How to Lay Out Your Manuscript

As a judge of writing competitions and a creative writing teacher, I’ve seen many pieces of creative writing with the text laid out in a way that makes it difficult to read. Incorrect indents, asterisks all over the place, but the most common error is inconsistent and confusing line spacing. Writers often end up with bigger gaps between paragraphs than between the lines within a paragraph, which makes it appear as though each paragraph is a new scene or stands alone.

If a literary agent, writing competition, or journal specifies layout guidelines, you should always follow these, but if they don’t, it’s best to follow the conventional layout, similar to the layout you’d find in any contemporary, non-experimental novel.

This article will show you how to get your formatting right using a PC. It’s how I do it, and there might of course be a better, easier way. If there is, please do let me know in the comments.

And if anyone would like to let me know how to do the same on a Mac, I’d be delighted to include it for all those Mac users out there.  

Layout convention

  • Font: Times New Roman
  • Font size / colour: 12 point / black
  • Spacing: Double
  • No line spaces between paragraphs
  • An indent at the start of each paragraph (including at the start of each line of dialogue) except –
  • No indent at the start of the first paragraph of a chapter or the beginning of a new scene
  • An extra line space between paragraphs when starting a new scene (a scene break)
  • If that scene break happens at the end of a page include a centred asterisk (*) within the break. This will either be at the end of the page or the beginning of the next
  • Page numbers wherever you prefer (Use ‘Insert’ Page Number)
  • You could put the title of the piece in the top right hand corner of every page, but if submitting check the guidelines (Use ‘Insert’ Header)
  • If you’re entering a competition don’t include your name or initials anywhere on the document (unless specified in the rules)

How to Format Paragraphs on a PC

If you are starting with a new blank document

  • Open a new blank document in Word
  • Within the document either right-hand click to bring up a box from which you can select ‘Paragraph’
  • Or in the top ribbon select ‘Layout’, and in ‘Paragraph’ click the little box in the bottom right hand corner
  • This will open up a ‘Paragraph’ box
  • Under the first tab, ‘Indents and Spacing’ set the indentation of Left and Right to zero.
  • Under ‘Special’ select ‘First line’ from the drop down box.
  • Make sure ‘By’ is 1.27cm
  • Under ‘Spacing’ set Before and After to zero
  • Under ‘Line spacing’ select ‘double’ from the drop down box

Here’s what it looks like:

  • At the bottom you can decide whether to ‘Set As Default’ for this document only or all documents based on the ‘Normal’ template. I would recommend selecting one of these. (Selecting the latter means that all your future ‘Normal’ documents will adopt this style.)
  • Click OK

Now, every paragraph you write in the document will be indented, which is not what you want. What I do now is start to write, and when I’ve written more than one paragraph (this is important), at some point I go back to the beginning of each chapter and start of each new scene, put my cursor in front of the first word and press backspace. This will remove the indent. (Note – if you haven’t set this formatting as the default for this document or for all documents based on the ‘Normal’ template, then removing the indent before you have written more than one paragraph will mess up the formatting.)

If you have already written some or all of your document

  • Highlight the whole document (either click and drag down from the start, or if your keyboard has a number pad on the right – hold down Ctrl and press the number 5 – this should highlight everything)
  • Follow the instructions above from the second bullet point.

If some of your formatting goes wrong

Sometimes my formatting gets in a muddle. If you have some formatting that is correct in your document and some that isn’t, you can highlight two or more paragraphs of the correct formatting, go to the Home tab in the top ribbon, and click ‘Format Painter’ in the ‘Clipboard’ section. When you move your cursor over the text you’ll see a paint brush come up beside it. Move your cursor to the start of the section of text that needs its formatting sorted out, click and drag to highlight all of the incorrectly formatted text. Release the cursor, and the correct formatting should be applied.

Scene breaks and asterisks

Inserting asterisks should be the very last thing you do before you submit your piece of work to wherever it is going. If you do it earlier and then continue editing (removing or adding text), where you need to put your asterisks will change.

Using asterisks to help indicate a scene break is only necessary if you know your reader is going to print out the document to read it. If they are only reading on screen you don’t need any asterisks. If you don’t know if they will print it, best to include asterisks.

But imagine they do print out your work. Imagine a new scene starts at the very top of a new page. The start of the scene won’t have an indent (you’ll have removed it), but because one scene ends on the previous page and the new one starts at the top of the next page it is easy to miss that a new scene has started. To indicate this you need to insert a centred asterisk between the two scenes. It might sit at the end of the first page or at the beginning of the next – it doesn’t matter. But you must insert your asterisks from the beginning of the document, wherever you notice a page break between scenes. Inserting an asterisk will push all your text down by one line – which means that further on in the document you might be creating new places that need asterisks or getting rid of some that did.

How to use this formatting for scene breaks

When you’ve formatted your story in this way, and your story has a large jump – moving to a new scene (a character in a new place,  a different character, or a different time period) – you simply need to insert an extra return at the end of the previous scene and continue writing your new scene. This will create a single extra line space between scenes – letting the reader know we’ve moved to a new scene – while keeping all other line spaces as just double.  

But, using the formatting describe above, your new scene will start with an indent. Only when you’ve written a couple more paragraphs at least should you go back and remove the indent at the start of the scene (by placing your cursor before the first word and pressing backspace).

If this seems like a rather awkward way of getting rid of unwanted indents, I agree. I’m sure there must be a way to set this up as a default (no indent after a double return), but I don’t know how. If you do, please let me know!

Font

You need to follow a similar process to set your font style and size as you’ve done with formatting.

  • Right hand click and go to Font or on the Home tab in the top Ribbon select the small righthand box in Font.
  • Here you’ll be able to select your font and size (Times New Roman and 12 point black is recommended) and then set it as the default for the document or default for ‘Normal’ style.

I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if anything is incorrect or poorly explained.

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Events

I have quite a few in-person and online events coming up in the next few months, talking about Unsettled Ground, including Saffron Walden in Essex, Oxford, Leeds, and Chipping Norton. Visit my upcoming events page to find out whether I’ll be in a town near you.