Reminders to basic manuscript formatting

I know I’ve covered this before, but it never gets old because there are still many authors (and independent editors – oh my!) who commit these blunders. It’s not enough to make me take up binge drinking, though there is some appeal to that. But it is enough to make me grind my teeth.

Punctuation: I blame the cavemen

It’s no secret that punctuation has been given the limelight for far too long. The story goes that ‘way back in caveman days, there was a tribe called The Protruding Forehead Society. They dodged dinosaurs in order to travel to distant caves and tell their stories by drawing on the walls, using their wives’ eyeshadow. Problem was, no one knew where to put a full stop. After all, it gets confusing to draw “Gargon forage through the bushes I ate his  twigs and berries.” Makes no sense.

And thusly, punctuation was born. To give that punctuation more importance, The Protruding Forehead Society spaced out two hand widths before starting a new drawing. Cool for cave dwellers and my Sophomore typing class. Not so cool for publishing. Those two spaces add up in a manuscript, so publishing dropped it down to one space.

Got that? ONE SPACE.

Anything that goes at the end of a sentence – periods, question marks, exclamation points – get ONE SPACE. And that goes for you outerspace aliens, how insist on two spaces after Zorbots. No more trying to pull a fast one. Aliens…so cheeky.

Now, will I melt into a puddle of soulless goo if I get a manuscript with two spaces after punctuation? No, but I’ll be sure to up my gin intake and order the beagle to belt out a few old Three Dog Night songs.

Dialog, one line below is a no-go (when using a lead-in sentence)

Yah, schlocky header, but I hope to make it dumb enough that it’ll stick. Many authors have no idea where to put dialog, meaning what line to put it on. They write the lead-in sentence, then put the actual dialog below. Like this:

Overworked and Underpaid Editor looked at the beagle sitting on her desk, sleeping in a swatch of sunlight, and made an unsuccessful attempt at holding her temper.

“I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts.”

What this does is confuse the reader as to who is talking. The reason for formatting and punctuation is to make things easier for the reader. This is why I see great balls of fire that many editors are dropping commas for the sake of…well, I don’t know. It’s stupid and forces me to re-read sentences a couple of times to make sure I understood the sentence. But that’s a rant for another day.

The proper way to format your dialog is to keep your dialog on the same line as your lead-in sentence.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor looked at the beagle sitting on her desk, sleeping in a swatch of sunlight, and made an unsuccessful attempt at holding her temper. “I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts.”

And speaking of lead-in sentences, they can be much more effective than using dialog tags because you can squeeze in all kinds of cool stuff that sets up the tone of the person speaking and the action taking place. I could have just as easily written, “I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts,” said Overworked and Underpaid Editor,” but it doesn’t begin to have the same zing.

Consider lead-in sentences your ally against boring writing.

Quotation marks (and commas)

Many writers don’t know how to play nicely with quotation marks and comma placement. I know it’s different in the UK, but in the US, the comma is placed INSIDE the closing quote – not outside. Here’s what I mean:

The Wrong Way:
“Let’s have a pitcher of margaritas to celebrate a good day of editing”, Overworked and Underpaid Editor said.

The Right Way:
“Let’s have a pitcher of margaritas to celebrate a good day of editing,” Overworked and Underpaid Editor said.

Sure, I can easily do the universal Search and Kill, but as writers you should know how to properly format your manuscript. After all, you’re professionals, right? So it makes sense to know the tools of your trade.

Possessive Apostrophes on names ending in ‘s’

In publishing, it’s common to add an extra ‘s’ when showing possession to someone whose name ends with an ‘s’.

I knew that gorgeous Mercedes was Mr. Jones’s, but I was feeling a bit klepto that day and bagged it for a joy ride.

Excluding the ‘s’ won’t put you behind bars – unlike the unfortunate soul in the sentence above – but it forces your editor to fix it. Remember, the idea is to turn in a clean manuscript so your editor will love you forever and shower you with lots of royalty checks.

Beginning your sentences with But, So, And

I see this a lot…sentences that begin with these seemingly-innocent words. If it’s in the right context, bravo, I say. However, they don’t wear big enough pants to deserve a comma.

So, I decided the beagle had drunk quite enough, and put her to bed with aspirin and Gatorade.

