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Last updated on Oct 29, 2021

Formatting a Book Manuscript: Your Passport to Success

In the publishing industry, everyone who reads your manuscript will expect to see it in a certain standardized format. So before you send off your book to beta readers, editors, or literary agents, make sure that it’s formatted just right — their jobs will be much easier if they receive exactly what they’re expecting.

In this two-part guide, we’ll look at what a book manuscript actually is, walk you through the process of formatting your own, and, perhaps most importantly, give you a ready-made format that you can download for free.

What is a book manuscript?

Have you ever wondered why it’s called a manuscript? The word actually comes from the Latin for “handwritten.” After all, in the past, all literary works were drafted freehand. In modern usage, the manuscript commonly refers to early drafts of novels, nonfiction works, or even short stories. Or to put it another way, it’s your book before it gets published. 

book manuscript | Jack Torrance's manuscript from the Shining
Jack Torrance's infamous manuscript from The Shining (Warner Bros)

The manuscript you’ll send to literary agents and publishers is more than just a document with your rough draft, though. It also includes a title page and page headers, and will be formatted according to the guidelines set out by the agent you’re submitting to (single- or double-spaced, font, font size, etc). Requirements don’t often vary much between agents, but it’s always worth checking their website for anything specific or unique. 

While manuscripts will have been printed and unbound in the past, they are mostly shared in digital formats these days.

Why must authors use a standard manuscript format?

When you’re writing a first draft that’s for your eyes only, there’s no “wrong” manuscript format. You can even write your manuscript on a legal pad if you like (and some authors do). But when it’s time to share your book with agents and publishers — whose first impressions could make or break your career — you need to ensure your manuscript doesn’t stand out for the wrong reasons, like unprofessional formatting. 

They're easy to read and manage

At the most basic level agents and editors find it easiest to read manuscripts in standard format — if it looks the way they're used to, they won’t be distracted. Some may also prefer to read hard copies of manuscripts, and if so they’ll appreciate having the page number and references to the title at the top of every page: if they find random sheets on their desk, they’ll know which manuscript it belongs to.

They will have all the information that agents and editors need

The standard professional manuscript will also have a cover page that includes your book’s title, genre, and word count as well as your contact details. That way, you can save agents and publishers from having to comb through email threads or meeting notes just to get the information they want.  

It demonstrates that you know what you're doing

And finally, formatting your manuscript correctly shows that you respect and understand the industry standards, suggesting that you’ll be someone who’s professional and easy to work with. In other words, it’s the literary equivalent of not turning up to your job interview in a messy t-shirt. 

Download: Book manuscript example

Our downloadable book manuscript example demonstrates how your manuscript should look before you submit it to any agents or publishers. You can use it (for free) as a template to shape your own work — just enter your email address here and we’ll send it straight to your inbox! 

Enter your email to download Reedsy's Manuscript Example!

You'll get it in your email inbox right away.

If you want some more detailed instructions to help you format your manuscript, our next post lays out the process in nine easy-to-follow steps.

11 responses

Claerwen Howie says:

21/09/2019 – 08:14

Most useful. Especially interesting for me was having only a single space after a full stop. Years of university training required a double space. A worthwhile blog. Many thanks.

Pauline Dewberry says:

03/10/2019 – 18:13

This is absolutely great. Thank you so much for all this invaluable information. I thought I'd finished my manuscript but can tell from reading this post that I need to edit it a bit more! Thank you.

Susan Inwood says:

10/10/2019 – 17:56

Is there an inexpensive service that can do the formatting for us?

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

15/10/2019 – 14:26

Well actually yes! Reedsy has a free formatting tool that you can access when you sign up (also free). You can read more about it right here: https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-format-a-book/

Stephen Maloney says:

23/10/2019 – 15:25

Can I use section breaks in Word document in order to create different footers? Will this effect conversion to ebook format? I wanted the chapter name to appear at bottom right with page numbers

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

25/10/2019 – 10:27

Section breaks are not ideal. MS word (and all other word processors) will have footer functions that are automatic and easy to implement. The danger with using section breaks is if you start editing any portion of your book, those footnotes will eventually end up on the wrong page. In either case, it won't affect your ebook conversion... as you really shouldn't be using MS word to format ebook file anyway :)

Mystic says:

14/11/2019 – 23:08

Man, I'm trying to figure out how to do some of this in LibreOffice and it isn't easy. Otherwise, this was a great article!!

Mark Tomlinson says:

12/02/2020 – 23:27

Thanks! I'd love to see the Reedsy book editor export to this format.

Nikolai Feinstein says:

21/02/2020 – 05:32

Thank you for all the help! However, I did have a few questions: 1.) Would a "Dedication Page" go on the manuscript? Or will the whole dedication of the book be figured out when I am "deeper" into the process of having my book published? 2.) For my book, I have a *KINDA* subtitle to the book's main title, I would, honestly, consider it more of a "motto" to the story I want to tell; would that go ANYWHERE on the manuscript? Or just like the dedication, would it be decided upon when I am deeper into the publishing of my book?

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

21/02/2020 – 09:45

The thing with this kind of manuscript is that the only people who will ever read it are people in the publishing industry. If you want a subtitle or add a dedication page, that discussion can take place much, much later. I wouldn't sweat putting those in their... unless you think their inclusion is crucial to understanding/enjoying the manuscript.

Marian says:

21/02/2020 – 22:17

How is formatting different for a self help book?

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