Literary agents on the verge of a nervous breakdown

My dear agent Janet Reid has been running a contest on her site that attracted 416 manuscript entries.  Based on Janet's amusing but increasingly distraught posts on the subject, it seems some people who submitted manuscripts are unclear on the standard format.  There's plenty of information around the net about ms formats, but to make it simple I thought I'd put my own ms template online for anyone to copy if they want.

This is the document format I've used to write four novels.  No one's ever complained to me about it.  In fact, I have a reputation amongst my editors for delivering clean manuscripts, of which the formatting is a small part, so you're probably safe to use this.  This is precisely the file as I submitted it for The Pericles Commission, minus the final 350 pages.  I left in some opening paragraphs so you can see the paragraph style format.

This link will open a read-only copy in another browser window:

Gary's standard ms format 

A few comments:

To use, download the document and change the words.  What could be simpler?  Don't fiddle with the formatting.  When you stare at hundreds of pages every day, the last thing you want is for someone to get creative with formatting.

A manuscript is a tool for writers, like a hammer is a tool for carpenters.  When you pick up a hammer, you'd like the hammerhead and the handle to be in the same place, every time, no matter what the quality of the hammer may be.  The same logic applies to manuscripts.

It would probably be a good idea to change my name for yours, unless you'd like me to receive your royalty cheques.  The name in the top left is your real name; the name under the title is what you want to have appear on the cover.

Don't try to make your ms look like a book.  The publisher has people who'll do that for you.

Word count in the top right of the first page need only be to the nearest thousand.  It's only to get a feel for page count.  The editor really doesn't care if there are precisely 97,354.64 words in your document.  By the time you've finished with the edits, that number will have changed by a few thousand words anyway.

Probably the most important things are the double spacing and the very wide margins.  Since publishing is still firmly embedded in the Stone Age, the editor will print your ms, on real paper, and the copyeditor will scribble all over it, probably in green pencil.  Those margins and the space between the lines are where the copyeditor will save your life by fixing the errors.  It's normal for Copyeditor to rewrite entire sentences in the double-space gaps.  If the editor is your doctor, the copy editor is your head nurse.  Don't make it hard for the nurse to look after you.

New paragraphs begin with a significant indent.  Unless you want the acquiring editor to get a headache while reading your submission.

Start new chapters half a page down.  The copyeditor will use the top half to write printer instructions in red pencil.

Times New Roman is the One True Font.  I'm sure no one would ding you for using Georgia, but since every professional in publishing is happy to use Times New Roman, and every writing system supports it, why would you use anything else?

Don't forget to change the top left of the header for your surname and title.  This is essential so that, when the editor prints your ms and three others, and then drops all four in the elevator, they have a fighting chance of reassembling the right pages in the right manuscripts.  It would be unfortunate if the romantic comedy, the techno-thriller and the zombie horror got mixed up.

You'll notice I created a custom style called Story Paragraph.  I honestly couldn't tell you what's in it exactly because I created it five years ago and haven't changed it since.  Just apply that style to every paragraph, or use the copy format button, which is what I normally do.


Sarah W said...

Much thanks, Gary!

I've saved your format in the same place I've saved your previous magical tips and tricks for Word. I don't know exactly how much time you've saved me, but I'm sure it's a lot.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I've been following Janet's posts--I certainly hope she's got plenty of cupcakes at hand.

And I'm pretty happy because my formatting is darn close to yours. The only thing that threw me was the wide margins. Somewhere along the way, an agent wrote about using 1" margins so that's what I've used ever since. They certainly wouldn't hold many comments!

Seth Lynch said...

Hi Gary

There are a lot of posts about formatting manuscripts - and quite a few complaining about people not following that advice. There are very few that provide a practical answer: ie here's my template. I suspect it has something to do with your IT training – seeing the problem and the solution.

If anyone is interested in screen writing etc the BBC also provide templates for how they want work submitted to them – it’s over at



Gary Corby said...

I checked what margins were set. They're 2.54cm top and bottom, which is precisely 1 inch, and 3.17cm left and right, which is 1.25 inches. So Stephanie we actually agree on margins, pretty much.

You're probably right, Seth. I was thinking in terms of, "Here's some sample code."

I forgot to mention file it anything you want when writing, but when you submit, you can't go wrong with SURNAME - TITLE.doc. So for example, "Corby - The Pericles Commission.doc".

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

It always surprises me that a writer who has spent months/years on a book somehow missed the memo about how it should be formatted. Never give an agent/editor an excuse to dismiss you!

Stacy said...

Thanks for the template, Gary. I've downloaded and changed the info.

Seth, thanks for the link to the Writer's Room. Great stuff on that site!