So I decided the beagle had drunk quite enough, and put her to bed with aspirin and Gatorade.

See? No comma. And sure, I can use my universal Search and Kill to wipe the beggars out, but we’re learning how to keep editors from binging on too many Twinkies and margaritas.

It was the ’80s, man…

Contractions in dialog – keepin’ it real

Okay this isn’t a formatting thing, but this really bugs me, so I’m including it.

Dialog is meant to be conversational, right? So unless your dialog is from aliens (from this planet our outside our solar system), then it’s standard that we speak using contractions. You don’t say to your best friend, “I will not be going to your party tonight.” Of course not. You’d say, “Dude, I’m not going to your party tonight.”

See how the dialog comes out feeling stilted and formal? It’ll drive an editor nutsy because she’s going to fling the manuscript back to you with a bloody red mark that says “USE CONTRACTIONS, OR DIE.” Ok, maybe she won’t say that, but she’ll think it.

Formatting your manuscript – use tabs, and a kitten gets it

Standard manuscript formatting is half inch indents, double space, Times New Roman, 12 point, 1″ margins. Easy peasy, right? Well…I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts where the author used tabs to indent a new paragraph instead of formatting it. This makes it a PITA for the editor because she has to reformat your manuscript. Sometimes there are some kinks in the works due to the tabs, and it can add arbitrary spacing, which means the only way to make sure I got them all is to check each paragraph. My teeth have been ground down to a stub doing this because it takes a lot of time to seek and destroy.

So I give you my last warning – If you use tabs instead of formatting the indents in the paragraph settings, a kitten gets it. For those who don’t know what I mean by formatting in the Paragraph tab, here is a screen capture:

Click to enlarge

I’ve overheard any number of wine-induced conversations at writer’s conferences that go something like this: “I’m the writer, so it’s not my job to worry about the nitpicky stuff like formatting. The editor will take care of it in editing.”

Given that logic, should a surgeon not worry about how to close a surgical wound? You either embrace the responsibilities of the profession, or you go home and raise albino caterpillars. Proper formatting isn’t hard. I’ve heard people complain they can’t adhere to the one-space rule for punctuation because two spaces is second nature to them. My advice? Get over it. The publishing industry is filled with writers aching to be published, so excuses are feeble.

Now, go forth and be brilliant.

21 Responses to Reminders to basic manuscript formatting

  1. Sally Zigmond says:

    Good stuff, Lynn. But we Brits also keep our punctuation within quote marks. “Okay?” We’re not that different. Except of course we are far superior. *runs away quickly*

  2. Laura W. says:

    I have a question about the tabs thing…

    Is the problem with the actual tab function & what it does to the formatting, or with the number of spaces? On my computer at least, the tab button automatically indents 5 spaces. Should I space 5 manually instead when starting a paragraph? Is there a place I can go in Word to fix this? Help! :/

  3. I was only talking about the comma placement, and don’t Brits put the comma outside the quote marks?

    “I”d love to have tea and crumpets with you”, she said.

    And, of course, you’re superior to us Yanks because you have Pippa, while we’re stuck with Pamela Anderson.

  4. Laura, you should format your manuscript in the Paragraph tab and set the indents there, rather than hitting the Enter bar five times, or using the Tab feature.

    The reason you should do this is because we change all the indents and line spacing when we do the layout of the book. When we change the indents on a “tabbed” manuscript, it royally screws up the paragraph indentations, and it’ll come out with ten spaces, or more, that we have to go in and fix.

    NEVER use tabs or hit the space key.

  5. In formatting, I’ve tried to live by the rule, “Keep it simple, you silly dame.” No crazy fonts, no weird spacing, no soft returns, set the paragraph indent, and leave the margins alone! I also usually don’t use exclamation points, but I allowed myself one today. The result is, I haven’t had any problems uploading my books to Kindle, or Createspace, or even Smashwords. If I wrote the kind of books you publish, you would weep with joy when you reviewed them.

    I heard a story from long ago that the double space after the punctuation mark came from the old typewriters and the way they gave a space less width than, say, an “m”, causing some paragraphs to look like they had been jammed together in a very tight box. Nowadays, double spacing makes it look like you’ve got a river running through your text. A big, white, Mississippi.

