work was to read and approve synopsis for senior writer’s consideration. I remember, I use to skip reading scripts and synopsis which would require formatting to be done before reading. Having our work ignored or delayed to be read for a silly reason like formatting is the worst we could do to our own creativity. Thanks for sharing the guidelines. cheers!

  4. I think sans-serif fonts have historically been better than serif for on-screen mainly because of the pixelated nature of screens. Small font serifs require a high resolution to be useful on-screen, and even when printed. Ever tried to read a a smallish serif font on a low-res print? I might be thinking of 20-year-old home printer technology here and it has improved significantly over the years.
    Very useful post, Deborah. Thank you. 🙂

    • Thanks for this insight, Richard. It makes perfect sense that on-line formatting might require something different from hard-copy. I’d just be careful to follow whatever the submission guidelines call for – and if they want your Zombie story in a Gothic font – go with it!

  5. This is always worth disscussion. Usually agents and editors have what they want in their guidelines, but many don’t and expect that should writers know the standards. New Times Roman is the common font wanted. The only exception I know of is that screenplays are wanted in 12 point Courier or New Courier. And that is because of that industry standard also. Screenplay page format is another thing in itself. It turns out one page of scene and dialogue is equal to one minute of screen time. This is same for teleplay too.

    I don’t always agree with or understand the different opinions on “readability” of different fonts. It’s true that some “read easier” or are more readily recognized than others. Some of that depends on point size, line and spacing that the writer chooses. The various e-publishers may have a handle on which fonts “read better” on a screen. I’ve noticed that many ebooks are in a sans serif type and single space lines. On paper that would be difficult to get through. But they may want their submissions also in the industry standard of doublespaced serif typeface, and then publish in the font that they think is best.

    • I agree! Many agents and editors leave it to writers to know the standards and unless a writer does their homework, it’s very easy to make a mistake in formatting. I was so confused by the variations I decided to get a book from Writer’s Digest on the whole subject. The downloaded version is 354 pages – demonstration the whole subject is exceptionally complex and not as straightforward as a writer might assume!
      This was an excellent topic for Deborah to touch upon. Thanks for adding to it!

      • Laura, Thanks for your tip about this resource, which would be a good place to look for help when there are no clear submission guidelines. Best, Deborah.

    • Tim –
      I’m glad you raised the subject of different formats for different genres: plays, screenplays and television scripts all require different formats. And then there’s poetry – about which I know very little, except how to enjoy. Thanks for your comment, Deborah.

  6. This is one of those hidden treasures. The simplicity of the topic may be easily overlooked by some, but it could very well be the thing that could make or break a very important step in a writer’s journey. Thank you.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read – and respond – to this post, and for your encouraging words. Good luck with your story a week. – Deborah.

  7. I am late to join the conversation but I couldn’t pass by without commenting on the post.I too type a lot, especially for school purposes and I use Times New Roman most of the time.but your post is very helpful and u have revealed many things that I didn’t know.Thank u for sharing your knowledge with us.

  8. Pingback: Accepting Rejection | Live to Write – Write to Live

  9. Pingback: Entering Contests | Live to Write – Write to Live

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