Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Formatting Guidelines

When authors are getting ready to submit to agents, I see a lot of them who get caught up in what’s really too ridiculous to stress over, and that’s formatting. Listen, folks, follow the simple term paper formatting rules you had to follow in high school or college and you’ll be fine. But for those who are still worried, here are some guidelines. Guidelines, mind you, and not rules. Every agent is different, but if you follow these guidelines, few are going to reject you without reading a word.

Query Letter
Standard business-letter formatting. If you’re using a word processing program like Microsoft Word you can probably use a template, but here are my suggestions:
  • Single space
  • One page only
  • Include your address, email, phone, and web site if you have one
  • Include the date (and make sure to update this with each letter you send, otherwise it gives a sneak peek into how long you’ve been submitting for)
  • A font that’s comfortable for you to read over and over and over. Times New Roman, Courier, Arial. All are acceptable. Usually 11 or 12 point. Again, think of reading 50 of these in one sitting and avoid eye strain.
Again, standard word processing format works best, but here are some guidelines to help you get started
  • One-inch margins
  • Double space
  • One-sided only
  • Page numbers in a header including your last name (should be the same name as on the letter)
  • A font that’s comfortable for you to read over and over and over. Times New Roman, Courier, Arial. All are acceptable. Usually 11 or 12 point. Again, think of reading 50 of these in one sitting and avoid eye strain.
Listen, I am not going to reject you if your margins are less than one inch or greater. I won’t reject you if your query letter is double-spaced. I might not read as much of your book if it’s single-spaced because my eyes will start to hurt, and I might not read as much of anything you submit if you use a fancy script type that’s hard to read. When formatting a manuscript or when submitting anything to an agent, think logically. There are absolutely no rules in this, no matter what people say, just make sure we can read it.

Anything I missed?



Anonymous said...

Hi Jessica, love the blog!

Synopsis: single-spaced or double-spaced?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

I'm fine with a single spaced synopsis, but when in doubt double-space.

Hint: make sure your synopsis is clearly labeled synopsis in the header. It makes it easier for us to find the chapters. I always like the synopsis placed at the end of the chapters in the pack too. I'm one who doesn't like a spoiler, but it's not a big deal either way.


Shaun Carney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You forgot start your chapters 1/3 down the page. I just saw a manuscript where there were no chapter designations.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of length/ word count.

Is the old standard of 1 page = 250 words still good to go by or are most folks going by the computer word count?

It can be a pretty big difference.

A book that comes in at 83,906 words via MS Word would be 102,500 words via the 250 words per page count (courier 12 pt font)

kris said...

Only one thing to add, for the authors: remember, if an editor or agent is so rigid that he or she would reject you because you used Arial instead of TNR - ask yourself if that is really someone you would want to work with.

Keep it clean (as in clear & uncluttered), keep it easy to read, and you should be fine.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

I tend to go by the 250 words per page count simply because often it's the size of a manuscript that scares people before they even see word count. I also think that translates for the publisher better anyway. If you have a lot of dialogue word count will be lower but page count might be higher.

In the end though, do what you're comfortable with.

And thanks kris. I think those are words to live by.


Liana Brooks said...

In word you can set the date so that it prints the date you print the document and not a set number, that saves you from remebering to reset the date each time you query.

Would you like e-mail or phone number in the header as well?

Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Thanks for common-sense, practical advice. What length synopsis do you like? I don't guess there's anything like an "industry standard," since I've heard everything from one single-spaced page to ten single or double-spaced ones.

Anonymous said...

What about special formatting for e-mail queries? Some sites say that all special characters, such as "smart" quotes and apostrophes, dashes, superscripts, ellipses, etc., turn into bizarre symbols on the recipient's end, even if they look fine going out, and that line spacing, paragraph indentations, and centering are deleted. And, of course, that the font is changed to whatever the recipient has chosen for e-mail. Should all these elements be removed from the manuscript before copying into the email? Is it good enough just to save in rtf or text-only format? Or are agents so accustomed to dealing with garbled text that we shouldn't sweat it?

This blog is the first thing I read every workday ...

Thank you!

Unknown said...

Cassandra, I've heard that when in doubt with an email submission, save it in .rtf, (though look it over for any wierd formating things, of course), and send it that way, because most word processing programs can easily recognize it.