  6. What is your input about Courier vs. Times Roman? Another stupid question, but every once in a while I see someone requesting Courier, like the SoCal Writers’ Conference.

  7. Tim, there are still agents and editors who ask for Courier, so I suggest you always do as per their submission guidelines. Personally, I detest Courier.

  8. authorguy says:

    Lead-in sentences, Yay! Lead out sentences, Yay!
    As for the rest, most of it can be fixed by replace all. I wouldn’t worry about most of this during the writing phase, unless it can’t, in which case you’re setting yourself up for a lot of trouble. I used to do two spaces after a period instead of one, but they can be replaced anytime by a single space so I didn’t get angsty about it. Nowadays I just use one.
    Regarding the tabs, a tab is a character, the tab on the document is a global setting. The one has to be separately changed for each individual instance (unless you use the special characters menu on Replace All, which can still sometimes cause trouble), the other can be changed once with global effect.

  9. There’s a danger in waiting until you’ve finished writing the ms…and that’s the tendency to forget. I think it’s better to get into the practice of doing it the “right” way at the outset.

    As for the tab issue, I have a manuscript that was tabbed. I did the Replace All Seek and Destroy. The problem is that the tabs somehow had phantom spacing that showed up when I reformatted the indentations. Some paras had three spaces, others had two, and others had one extra space. I had to go in and do a Replace All for each spacing error.

    Sure, I’ll survive, but I’d quickly lose my sense of humor if every manuscript was like that. In fact, I’m still grinding my teeth over that one manuscript’s formatting. Argh.

  10. Some publishers still prefer two spaces to one so I always recommend that writers use two spaces in their original manuscript.

    It’s a hell of a lot easier to use a universal replace to change two spaces to one, but hand inserting spaces is a real bitch.

  11. Jason says:

    My editor at Random House said to use two spaces at the end of a sentence. Got that? TWO spaces.

  12. This is interesting because I have buds over at Random and a couple other big sixes who swear by the one space at the end of a sentence. I give up.

  13. Frank Mazur says:

    Two spaces dates to the typewriter where every character, punctuation and space included, required the same amount of paper real estate. (Look at the keys on an old typewriter.) Thus, an extra space was added at the end of a sentence for clear separation. Computer and software came along with all kinds of fonts that gave a character only the space it “physically” needed. Accordingly, two spaces at the end of a sentence were no longer needed, unless one was using a font like Courier, which was a typewriter font.

  14. tbrosz says:

    I’m 58, and type like a bat out of hell using two spaces and tabs. At this point, it’s much, much easier to globally fix things when I’m done than try to retrain my fingers.

  15. Tamlyn says:

    With punctuation in/out quotes (in Australia at least, which I’m pretty sure follows UK usage). “With dialogue, it goes in the quotes,” I say.
    Quotation and the like it gets more difficult. Partial quotes it can go outside, ending quotes inside. Eg The game looked to be “an absolute wipeout”, but it wasn’t. Coach Malarkey was “running around like a chicken with his head still attached.”

    Of course, I’m probably wrong :p

    I single space and my work requires double space. I let the macros do the job for me, except when there are quotation marks. I can’t macro those into two spaces apparently. If I’d had to create the macro, it might have been different – I would have learnt to break the habit. Thankfully, someone made it for me.

  16. […] Editor Lynn Price covers the basics of manuscript formatting. […]

  17. Stacey says:

    I really had no idea about the two space/one space issue. I’m floored. I doubt I can retrain my thumb at this point!

  18. […] Manuscript formatting […]

  19. Really good post…I was searching for something like this. thank you…

    […]Reminders to basic manuscript formatting « Behler Blog[…]…

  20. When I was submitting my work to, their formatting guide suggested a “nuclear reformat” – copy the entire document in word, paste it into notepad to remove all formatting, then paste it back into a new, properly formatted word document. Worked like a charm on all of my stuff, and I had always used tabs and such for indenting.

  21. […] a massive quote from Behler Blog (If you don’t follow the Behler Blog, go and subscribe)Reminders to basic manuscript formatting by lynnpricewrites I know I’ve covered this before, but it never gets old because there […]

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