Manuscript Formatting: How To Keep From Making Your Layout Person Cry

manuscript formatting: image of chapter title with kanji, chapter number, small caps first word and opening sentences.

Today I’m going to talk about manuscript formatting and how you can use it to become a favorite writer among editors and their layout minions.

I’m kind of breaking one of my rules here, which is that I don’t generally advertise that I do layout. My time is limited and I am rarely looking for additional work. However, it occurs to me that explaining how to provide cleaner files for layout might actually save me time and effort, and it can certainly save other people time and effort, designers and editors and writers, and that’s good all around.

Note: I am writing this specifically for files I receive for anthology layout, but this manuscript formatting advice is good for market submissions, too. Sending a clean file to an editor makes a better impression than one that looks messy, even if the writing is the same.

So here are some simple guidelines to making your editor and layout designer like you a lot!

Your name.

Let’s start with the easy one: Make sure you put your name on your story file.

No, that’s not a ridiculous reminder or a stupid request. You’d be surprised how many times I get a story with no name anywhere on it. I have 12-30 stories to put together and I don’t necessarily know everyone’s submission title, and needing to open multiple other files or emails to hunt down whose story this is makes me secretly want to misspell your name when I finally add it. Just put your name on your paper, like in second grade. Please.

(Exception: If you’re submitting to an editor or market, not sending in an accepted file for final layout, follow their own submission guidelines over this recommendation. Many markets do blind submissions and putting your name on the file will negate that. Follow directions. Still just like second grade.)

Mark your scene breaks. Preferably in a traditional and easily-recognized manner.

The best way to do this is to put a pound sign (#) or asterisks (***) where you want your scene break to happen.

The worst way to do this is to use a hard line break (hitting Enter) to indicate a scene break. This means that if, when I paste in your manuscript, your scene break falls on a page break, I probably won’t see it.

The very worst way to do this is to use a hard line break to indicate a scene break and to have extra hard line breaks into your manuscript. This means I’m going to just take out all the line breaks, assuming they’re all mistakes, and then you’ll be sad that your scene break isn’t there.

“But Laura, I want to decorate my scene breaks with my favorite special characters and emojis! Shouldn’t I use this space to express my creativity?”

We’ll get to you in a moment, but here’s a spoiler: Nope.

I will do something nice in layout for the scene breaks appropriate for the book as a whole, so your special characters aren’t going to do anything except make it hard for me to easily search for scene breaks.

Your short story doesn’t need chapters.

An anthology already has “chapters” of a sort, each individual short story. When these short stories have chapters, now I have to decide whether to keep the drop cap and author name layout I’ve used for every other story or change them here so I can put “Chapter One” over your story instead and not match. There’s no reason to complicate layout by putting “Chapter One” beneath a story’s title and the author name.

I think this has gotten fuzzy for some writers with the rise of ebooks and many indie writers now releasing novellas and short stories as “books.” Hey, I’m not criticizing, I have both shorts and novellas out myself! but this format makes it tempting to include chapters in a work whose whole length would normally be considered a chapter or two.

Think of your story as an outline. A long and complex story needs several layers of presentation.

  • chapter
    • scene
    • scene
  • chapter
    • scene
    • scene
    • scene
  • chapter
    • scene
    • scene
  • chapter, etc.

A short story, less complex than a novel and a tenth the length at the outside, doesn’t need this much differentiation in structure.

  • scene
  • scene
  • scene
  • scene
  • scene

Most often the “chapters” I get in short stories could have functioned just as well — or better — as scene breaks. When I’m formatting, I’m not going to change the author’s intent without a very good reason, so I keep these “chapters” as best I can, even if they’re functionally scene breaks and would look much better as scene breaks. But inside, I’m muttering and wishing they were scene breaks.

Your short story definitely doesn’t need chapters with different titles.

You know what’s worse than trying to squeeze “Chapter One” among a title, author name, and drop cap or art? Trying to squeeze in “Chapter One [line break] This One Wants Another Formatting Exception” among a title, author name, and drop cap or art.

a small header "depression" above a new scene after a scene break

subheadings in “Rogue Trip”

Now, let me admit promptly that I’ve done this, sort of. In “Rogue Trip” I used subheadings for a series of scenes, starting in the middle of the story, to document the process of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance (a perfect romance arc, right?). They didn’t start at the beginning of the story, though, so there was no change in overall layout. (The subheadings in this blog post don’t affect the overall page layout, either.)

Your short story definitely, definitely doesn’t need special pagination.

No, you don’t need your story to start on a non-traditional page (left instead of right) or have blank pages in the middle to indicate character passivity or negative space or whatever. There’s a place for that hyper-artsy stuff — I’m a fan of “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” myself — but it’s generally not in the middle of a traditional fiction anthology.

Please don’t write around the editor and contact me directly with a request to re-paginate your story differently than how I received it. I don’t want to get yelled at for doing something different than expected or for confusing the reader and garnering complaint reviews.

Standard typographical characters are your friend and mine.

I write with foreign languages too, and I have no problem with those. I may have to do a bit of extra work occasionally — I once had to hunt down the necessary code to include ancient Assyrian text in the typeface I was using for the rest of the layout — but that’s fine.

