A poorly formatted document is the first thing that signals an Editor to recycle your novel. Imagine an editor’s job for a minute: he’s reading one submission, trying to move at his own pace as the slush pile gets bigger by the minute, novels rolling in from E-mail, postal service, and fax. (This actually happened to an editor pal of mine; 180 pages rolled off the fax machine while he was out of the office. Hint: faxing your novel is rude, and probably puts your name on a blacklist somewhere.) Editors spend hours and hours every day looking at documents they’ve requested from professionals and colleagues, gazing their eyes over crisp typeface and well formatted paragraphs. Then they turn to the ever growing slush pile – the unsolicited documents – and see a size seven wing-ding font bleeding off into the margins that they know they mentioned in the writer’s guidelines. The best first sentence on earth won’t save this document from the recycling bin.
MS Word is the most common word processor out there, so we’re going to talk about how to use it to format your novel. The first thing you need to do is look at your target publisher’s guidelines. If they provide detailed instructions on how to format your novel: obey. One well known short story publisher insists that submissions come electronically, in ASCII format. Usually, however, the guidelines are loose, telling you only a few simple things, such as “double space it” and “please use a size twelve font.” Little do they realize that these loose guidelines leave room for all sorts of formatting horrors.
In MS Word, go to FILE | PAGE SETUP. Click on the PAPER tab. Make sure that you’re using the “letter” formatting option, or that your margins are 8.5″ by 11″. This is the default setting – but we’re talking about a Microsoft product, so it’s bound to go wonky at least once while you’re using it. Plus, children like to find and play with these settings, so it’s always good to double check. Go back to the margins tab; I’m going to tell you how to use MS word to format your novel with an exact double spaced, picture perfect 25 lines per page. We’ll talk about *why* in a minute.
Under the margins tab, make your margins 1″ on every setting, with a zero inch gutter. Close the page setup box so that you’re back to your MS Word document, then navigate to FORMAT | PARAGRAPH. Under the “Indents and Spacing” tab, you’ll see a “Line Spacing” box. Set this to read, “Exactly” and then in the “at” box next to it, type “25”. This tells MS word to format 25 lines, double spaced, exactly, every page. Make sure that the rest of the boxes read Zero, that the alignment is “Left” and that Special is either blank or set to “None.” Now, still in the paragraph window, navigate to the LINES AND PAGE BREAKS tab. Make sure that every single box is unchecked.
Next, navigate back to your MS word document and highlight all of the text. Change the font to “Courier New,” make sure the font size is 12, and that the color is black. But Waah! Now it looks like something from a 1920’s typewriter! That’s part of the idea; you do not want to use a garish font. Ever. Period. Courier New is a great formatting font: every single character takes up the exact same amount of space. Why do you care? It ties into the same reason we want 25 lines per page: it leaves plenty of white space and is easy on the editor’s eyes, it provides a crisp, professional look, and an accurate way for the editor to estimate how much space your novel will take when it goes to the printer.
If you’ve followed all of these settings and MS word is only giving you 24 lines per page, don’t worry about it. As long as the formatting is consistent, you’ll be fine. This brings us to a common formatting question: one space after the period, or two? Many of us have been trained to tap the space bar twice after a period. Some of us grew up with MS Word instead of a keyboard, and only tap it once. Which is correct? The same rule as above applies here. Pick either one space or two, and then use it through the entire document consistently. If you’ve been alternating, and you have an ungodly amount of work typed in, don’t worry – you can regulate it with one simple formatting command. Tap Control H to bring up the Find and Replace box. In the “Find What” box, type in: “. ” (period, space.) In the “Replace With” box, type, “. ” (period, space, space.) Click on replace all. Remember to do this with your exclamation points and question marks as well. You can invert these instructions if you prefer one space instead of two; the end result is the same: consistency.
Now let’s look at your novel’s scene breaks and chapter headings. Scene breaks aren’t too difficult; tap enter, put in a ‘#’ symbol, and then tap enter again. It will look like this:
“…and the bold MS Word Formatter fell to the cold stone floor, dead.
Meanwhile, back in Duckberg…”
Chapter headings are only a little more complicated. A new chapter always starts on the next page, so when you’ve reached the end of the chapter, do a hard page-break by tapping control and enter at the same time. This skips the rest of the current page, and starts you on a brand new one. To your left, you’ll see a bunch of numbers representing inches on the page. Tap enter until your typing cursor is at 2.5 inches, or 3 inches. Pick one of these numbers and use it consistently. Keep everything aligned to the left (you’re not pretending to be a printing press!) and then, when you’ve typed in the chapter number, chapter name, and any other information, such as a time and date or a quote, put an extra line between the chapter heading and your text, E.G.,:
MS Word and the Elixir of Formatting
The beggar had a new plan; instead of a dancing monkey, he’d found himself a nice, burly gorilla…
Now let’s worry about the title. You might be tempted to go crazy here, and put the title in showy, gaudy font, at size 66. Don’t. At the very top of the document, aligned to the left, in a normal size twelve courier new font, format as I format:
Duckburg’s Formatting Problem
By Bartholomew Klick
Represented by [Agent name, if you have one]
[If you have an agent, put his contact information below his name. If you DON’T have an agent, put YOUR contact information here, and omit the represented line. This should include your address, e-mail address, and phone number. Don’t let MS Word turn your e-mail address into a link; simply click behind the e-mail address and tap backspace to remove the link formatting.]
Begin chapter one at the 2.5 or 3 inch mark below this on the same page.
Make sure all of your prose is in a standard paragraph format: only hit enter one time at the end of each paragraph. You don’t want an extra blank line between paragraphs because you’re already double spacing, and because it looks childish. Begin each paragraph by hitting tab. Look at the top of your MS word box; you’ll see another measurement bar; make sure that the three distinct shapes living on this bar are all lined up at the median between the gray and white space. [See the illustration] These affect every line in your document, and they must be set exactly one inch in, as shown. If you’re doing it correctly, and have used the courier font like you were supposed to, the formatting will ensure that every tab yields five spaces, or one half inch.
MS word has a page numbering tool; go to INSERT | PAGE NUMBERS and make sure “position” reads, “top of page” and that “alignment” reads, “right.” Leave “Show number on first page” option checked. Now you’ll see grayed out page numbers at the top of every page. Don’t worry; they’re actually formatted black, and will show up correctly when you print the document. Double click on the page number. This will open a header formatting box, and the typing cursor will move into it. Select the Align Right icon, and then put your name, a space, a dash, and space, the book’s title, a space and a dash. Now if the editor accidentally drops your manuscript, he’ll be able to sort it back together with relative ease.
On that note, don’t staple your manuscript when you send it. Either include a paperclip, or leave it loose-leaf. Use rubber bands to bind it together, crossways. Staples are annoying, and make it difficult to read a printout.
These guidelines for formatting a document in MS word do not ensure that your manuscript will be published; but they do guarantee that the editor won’t wince when he sees the first page – and that, my friend, is the first step on the road to success.