Imagine you’re an agent. Just for a minute. Imagine you open your email, and see hundreds of submissions from people who think their manuscript is The One.

And remember, as an agent, you’re hoping the very same thing! Every email you open is bursting with potential. It could make you and the author big time successes.

And then, you hit open. And there before you is: a mess.

Before you even read it you know: this is not the one.

How does an agent know? Simply by looking at it. Because most of the time, there’s a way the submission of a novel must look. And any other way is not original or unique or enticing or intriguing. It is simply amateur.

We’ve talked about query letters here, but let’s talk about the manuscript itself. An agent or editor will know–without reading one word–whether you know what you are doing. Whether you’re a career author. Whether you’ve done your homework.

Here’s what they’ll look for:

The document

A Word doc. No pdfs–what if they want to comment? Make it easy as possible. And watch that all the track changes are accepted before you send.

The font

Times New Roman, 12 point font. No weird curly-cuey scripty unique original wingding fonts. Just use Times New Roman 12. In black.

The spacing

Double spaced. Double spaced with a double space only between the paragraphs. No extra spaces between paragraphs. No single-spacing.


Indent a new paragraph five spaces or .5 inches. Just do that. Left-justify the rest, so the words on the left line up straight. The words on the right will be raggedy. That’s good.


Dialogue has quotation marks before and after each piece of dialogue. It has to look like this:

“Word word word,” she said. “Word word word. “

Indent each time a new speaker begins.

Look at the pages of your favorite best-selling novel. If you are in the US, look at a US author. Do it the same way.


Have them. I received a submission recently that went on and on and on and on. For thirty pages. No chapters. Has this person ever read a book? The agent will wonder, too. Books have chapters.

Put a chapter heading in the middle of the page. Chapter 1. Or Chapter One. Double space, indent, start the first paragraph of the chapter.


Margins are usually one inch on all sides, maybe 1.5 on the bottom. Don’t make smaller margins in order to crowd more words on the page. It’s incredibly hard to read, and hey, do you think an agent won’t see through that?


Learn how to do it. An agent does not want you to rely on them to imagine where your commas might go, or to imagine how this manuscript would look if you actually knew how to use dashes and semicolons and quotation marks. (Here’s a brilliant explanation of comma use, and this one on dashes.) There is a way that is proper accepted punctuation, and even if your imaginative writing brain thinks it shouldn’t be that way, just this once, for your submission, learn the rules and follow the rules.


It’s way too easy—and lazy–to throw them in for various reasons. But traditionally, italics are used for emphasis.  For instance: She was so tired.

Sometimes for internal thought. Oh, no. What’s that noise?

But be consistent.

Are you going to use them for emphasis? If so, only do that. Are you going to use them for internal thought? If so, do that, but be very careful. That might require a lot of them. And italics are no fun to read.

Type italics as italics, not as underlined.

When the italics get out of hand, it is annoying and amateurish. And, as the famed and beloved Benjamin Dreyer once said in a talk I heard, “Italics mean you are telling the reader how to read your words. Might it be better to write your manuscript in a different way so the reader does not have to be told?”

And stay away from a fully italicized prologue. You the agent will skip it. And delete it. And go on to the next one.

Your publisher may have a style guide, and when your new copy editor begins working on your manuscript, they’ll give you their rules for italics. But in a submission, being consistent is fine.


Please, please proofread. I know there’s always another typo. But look again, then look again. Spellcheck will not catch everything. The agent will.

Title page

On the Chapter 1 page, upper left or right, put your name, book title, number of words, and contact info. Then type Chapter 1  about two-thirds down the page. You can also use a separate title page, but remember, that’s just more scrolling for the reader.


Use an upper-left header

Your computer will do this for you, so the header always stays in the same place. Look on your tool bar for insert/header.

Page numbers

Yes. Start with 1 on the lower right of first page of the first chapter, and continuing. Do not re-number with each chapter.

Extra stuff

Don’t do it. In a fiction submission, there should be no photos, or graphics, or colored ink or paper. If you think it is cute or winning or attention getting or avant-garde, it isn’t. It’s amateur.

I know when you were a kid, your teachers and parents urged you to think out-of-the-box, to be imaginative and be an individual. But in this case, don’t do that. Write a terrific book, but make it look like you know what you’re doing.

Often agents and editors will have formatting instructions on their website.

But standard standard standard is best. Your manuscript should look like everyone else’s. It’s what’s inside that should stand out.

Got questions on formatting? Ask us on our Facebook page. And then, get writing!