However, if you KNOW your agent/editor will be using Word, you don't really have to worry about it.

At least that's what my experience has taught me.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, as long as the writing's great and the story is exciting - and she can read it because the font is big enough - Jessica isn't going to balk over formatting! ;-) Trust her on this one.

Kimber Li said...

I figure some agents and editors are more rigid and different in their submission guidelines because they want to weed out the impatient aspiring authors. This business requires infinite patience! I realized recently that once I got past the partial stage, the rigid ones were much more lenient.

Anonymous said...

Should the synopsis be indented like the manuscript or justified left like the query?

And for email submissions in general, is single space with extra space between paragraphs ok for query, sample chapters and synopsis? When I send something double-spaced it comes out single-spaced in the email.

Thanks, Jessica, very helpful blog!

Unknown said...

How about guidelines for synopses.

Kristin Laughtin said...

What about italics? Some formatting guides/webpages say to change sections you want italicized to underline because it stands out more, and some say it's fine to leave it in italics. What's your preference?

I was going to ask for guidelines for synopses as well. There is a lot of information available on writing queries, but so far, I haven't found much on synopses (although I expect there will be more variation between different agents as to what exactly they want).

Anonymous said...

What about the use of colons in the beginning of a list?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

It can't hurt to put email or phone number in the header. I don't have a preference for which.

My answer to the synopsis is whatever you have on hand works for me.


BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

I prefer that queries be in the body of the email. I know nothing about special things like smart quotes turning into weird symbols, although I have seen it happen. I guess the best thing to do is write a basic email. As for attachments, if I ask for anything Word is fine.

Single space on queries with double spaces between paragraphs works fine for me on snail mail or email queries. And you're right. As long as I can read it the little stuff doesn't matter too much.

I have no preference for how a synopsis is formatted/justified.

Italics or underlined is fine. Do whatever works for you.

Guidelines for synopsis: actually tell me what happens. Double spaced or single spaced are fine for me.

I'll think about doing a post on synopsis guidelines. I honestly don't know if there is much.


Heather Wardell said...

Some agents request a few pages be pasted into the bottom of the email. I generally go through the pages and put a blank line between each paragraph, since cutting and pasting removes the formatting. It just looks too much like a big lump of text otherwise. Is this necessary, or do most "pages in the email" agents just plow through the lump?


Anonymous said...

silly question: In a snail query, should agent's name/address be included as it would be at the beginning of a normal business letter?

I hate to take the extra space when I can use it to include important info if it's not expected.

C E said...

I've passed on your kind and reasonable "guidelines" to 3 local writers groups.
I've said this for years but it is sooooo much better to see it in print!

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I don't think you need to put the agent's name and address on top, that's up to you.

And thanks for passing the guidelines on. We'll also be linking to this post from our FAQ page on our Web site.


ChristaCarol Jones said...

Hey Jessica,

Was referred here by QueryTracker . . . and I'm so glad! Some really good stuff here. Thanks! :)

ChristaCarol Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi. Hoping you will still see this question as your post is a year ago.

I can't seem to find in your guidelines whether you want the first 50 pages/three chapters and the synopsis pasted in the body of the e-mail below the query letter or as word attachments.

Thanks for any clarification here (and sorry if I missed it in the FAQ).

Anonymous said...

Good Day Jessica,

I saw your website from Literary Agent listing and found your advice VERY helpful....I'm still working on my (first ever) manuscript, and when I'm ready to submit, I'll be sure to refer back to your site....thanks so much...

Unknown said...

Quote; "When formatting a manuscript or when submitting anything to an agent, think logically. There are absolutely no rules in this, no matter what people say, just make sure we can read it."

Thank-You for clearing that up, clearly and simply!!
I've been sweating that out for some time, and as a new writer to the publishing world...apprehension is one's biggest enemy. That little piece of advice is worth more than you can imagine. Thanks again!!

Anonymous said...

This might be a silly question, but I've been trying to figure this out for a while now, and nothing I research is answering my question.

Do you indent the actual manuscript or just leave it justified?

Thank you for the blog, it's helped clear up a few questions of mine.

Rebekah Landis said...

I'm 16 and trying to figure out the world of publishing. Your blog is very helpful.