It’s when it’s purely decorative, and preventing a simple find-and-replace function for, say, scene breaks, that I get twitchy.

There are special cases when special typographic layout is necessary. But in general, do not beautify/complicate your manuscript with wingdings, sideways or upside down text, or anything else that is not strictly part of the story text but just there because you thought it made a pretty. Even more, do not make these part of your chapter titles (in your short story, of course) or as part of any formatting which will be replaced (scene breaks).

Smart quotes are smarter, and you can quote me.

Straight quotes and proper curly quotes: Do not mix them.

Heck, just don’t use straight quotes in the first place. It’s not 1897 anymore, you’re not using a manual typewriter, and you have the RAM to use proper quotation marks. Use curly quotes.

Not sure how to fix this easily? Look here.

En dashes and em dashes.

If you send me a manuscript that already has these all correct, you will be my favorite.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, but you want to make sure you do before you submit your next manuscript (good on you!), then read up here.

Manuscript formatting styles are good. Very good.

Please send a clean manuscript formatted with Styles rather than manually with invisible characters. Most common culprits are found in indenting paragraphs with tabs or spaces, or pushing a pound sign or asterisk to center instead of aligning, but it happens elsewhere too.

Put simply: If you hit Tab ever, or more than one Space, you’re probably doing it wrong. (There are rare exceptions, but this is a good rule of thumb.)

I have to manually take out every one of those tabs and spaces. This makes me sad and grumpy and less likely to donate online to save a sick kitten. You wouldn’t want a kitten to be sick, would you? Are you that kind of person? Then don’t use tabs and spaces, send a clean manuscript. Think of the kittens.

Set up a Style in Word that has all the standard manuscript formatting (12 pt Times New Roman, double-spaced, no spacing between paragraphs, first line indent of .5″) and then apply it to your entire document (and of course save it for future one-click manuscript formatting). This means all your format is done once and cleanly, resulting in smaller file size and no hidden code to pop out as an unpleasant surprise during layout.

You will save yourself, and others, untold hours of hair-tearing…. If you create document templates with direct formatting, you deserve what will happen to you when someone finds out (and it won’t be nice). In my opinion, using direct formatting in document templates intended for use by others rates the words malicious and/or incompetent. (

Direct formatting of occasional italicized words or such is fine. But direct formatting should be the exception rather than the rule.

(If you don’t know Styles, learn them, and not just for the sake of your layout person. It will save you dozens of hours over the next few years of your writing career.)

Know how to reference your work.

Did you know that the titles of short stories and novels are written in different ways? It’s true! And neither of them (outside of a phone text message or Twitter) uses all caps!

“My Great Short Story,” by Laura VanArendonk Baugh
My Great American Novel, by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

When you supply an author bio referencing other short stories and novels (or screenplays or poems or whatever), and there’s no way for me to tell which is what, and they’re all in quotes or caps, it means I have to either 1) look them all up on your website, or 2) guess. If deadlines are tight, or if your website isn’t up to date, is difficult to navigate, or looks like a Geocities refugee, then it’s going to be #2.

Edits should be done.

MS Word’s comments and tracked changes are wonderful for authors and editors. Use ’em! But when the file comes for layout, all those changes need to be accepted or rejected already, because otherwise I have to start guessing again.

Nobody likes it when the layout person has to guess. It means, depending on the schedule and deadline, I’m either 1) going to take whichever version I like better and fits my own writing style, which may not be yours, or 2) going to leave it how it is, which maybe is not the updated and correct form.

Double-check that all your changes have been accepted or rejected. Don’t make the layout person guess.

I know that’s a lot of don’ts, and I apologize for the negativity. Here’s the very simple do: Send a clean manuscript formatted with a single (or possibly two, if your story requires an inserted letter or note or something) style, in straightforward and standard presentation, with your name.

Got questions? Please ask! Let’s all enjoy lovely, clean manuscript files!

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  1. As an editor, I heartily agree! A greats list of simple ways authors can make a huge difference for their editors.

  2. “…I have to manually take out every one of those tabs and spaces. This makes me sad and grumpy and less likely to donate online to save a sick kitten. You wouldn’t want a kitten to be sick, would you? Are you that kind of person? Then don’t use tabs and spaces, send a clean manuscript. Think of the kitten.” <– 😀 ❤

  3. Amen! After decades of graphic design work, I feel your pain! I’m at my most disgruntled during annual report season when I must magically turn the ramblings of those who only write once a year into something that might actually be read. : /

  4. Where, exactly, do you put your scene break symbol (# or ***) when the scene break and page break coincide? Say, you want a page break between page two and page three. Do you put the symbol (centered, of course) on the next line after your last line of page two, or do you put it on the beginning of the next page (page three), before you start your new scene? I guess what I am trying to say is, in those cases where the change of scenes lie between pages, does the symbol go after the first scene or before the next scene?

    • When submitting to your layout person, just center it, and they’ll figure it out! ?

      When doing your own layout, I prefer to have the break at the base of the page, so the reader knows it’s the end of the scene and doesn’t experience a subtle jar after turning the page and expecting to continue. But it’s not a huge thing if you just can’t make the layout pretty in whatever you’re using, certainly not worth a stretched line or something.

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