I’m sure this sounds like a ridiculous premise, that the formatting does not affect your writing at all, and that’s true. However, as an editor as well as an author, I can’t express how helpful proper formatting has been for me. As an author, the formatting of a fresh document before I ever start writing let’s me just write without having to think about how it looks. As an editor, receiving a manuscript which has everything properly set up makes my job infinitely more enjoyable. I don’t have to go through the entire thing and re-structure it so that it’s actually readable.
So today, I want to layout the basic manuscript formatting, in Microsoft Word, that I have found to be the most useful and commonly accepted. If you don’t use MS Word, I’m sure that whatever program you do use for your writing has some formatting tools which you can match to these tips.
First, I’ll start with the steps I take myself to format my document before a single word gets on the page. And I’ve started a lot of new documents in my time on this earth, so it’s become more of a mindless ritual by now.
Maybe I’m a bit picky, but I like all my lines to be nice and even. This is why I always set the text alignment to Justified. This is under the Home tab in the Paragraph section. The four boxes with rows of lines in different alignments are the left, right, center, and justified alignment buttons. If you click the justified button before you start writing, the entire document will maintain this format.
2: Line Spacing
Directly to the right of the justified button is another button with lines and both an up and down arrow. This is the Line and Paragraph Spacing button, and if you click on it you’ll get a drop-down of spacing options. Everyone does it a little bit differently; personally, I use single spacing when I write and then change it to 1.5 or double-spaced when I send it out to others. If you don’t want to have to struggle with changing the line spacing later on, set it to 1.5 or double-spaced at the very beginning. This may be helpful for you as you write, and it is definitely helpful for your editor or critique partners. More space between lines makes reading easier, and any mistakes or errors are more easily caught. If you’re printing out your manuscript so someone can read or edit it physically with a pen, this allows them to enter their corrections and/or notes directly on the line, instead of having to cram it into the margins where it will, inevitably, remain illegible.
3: Paragraph Indents
A lot of manuscripts I see don’t have any paragraph indentation, and this makes it really difficult to understand where one paragraph ends and another begins, especially in a double-spaced document. Every single first line of a new paragraph needs to be indented, no exceptions. Even if it’s just a one-word line of dialogue, such as “Yes.” It still needs to be indented. So within the Paragraph section under the Home tab, at the bottom right corner is a little boxed-in diagonal arrow. Click on this to open the Indent and Spacing dialogue box. You’ll see that under ‘General’ there’s an option to choose text alignment, and also under ‘Spacing’ there’s a Line Spacing drop-down option. If you prefer to set all of your document formatting from this dialogue box, by all means do so. It’s the same as clicking the buttons on the toolbar I mentioned above. The two extremely important settings in this box are the indent and the “after spacing” (but that’s step 4). In this dialogue box, in the ‘Indentation’ section, are “left” (set it to 0), “right” (set it to 0), “special” (click the drop-down and select First Line), and “By” (I recommend setting this to 0.5). This makes sure that every time you hit the “enter” button to start a new paragraph, that paragraph will automatically indent for you. This is so important to do, if not for ease of reading than just for correct formatting’s sake.
4: Paragraph Spacing
I don’t know why, but it really gets to me as an editor when I receive a document that has extra line spacing. I feel that setting the document’s spacing to 1.5 or double-spaced is plenty, and that a new paragraph does not need extra space between itself and the last paragraph. Again, I may be picky, but I like all of the line spacing to be the same. Most of the time new Word documents open up with 8 pt line spacing already formatted, and I always get rid of this. In the dialogue box you just opened, within the ‘Spacing’ section, are “before” and “after”. Just set these both to 0, and let the single, 1.5, or double-spaced line spacing do the job for you. You’ll also find right next to these that there’s another Line Spacing drop-down box. As I’ve said, you can make all these setting corrections right from this dialogue box, so use whichever method you prefer.
5: Page Numbers
Finally, before you ever type a word, it’s such a very good idea to insert page numbers. So many times they get forgotten in a manuscript, and they’re so important. If I receive a manuscript to edit without page numbers, I have to add them myself because it’s difficult for me to mark my progress without them. I also like to refer to other pages in notes I make to my clients in the document, and I can’t very well say “somewhere on another page before this you wrote…” So page numbers are lovely. I also think it’s fun to, when I get sucked into my own writing and go for hours, glance down at the page number and be surprised by how many I’ve written. We leave the Home tab and go to the Insert tab. Just right of the center of the toolbar is the Header & Footer section, with just ‘header’, ‘footer’, and ‘page number’. Click the drop-down next to ‘page number’ and pick one. I honestly don’t have a preference for where the page number appears on the page, just as long as it’s there. For my own writing, though, I prefer bottom right.
Now you’re ready to write and completely forget about formatting!
Except…there’s one more thing I want to address that will save you a world of hurt when going through multiple revisions of your work once the final draft is complete. And this is:
Starting New Chapters
I was guilty of this, years ago, when I first started writing and knew absolutely nothing about the wonderful formatting details of MS Word. This mistake was, of course, pressing the ‘enter’ key over and over again until the cursor got me to a new page. I won’t tell you that you absolutely can’t take this action, but there is an easier way. When you’ve reached the end of a chapter, don’t press enter. Go once again to our friend the Insert tab, and on the very far left there is an icon for Page Break. Just click the button once, and your cursor will magically appear at the top of the next page. Go ahead, press the up arrow key, and you’ll find that the cursor skips all the blank space between the end of the last chapter and the new page. It may seem a bit odd, but it’s so helpful for future revisions (and even when an editor goes through your work and makes changes). Say in your first revision, you delete an entire paragraph somewhere in the middle of a chapter. If you insist on being a chronic ‘enter’ key-pusher, deleting that paragraph will then bring the chapter heading of the new chapter up by whatever number of lines you deleted. Now it’s no longer at the top of the page, and you once again must hit the ‘enter’ key so many times until the chapter heading resumes its place at the top of the next page. By using the ‘page break’ button, this ensures that no matter how much you change the previous chapter, nothing below the page break will change. If you add two pages to a chapter, the heading of the next chapter will still remain at the top of its page. I learned this the hard way, my friends, after four or five revisions of a novel and constantly hitting ‘backspace’ or ‘enter’ to get the chapter headings back home.
I hope these tips become extraordinarily useful to you, as they have been to me. And if you happen to know any other little tricks of the trade, please share them in the comments. Anything to make our lives easier, right?
*Note: If, for some reason, you forgot to make these format settings before writing in your document, there is a “quick fix” that won’t require you to scroll through the entire manuscript to highlight everything. Clicking “ctrl+a” will highlight the entire document, and with it highlighted you can go through the above steps and format your work. Of course, anything you have in a different alignment or style will be included, like chapter headings if you’ve centered them, but those changes are far easier than formatting page by page or chapter by chapter.