How to Format a Novel

 In Blog, Self-editing Series, Writing Tips

Welcome to another article in the self-editing series. Want to make sure you don’t miss any updates? Sign up to receive an email whenever a new post goes live.

Part of every self-edit must include making sure your novel is properly formatted. No matter what you plan to do with your finished work, you improve your chances of success by following industry standards. That means no funky fonts, no misaligned margins, and avoiding the taboo tab key.

These rules are generic, so it’s important that you check the guidelines for anyone to whom you submit your manuscript. Some may prefer a variation to these, and failing to comply is the first (and often last) strike against you.

Note that all examples show the latest version of Microsoft Word on a PC. If you’re using a Mac and/or a different word processor, you’ll need to adjust accordingly. Click on any image for a larger view.

Fonts

Unless otherwise specified, the font should be set as Times-New Roman, 12-point. Need to change what you’ve already written? No problem. Simply hit Ctrl-A to select everything, then change the font.

Paragraphs

The manuscript should be left-justified and double-spaced. Again, if you need to change anything, use Ctrl-A to select everything, then change as needed. These selections can be made from the main view (as shown on the right).

However, there are other paragraph settings that need to be made. To get to them, click on the tiny arrow in the bottom right of the paragraph box (highlighted).

In the box that opens, make sure “Special” is set to “First line,” “By” is set to “0.5,” and a check mark is in the box next to “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style.” You can also change (or confirm) your alignment and line spacing settings here.

Finally, click the “Line and Page Breaks” tab at the top of the page and confirm that none of the boxes are checked. Click “OK” to confirm your settings.

Margins

Margins should be set to 1″ all around. Select the “Layout” tab and confirm the settings are correct.

The details

Let’s talk about the Tab key for a moment. Don’t use it. Never. Forget it’s there. Rip it off your keyboard if you have to, but don’t use it. You don’t need it. Remember the paragraph setting where we put the First Line to 0.5″? That’s all you need. When you finish a paragraph and hit your Enter key, the next paragraph will automatically indent. Using the Tab key plays havoc when it’s time to format the manuscript for publishing.

Where do astronauts have a beer? That’s right! At the space bar. And when it comes to using the space bar, hit it once and move on. There’s never a time you need to put two spaces somewhere. I can hear you now. “We were taught to always put two spaces at the end of a sentence.” Yeah, so was I back when we learned on a typewriter. No more. One space is the standard.

When starting a new chapter, page breaks should be done with the Ctrl-Enter combination (or Insert-Page Break). Do not use section breaks! Never ever ever!

Speaking of chapters, each one should begin on its own page. About 1/3 of the way down the page (I use eight double-spaced lines), type the chapter title (centered on the page), hit the enter key twice, and begin the chapter.

The header should contain the author’s last name, the title of the work, and the page number. Do not include this on the cover page.

find and replace

Find and Replace is your best friend when formatting. I use it so often I’ve pinned it to my Quick Access Toolbar. In Windows, you can also use the Ctrl-H shortcut. Below are the items I typically check. Note that to insert special characters such as paragraph marks, section breaks, and tabs, click the “Special” button on the bottom of the Find and Replace box and make your selection.

Problem Find what Replace with Notes
Extra spaces {space}{space} {space} Repeat until 0 (zero) corrections are made
Extra space at end of paragraph {space}{paragraph mark} {paragraph mark} Repeat until 0 (zero) corrections are made
Extra space at beginning of paragraph {paragraph mark}{space} {paragraph mark} Repeat until 0 (zero) corrections are made
Tabs {tab character} leave blank
Section breaks {section break} leave blank

Got any other tips or questions to share?

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Showing 5 comments
  • Daniel
    Reply

    This is very helpful. Thanks for sharing. Question though – are these formatting tips for submission guidelines only, or would all of these also apply to a self published book? i.e. 1″ margins, left-justify and double line spacing would seem to be standard for a manuscript but not for a finished book.

    • Tom Threadgill
      Reply

      Hi Daniel. Great question. These guidelines apply only to submissions (to an agent, editor, contest, etc.). That’s because it’s easier to read and simpler to convert for publishing. However, everything in the table applies to all writing, whether for submitting or not. You should definitely get rid of extra spaces and avoid using section breaks and tabs.

      For self-publishing, there are different rules depending on how you plan to market your book. For example, if you’re going to sell it as an eBook on Amazon, your manuscript will need to be converted to their format. Because page sizes may be different, you can play around with the margins, line spacing, and font.

      I hope that answers your question. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Virginia Ledesma
    Reply

    If you have used the tab keep for indentation, how is it removed without manually going to each line? Thanks, Virginia

    • Tom Threadgill
      Reply

      Hi, Virginia. Great question. Before you do anything, make a backup copy of your file. I’m using Microsoft Word in Windows, so if you’re using Mac, it might be slightly different. These instructions assume you’ve hit the Enter key to start a new paragraph, then the Tab key.

      First, make sure you’re on the “Home” tab. Then, over on the right you’ll see the Editing options (Find, Replace, Select). Click on “Replace” and another box will open. Down at the bottom of that box, click on the “Special” button, then select “Tab Character.”

      Leave the “Replace with” section blank and click “Replace All.” The tabs in your document are now all deleted. To insert the correct formatting for the document, hit Ctrl-A to select everything. Go to your paragraph settings (in my version of Word, you can get there from the “Home” tab. Just click on the little down-arrow at the bottom right of the Paragraph section up top), then set “Special” to “First Line” and “By” to 0.5. Click “OK” and you’re done!

      Let me know if you have any more questions, or this doesn’t work for you. Have a great day!

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