Manuscript Format: A Guide for Novels (FREE Template)
When you’re writing a first draft that’s for your eyes only, there’s no “wrong” manuscript format. Whatever helps you get your ideas down is perfectly fine — and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Some writers will write longhand on a legal pad; others might choose to use specialist formatting tools so they can see what it will look like in its final form.
However, when you share your manuscript with other people — especially folks who can help you get published — you really, really want to make sure that it doesn’t stand out for the wrong reasons. With the help of Chersti Nieveen, an editor on the Reedsy Marketplace, we’ve created this post with tips and advice to help you master an industry-standard manuscript format. But if you want to skip the juicy details and just download your template, tap right here.
What is a manuscript?
If you've never been published, you might wonder why we're calling this a manuscript and not simply "a book." The word manuscript comes from the Latin for "handwritten." After all, in the past, all literary works were drafted freehand. In modern usage, the manuscript format commonly refers to early drafts of novels, non-fiction works, or even short stories. Or to put it another way, it's your book before it gets published.
With our definitions out of the way, let's get to the juicy manuscript formatting tips!
Step 1: Get the right document settings
You can get most of the formatting work done right away with just a few choice settings. Because they’re the most popular word processors, we’ll show you how to set up your document in both Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
The standard file used in publishing is .doc or .docx. Both standards are native to Microsoft Word and compatible with all mainstream word processors, including Google Docs.
No need to get creative here. Just name your file something descriptive and professional. That way, if the agent or publisher wants to search for you or your book on their hard drive, all they need to do is remember some part of your name or the title. With that in mind, name your file with those details plus the date: Lastname_TITLE_date.doc
Use underscores to separate the words in the file name — this prevents the file name from being garbled when the spaces get translated as “%20” by some systems.
Unless otherwise stated in the submission guidelines, use Letter Size (8.5” x 11”) format for the US and Canada and A4 (210 × 297mm) format for most other territories.
One inch margins on all four sides. This should be the default setting on both Word and Google Docs.
Times New Roman, 12pt, Black. Some editors and agents will prefer sans serif fonts (ones without the curly flourishes) but unless specified by the submission guidelines, stick to good old-fashioned Times New Roman.
The text should be aligned to the left-hand side.
The lines should be double-spaced and there should be no extra space between paragraphs. This is how you can change those settings:
- MS Word: Format → Paragraph → Spacing.
- Google Docs: Format → Line Spacing
Each new paragraph (and each new portion of dialogue) should start with an indentation. The exception would be the start of a new chapter or scene. Instead of hitting ‘tab’ every paragraph, you can set this up as the default.
- Microsoft Word: Format → Paragraph → Indentation → Left: 0.5” → Special: First line
- Google Docs: Format → Align & indent → Indentation options → Special: First Line → 0.5”
Each page should have a header with the page number, author’s surname and a reference to the book’s title in ALL CAPS.
The header of every page should have your surname, the book’s title, and the page number with this standard format:
SURNAME/ TITLE/ PAGE #
If your title is longer than three words, abbreviate it by choosing a few keywords. For example, the first page of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would have the following as the header:
HADDON/ CURIOUS INCIDENT/ 1
Here's how you can format your document so that these automatically appear on each page.
In Microsoft Word:
- Insert → Page Numbers → Position: Top of page (Header) → Alignment: Right → Uncheck "Show number on first page.” Then click Format… → Start at: 0
- Then double-click at the top of the page to add your surname and book title (see below). Align right to match the page number.
In Google Docs:
- Insert → Header & page number → Page number → [the icon showing page numbers on the top right, starting with the second page]
You don’t want to count your title page as “PAGE 1” of your manuscript, which is why you have to choose the ‘different first page’ option.
With your document now all set up, you’re ready to work on the content of your manuscript.
Step 2: Create your title page
Before we get into Chapter One, take a moment to set up your title page. All text should also be in 12pt Times New Roman in black, just like the rest of your manuscript.
In the top left-hand corner, list your legal name and your contact details.
If you already have an agent, you should list their name and contact information instead.
In the top right-hand corner, list your word-count to the nearest thousand.
Title and Author Name
In the center of the page, write your title in ALL CAPS and two lines beneath, write your author name — this can be a pen name that you've decided to use in your creative life.
Category and Genre
Centered at the bottom of the page, list the category and then the genre. Category usually refers to the age group of the intended reader: Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade, Chapter Book, Picture Book, et al.
You may feel that your book belongs to many genres, but listing five genres will make agents and editors despair. If you’re at a loss, try to think of the section of a bookstore where you’d imagine your work being shelved.
A quick aside on front matter. If your aim is to seek traditional publishing, you will share this manuscript with agents and editors. You want them to read your words, so it’s advisable to skip most of the things that would fall into the front matter: dedications, copyright pages, etc.
Step 3: Format your chapters
Okay, now that you’ve tidied your manuscript around the edges, let’s do what we came here to do and format each and every paragraph of your book. Here are some useful tips:
When you kick off a new chapter, start it on a fresh page. Hit the enter key so that you’re about a third of the way down the page, and enter the chapter number in ALL CAPS with center alignment:
CHAPTER ONE (or CHAPTER 1)
If your chapter has a subtitle — which might be your chapter title itself, or the name of the POV character — enter that directly below:
The Man from Okinawa
If you wish to indicate that there has been a time dash between chapters (it might take place sometime before or after the previous chapter) then enter that two lines above the chapter heading. For example:
Three years later
‘P’ is for Psycho
Chapter breaks are often used to indicate a time dash or a switch of POV character. Some authors may skip to another location or scene with a new paragraph — but this can often confuse the reader. If you want there to be no doubt that you’re jumping to a new scene, you can use a chapter break — indicated by a hash/pound sign (#) or three spaced asterisks (* * *).
It sounds stupid, but don’t forget to write The End at the end of your manuscript! This way, if your book has an ambiguous ending, the reader won’t think that they’re missing the final pages.
Dialogue and Other Style Pointers
If you wish to get every last detail of your manuscript format right, you should invest in a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style – which is the publishing gold standard in the US. However, you can pretty much acquit yourself just by reading the guide to punctuating dialogue on our blog and following a few of these suggestions:
- Never use ALL caps in dialogue. It just makes your characters look bad.
- Never use underlining in your manuscript.
- Only use a single space after periods/full stops. We know it’s an unpopular take, but double spaced sentences are outdated abominations that championed by some of the worst people.
And if you’re completely obsessed with getting everything right, you can always hire a copy editor to polish your manuscript before you send it out — though we’d only really advise that if also you’re very unsure of how your prose is reading.
Example: Manuscript Format Template
If you’re not sure how to set up your document as we’ve laid out above, don’t worry. To simplify things, we’ve created a template that has you covered. If you sign up for our newsletter by entering your email address below, we’ll send that template to you in both Word and Google Docs format.
One final note, We mentioned it in the introduction but it bears repeating: always follow submission guidelines! If you’re sending your manuscript into an agency or publisher, they will likely have their guidelines listed somewhere on their website. Read them and follow them to a T — even if it conflicts with what we’ve said in this post.
But if there aren’t any specific requirements, we’re pretty confident that this format will keep you in clear. Best of luck getting published and see you on the shelves!
Do you have a question on formatting your manuscript? Drop us a message in the comments below.