Once upon a time I was reading through some fiction by well meaning (and sometimes very talented) indie authors. Among the pieces was a screenplay that the writer wanted desperately to sell and that he believed was brilliant. He didn’t know why it got flat rejections when he submitted it, but I could see the problem instantly: it wasn’t formatted right. It was a Times New Roman, 12 pt. font with ordinary Word indentations between paragraphs. True, screenplays require much more formatting than novels. They have more distinct terminology and specific requirements. But what too many people don’t realize is that there is a specific protocol that many publishers and agents look for in a manuscript–and if you don’t follow it, you won’t even be considered.
It’s more than a matter of looking organized and professional–it shows the world that you’re serious about your writing and that you’ve done your homework. You’ve gone past your own preferences to make your novel accessible and easy to navigate according to industry standards. You know what they want, and you’re giving it to them on a hot plate!
So, what are these industry standards? It varies from company to company, but as a general rule here’s what you can expect to submit, and how to format it:
1. A query. Basically, explain what your novel is about and why it would benefit the publisher, why you would be a perfect fit for them.
2. A cover letter. Yep, just as if you were applying for a job. Here you’ll go into more detail about your novel, your ideas for further writing, and why your story is so awesome. Don’t be shy about it, but do focus more on the novel than on yourself!
3. The novel. Or more likely, the first chapter or X pages. There’s no point to printing everything out when the publisher hasn’t even accepted you yet. And here’s where we get into the formatting:
- Have a cover page. This will include the title, your name (and pen name) and your contact information.
- Use Courier, or another similar typewriter font. The letters will be evenly spaced this way and easier to annotate or mark up.
- Double-space it. Again, this makes it easier for them to mark up your copy if they like it and want to share their own thoughts.
- Make sure it’s left-aligned. If you don’t know what left-aligned means, then you’re probably fine. It’s the default setting on word processors. But if you like to mess around with layout and think that justified looks better, you should switch it back. This way you won’t have any awkward spaces between words.
- Use 11 or 12 pt. font. Any smaller will be hard to read, and any larger will look unprofessional.
- Start your chapter halfway down the first page. This makes it look more accessible and less overwhelming than starting at the top.
- Add page numbers on the top right-hand corner of the page. On Microsoft Word you can do this by going to Insert > Header and clicking where you want it to go. Then Word will give you options of what you want. Add your last name or a keyword from the book and the page number.
These are good guidelines to follow whether you’re submitting online or through a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope), and will get you much further in the writing field than you could expect to go otherwise. True, your chapter might look dry as dirt and more like a school paper than the next big zombie thriller, but the publishers will appreciate it–and you–all the more. Happy writing and submitting!