by Ali Shaw, Executive Editor

Image courtesy of Unsplash

I come from a family of artists. Drawing, painting, graphic design, music—you name the medium, and most likely someone in my family has an impressive portfolio in it. Sadly, I did not inherit their skills, but I do have a deep appreciation for the aesthetically appealing, especially books!

So I can certainly understand where authors are coming from when they want their manuscripts to be aesthetically appealing. Some authors spend hours upon hours designing their manuscript’s headers, manually embedding photos into the document, adjusting margins and line spacing and fonts. No standard manuscript format for these authors!

The trouble is, all that effort artist-authors make creates a lot more work for publishing pros.

On behalf of all book editors and designers, we beg of you, please use standard manuscript format.

“But why?” I can hear you asking. Or at least, that’s what my artistry-minded family members would say. There are several practical reasons:

1. Eye fatigue: Keep in mind that publishing pros are looking at words all day, every day. We are editing or designing anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 words a day. Pages that are single-spaced, don’t leave white space in the margins, or use a funky font put a lot of stress on our eyes and cause us to have to clock out early—and have a slower turnaround time on your project.

2. Effectiveness: For long works, like book manuscripts, serif fonts (like Times New Roman) have been proven to help an editor’s eyes see every letter, every comma, and hopefully every error better than sans serif fonts (such as Ariel). If you’re bored of Times New Roman and want to use a different serif font (like Garamond), your editor might be okay with it, but it’s better to just stick with the old favorite. Remember, editors’ eyes are trained to see the details in this font—and we all want your editor’s eyes to see all the details.

3. Formatting issues: No matter how much time you spend placing an image exactly where you want it in a Microsoft Word document, as soon as you revise the text around the image, the formatting of both the image and the text will completely reposition itself. This is because Word is meant for words. Think of it like a digital typewriter. You wouldn’t have included a picture on a typewritten manuscript, so don’t do it in a Word manuscript. Instead, where you want an image to go, just put a bracketed note like this: [Image 6: View from Machu Picchu]. Then save your images with numbers corresponding to the numbers in the brackets and share the image files with your editor and designer too. The editor will be able to click over to take a look at the image you’re pairing with the text, and your designer will be able to add the image in the appropriate place during the layout phase.

4. Glitches: Getting fancy (other than bold, italics, or bulleted or numbered lists), like applying Word Art or Word Styles can cause the file to be glitchy when opened on other computers. The file might crash, or clicking on a block of text can cause hyperlinks to open. More importantly, it can cause any formatting you really want to make it into your final book to be lost when the designer runs your manuscript into the book design program. Keep it simple.

5. File size: When you embed images into a file, the file size gets huge fast. We’re talking 25MB. I’ve even seen some files more like 100MB! That’s way too big to email, and even if you try, most spam filters will whisk it away because it looks like a virus. So if you want editors (whether a freelance editor you’re hiring or editors at publishing companies) to open your manuscript, keep that file size down by keeping it text only (see #3).

Rest assured that your manuscript won’t always look like a boring old black-and-white digital relic of the typewriter days. That’s what book design is for! Your designer will work with you to pick great fonts (effective for readability and beauty), place images, add color if applicable, and much more. But until you get to the design phase, help your editors out (and our eyes) by sticking with standard manuscript format.

But What Is Standard Manuscript Format?

I’m glad you asked. Follow these guidelines:

  • All chapters in one document
  • Times New Roman, 12-point font
  • Double-spaced with indented paragraphs and no extra line between paragraphs
  • 1-inch or 1.25-inch margins
  • Basic formatting (bold or italic, bulleted or numbered lists) is okay, but do not use Word Styles
  • No images
  • No hyperlinks

Ali McCartAli Shaw spent her formative years in a print shop and watching old-school editing on a typesetter and design on light tables. She’s glad computer technology has brought Track Changes to the editing world, but until medical technology gives her bionic eyes, she’s extra appreciative of authors who follow standard manuscript format and give her eyes a break.