Pre-Course: Universal Manuscript Guidelines: Why Are They Important?

You have a beautiful new prose manuscript. You’ve pumped all of your intelligence, heart and technique into it. You want it to convey the best possible first impression when the agent or editor focuses on the first page.

It is easy to understand why so many developing writers tend to format their manuscripts with personal preferences and/or an attempt to reflect a polished book format. Some of the tell-tale signs that a writer is still developing her/his industry IQ is when the format of the first page does not follow Universal Manuscript Guidelines. Some of the most common newby mistakes we see are:

  • Titles in bold-face;
  • Title pages for short stories;
  • No byline;
  • No header;
  • Fancy font styles;
  • First line left justified (no indent);
  • Single spacing;
  • Online formatting rather than print manuscript formatting;
  • Lack of centered section breaks—i.e., *** OR #—to indicate a break within sections (many writers will simply leave a white space, which is problematic because the editor or agent is uncertain whether the break was an intended section break or simply messy formatting).

♦ NOTE: Poetry manuscripts follow their own rules.

When creating our narrative drafts, it is important that we format the developing draft in whatever way is most comfortable and generative for us. If Apple Chancery font works best for you, by all means, create in Apple Chancery. HOWEVER, when that manuscript is being prepared to leave your desk and go to another desk—agent, editor, writing group, professor—the Apple Chancery must be changed to universal standard, which is Times New Roman, 10 point or 12 point font. (Some readers will ask for another font. Always use the requested font style by the agent, editor or professor. Always.) 

♦ NOTE: Many editors, agents and writing teachers will request specific manuscript guidelines. However, some will not. In this case, DO NOT make the mistake of thinking anything goes. When formatting requests are not made, it is often because the editor, agent or writing teacher will use formatting as a first line culling into the trash. This might seem harsh, but consider, everyone has a story. Way too many writers ship manuscripts off without proper training, technique, editing and formatting. When faced with hundreds of manuscripts a day, it is smart for editors and agents to let submitters succeed or fail by formatting early in the culling process. Unless otherwise requested, always use universal manuscript formatting.

The function of a manuscript is to convey context and voice as primary focus. Editors, agents and writing teachers are reading many, many, many, many manuscripts in a short period of time. They do not want special formatting that will distract from their main goal, to decide if your manuscript has the voice and context that captures their attention, imagination and support. A manuscript is not a finished and published work. As precious as our manuscripts are and as much as we want to imagine them as already published, the manuscript does NOT follow a published work’s formatting. Say this with me:

  • A manuscript is not a finished and published work;
  • A manuscript does not follow a published work’s formatting;
  • A manuscript does not follow online formatting.

The time will come when the manuscript has been analyzed, dissected, polished and vetted. At this time, the manuscript will take the published form you’ve envisioned for so many weeks, months, years. Until that time, fancy formatting is one of the quickest ways for a manuscript to end up in the trash.

♦ Download Your Universal Manuscript Guidelines