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What Indie Authors Need to Know About Their Manuscripts

Before you have a printed book, you have a manuscript. These are different things, connected but distinct, like a butterfly and a caterpillar. Some indie authors get confused between the two. They have unrealistic expectations of their manuscript.
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by Ed Charlton for IndieReader

Before you have a printed book, you have a manuscript. These are different things, connected but distinct, like a butterfly and a caterpillar. Some indie authors get confused between the two. They have unrealistic expectations of their manuscript. They expect their caterpillar to fly.

What is a manuscript?

A manuscript is a specialized document used by three sorts of people: authors, editors, and layout designers. That's it, no one else. The public will never see your manuscript.

  • Authors create manuscripts and might share them with their early readers.
  • Editors edit manuscripts.
  • Layout designers convert manuscripts into galleys and books.

Why is there so much argument about "proper" manuscript formatting?

It isn't to be snobbish or difficult for the sake of it; it's to save time, effort, and money on behalf of publishers, authors, editors, and layout designers.

Indie authors need to take note. If big publishers care about what a manuscript looks like, so should you. If you are your own editor (not an ideal situation), or you are doing your own book layout, you can make things unnecessarily difficult for yourself by not treating your manuscript as the specialized sort of document it is.

What's so special about a manuscript?

It's just the words.

Really, that's the whole point. A manuscript should contain nothing but the words.

The editor's job is to make sure the words say what you mean and say it well. The editor doesn't care about where the chapter headings sit on the page. She doesn't care (much) that you want Chapter 13 to look like a film script. She only cares about the words. The standard format of a manuscript makes her job easier.

The layout designer does care about Chapter 13, and that your dream sequences have to be in italics at half the font height of the rest of the text, and that quotes from Uncle Fred have a line of percent signs above and below each one. But he doesn't want you formatting anything in the manuscript. To show your special formatting, it is best to use sample pages sent along with the manuscript which should, of course, contain only the words.

Why it matters

The more formatting you put into the manuscript the more frustrating it is for your editor and layout designer. Special formatting gets in the way of the editor clearly seeing the words. If you deliver the manuscript with special formatting and the editor likes you, she'll convert it to standard format herself. But time is money. The layout designer will want to understand the look you are aiming for. Usually he has better ways of implementing that look than you do. He'll have to remove your formatting and then apply his own. Time is money.

If you are laying out your own book, you will quickly discover that MS Word is not what the computer cognoscenti call WYSIWYG (pron: Whizzy-Wig): What You See Is What You Get. Far from it. Word will adjust your text in ways that are both unpredictable and arcane. Layout designers use specialized software that allows exact control of every space, word, paragraph, image, and page. You can do this at home but only with the right software. Even if you are doing your own layout, you should still first format your manuscript in the cleanest possible way. The ability to import just the words and leave the formatting to software intended for that purpose will have you grinning widely instead of tearing out your hair.

Normally, you are working on a manuscript page that is 8.5x11" in size. Your book will probably be 6x9". Any layout you build in the larger size will probably not translate simply to the smaller.

Note: Don't layout your book before you and your editor are finished. Only layout the book once, using the final version of the words. If you make changes after a layout is done, you risk having to do major rework. Did I say that time is money?

Manuscript format

There are variations to this theme. See final bullet.

  • Use a Courier or similarly fixed width font.
  • Use double spacing.
  • Don't fully justify your text; use the default justification of the left margin only.
  • Don't embed images in your manuscript. Put a place marker and deal with the images separately.
  • Put your name, the title, and a page number in the header of each page.
  • Your manuscript is not complete without your Dedication, Preface, Acknowledgments, whatever else you want at the beginning (front matter), and anything you wish to add at the end (back matter).
  • Don't put page numbers in your Contents; they will change with the layout.

If you are sending someone your manuscript to work on, ask them what is their preferred format, don't complain, and send it to them just as they ask.

The standard format of a manuscript has evolved to minimize unnecessary work. This is a good thing for both indie authors and trad-published authors.


If you are publishing an ebook only, much of the above still applies. You can't layout a reflowable ebook. You do, however, need to have it edited. You might need to add images. In all cases, you shouldn't make life difficult for anyone helping you create your final product. The manuscript should just contain the words.

What happens if you get your caterpillar confused with your butterfly?

You have probably seen indie books that don't look quite right. I've seen a few that look just like manuscripts.

Remember I said earlier the public will never see a manuscript? That's not true if an author loads up her manuscript, as it is, to an online self-publishing platform. Bypass the editing and layout processes and what do you get? You get a printed manuscript.

As a reader, you will have noticed that books aren't generally printed as double-spaced Courier, left-justified text. Books look good. They have complimentary fonts for headings and text. The text is fully justified. On opposite pages, the text occupies the same amount of space. There are no words dangling on their own on the first line of a new page. The margins are consistent, as are headings, footnotes, quotations, and the placement of images. There is sufficient white space to make for a comfortable read. The words aren't scrunched up or too widely spaced.

Books are laid out so that the reader doesn't notice anything but the words. You have probably seen indie books that don't look quite right. You noticed something other than the words.

Caterpillars don't fly.