Formatting your manuscript – the silent scream

There are some formatting transgressions that will get you spanked and sent to the corner so your editor can quietly down a bottle of Draino. So let’s talk about those, ok?

It goes without saying that your manuscript should be:

  • double spaced,
  • 12 pt. Times New Roman,
  • .05 paragraph indents

To do anything else would make your editor jump off a cliff at low tide. But there are the little nigglies that authors can take care of before they send their darlings out to play on the literary playground.

Spacing after full stop

Regardless of what punctuation you use to designate a full stop of a sentence, there should only be ONE space. Not two. Yes, that’s the way we were taught in high school and college. But publishing only uses one space when printing a book. Space wasters = money busters. We’re a cheap lot, and we know that removing one space between sentences reduces page counts.

Will I send out the beagle and her gang of leather-frocked German Shepherds? Nah. I’ll just go in and do the universal presto-change-o from two spaces to one. But it’s lovely when an author understands this ahead of time and formats their ms with one space.

Double dash = em dash

If you want to use an em dash then use an em dash (—), don’t use two little dashes (–) because we have to go in and change it. Again, it’s not a big deal, but it’s a time waster.

And while you’re at it, check to see if you have a lot of the little beggars. I edited a manuscript where I noticed they’d used the little double dashes. I went in with my Seek and Destroy and noticed they’d used 283 dashes.

Thatsa lotta dashes, and I did a LOT of refining because those dashes create a pace and flow. Used properly, they’re great. Overused, and they are clunky little whippersnappers than make me drool. Like my love for chocolate martinis, everything in moderation is best.


Be careful with your use of colons. They have a clinic-y feel to them, and they can easily take the softness and poetic flavor out of your writing. Think about using a comma or semi-colon instead. If you don’t, chances are your editor will.

Underline = italics

This is really old-fashioned. Back in the day when typewriters didn’t have italics, writers would underline to denote italics. We don’t have that problem nowadays, so join the 21st Century and use them. This is a particularly irksome feature that takes a lot of time because I can’t use the universal seek and destroy feature. I have to manually fix them one by one, which makes my teeth itch.


I always have my punctuation phaser set to stun because it’s so easy to let them do the heavy lifting. Thing is, punctuation wasn’t meant to do heavy lifting. So if your manuscript has a ton of exclamation points, I know that you’ve let them do the job your writing is supposed to do. I had a manuscript that was roughly 100,000 words and it contained 265 exclamation points. I nearly fainted.

If you need to communicate excitement, tension, or fear, show it, don’t tell it by sticking an exclamation point at the end and calling it a day.


Lazy way out: Overworked and Underpaid Editor was out of Twinkies and was so upset!

Putting some elbow grease into it: Overworked and Underpaid Editor broke out in a cold sweat. Her stomach rumbled, and her heart rate jump-roped into triple digits. She was out of Twinkies.

You’ll find that by forcing yourself to review your use of exclamation points, you’ll become a better writer because you’re not using punctuation as a crutch.

So these are a few of the little things you can do to make keep your editor’s hair from turning white. Will any of this result in instant death rejection? Nah. But it’s always lovely to avoid that silent scream that makes us break out into cold sweats at 3 a.m.

22 Responses to Formatting your manuscript – the silent scream

  1. Good tips in this post. I’m in the process of training my thumbs to stop hitting the spacebar twice. It’s very helpful to read such detailed advice, thanks for posting.

  2. Pelotard says:

    Lynn, do you use MS Word? You can replace underline with italics if you click “More” and then the “Format” button (and then choose the “Font” option) in the “Replace” dialog.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jo Hart and Lynn Price. Lynn Price said: Formatting your manuscript – the silent scream: […]

  4. *smacks head* Pelo, I totally forgot about that. But still…it’s archaic, kinda like adding machines.

  5. NinjaFingers says:

    My one issue is this:

    Some people ask for Times New Roman. Others ask for Courier New.

    This means when people don’t specify…I never know which font to use. Sigh. (And I know a couple of editors who prefer Arial and was once, frustratingly, asked for Microsoft Sans Serif…guys…a lot of writers use Macs. Macs do not HAVE that font).

  6. Ninjie, most seem to want TNR these days. You’re safe either way if there isn’t any specifications.

    Arial? ARIAL? Lordy be, that’s hard on the eyes.

  7. NinjaFingers says:

    Well, I’m guessing not his eyes…and he was the one who had to read it ;).

  8. Frank Mazur says:

    Just for general knowledge, fixed fonts like Courier derive from the typewriter where every letter grabbed the same amount of space. A period . took up the same amount of space as a W. Consequently, two spaces alerted the reader that a sentence ended. Proportional fonts have each letter or mark taking up only the amount of space that’s actually needed. Two spaces following a period are unnecessary.

  9. PJC says:

    What do you have to say about a comma after the conjunction “and”. I learned that one should place a comma after “but”, but not after use of “and” and am now seeing this alot in my writers group?

  10. PJC: Don’t let that worry you. Different houses have different rules for comma placement.

  11. Bill Webb says:

    What’s a typewriter?

    Is there a Times Old Roman?

  12. Lance C. says:

    I’ve seen severely mixed opinions about the underline-vs-italics issue. Underlines because they’re easier to find and read; itals because, well, they’re going to be itals in the finished product. Is there any real agreement, or is it an editor’s personal preference?

  13. It could be personal preference, but if an author submitted his work with itals instead of underline, I’m sure this isn’t an arrestable offense. Where I feel it really matters is when you’re turning in your final manuscript to your editor before it goes into the editing phase. At the submission phase, it doesn’t really matter.

  14. Pelotard says:

    Bill: there’s Times Roman and Times New Roman, both varieties of the Times font family. There are copyright issues involved. More info here.

  15. Bill Webb says:

    Pelo, can I just go with Arial, just to be safe?

  16. Pelotard says:

    Eh – no, few people specify Arial, and Lynn apparently detests it, so it sounds risky. But you’d need a magnifying glass and detailed guidelines to be able to tell Times Roman from TNR, so either is fine.

  17. Maja says:

    In Germany, you totally have to use Courier New, never Times New Roman, when sending out manuscripts. That’s because they measure books in normed pages, not in words, and they want to make sure that there’s 30 lines of 60 characters on each page. I hated that at first, but now I do all my writing in Courier. You get used to it. Now, the thought of TNR makes me cringe…

  18. Good point, Maja. Different countries have different tastes. Thankfully, with e-queries and such, I can change a Courier email and manuscript with a flip of switch.

  19. Kim Kircher says:

    Good information here.I,too, have to train myself to stop putting 2 spaces after periods.Even in this “comment” I’ve had to go back and change my spaces.Eek.

  20. […] Formatting Your Manuscript – The Silent Scream […]

  21. […] an article titled “Formatting Your Manuscript – The Silent Scream,” Lynn Price, the editorial director for Behler Publications provides a clear tip for writers […]

  22. I’m still wrestling with the proper usage of punctuation inside and outside of quotes. As I understand, “If someone is speaking like this, you put the period inside the quotes.” But if you’re just quoting a word or phrase, like “this”, then it goes outside. It gets really tricky if you have, for example, “nested quotes like ‘this’.” Am I right?

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