Formatting your manuscript for maximum visibility
Years ago, when I was an editor at Henry Holt and Company, a visiting author looked around my tiny, paper-laden office and indicated a pile of manuscripts. “Are those all the people who you’ve kept waiting for way too long?” He asked pointedly. “No” I replied, showing him a bookcase that contained several shelves on which manuscripts were stacked deep and wide. “Those are.”
He looked shocked.
If you’ve never been inside the office of an editor or literary agent, it’s hard to imagine the volume of submissions that cross either one’s desk. If you’re submitting your work for an editor’s or agent’s consideration, it makes sense that you do everything you can to make the experience of reading your work as easy as possible. Before an editor reads a word of your manuscript, he or she notices the way it’s presented. Or rather, the editor or agent doesn’t notice the way it’s presented—which is what you want. You do not want your submission to be rejected because it’s difficult to read. You do want the format of your manuscript to be inconsequential so that the content stands out. You want your manuscript to whisper “Read me” so that the overworked editor takes notice and reads. So save your creativity for the storytelling, and format your submissions in the way that’s commonly accepted as standard.
The format — a checklist
If an editor or agent to whom you’re submitting a manuscript requests a specific format, follow the requirements. If there is no set format, here’s the generally accepted way of doing things, presented in checklist format for ease of use.
Your work should be typed in
- Times New Roman
- 12 point
- Double spaced.
It should be
Aligned left—the right-hand margin will be “ragged”—
One-inch margins on all four sides
Page numbers centered at the bottom of each page
Page header at the top right-hand corner of each page following the title page that includes your last name/title of book
The End in italics, centered, at end of manuscript.
If you wish to or feel you need to show page breaks, do so by including an extra line space. You can center a -; *; or # in the line if you feel you’d like to make more of a statement.
Picture books don’t require a separate title page, so your manuscript should include a title page formatted as follows:
Aligned left and single spaced near the top of page are your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address—each on a separate line.
Word count should appear in the top right-hand corner.
About halfway down the page, the full manuscript title should be typed.
A double space and then “by [Your Full Name].”
Another double space and begin the manuscript.
Why this format?
This format is standard because it optimizes legibility, navigation, and information.
Black ink stands out most clearly; the 12-point font is neither too big nor too small. Times New Roman is a serif face that draws the eye easily through the text. Double spacing ensures enough space between lines so that each line is obvious and clear without someone having to squint or transverse vast quantities of white space to get from one line to the next.
At one inch—pretty much the default in Microsoft Word—margins are generous but not excessive and so give a sense of clarity and space rather than a sense of claustrophobia. Pages that are clearly identified and numbered are easy to put together in order if they get separated on a paper-strewn desk. The author’s name and contact details make it easy for an editor to contact an author without having to track down a cover letter or search for an address or phone number.
A note about Illustration notes
Because picture books are so visual and rely on images in order to fully realize the story, you might be tempted to include illustration notes. Here are four reasons to think carefully before doing so.
- Editors are skilled readers and understand the role of image in telling a story.
- Illustration notes interrupt the reading experience and can be distracting.
- Illustration notes signal that you’re not a pro, that you don’t understand the picture book creation process.
- Finally, they suggest that you might have a hard time letting go of your work and entering into the collaboration that is essential to the creation of a picture book.
There are some times when you do need to include illustration notes, such as when the images show something that isn’t obvious or cannot be inferred from the text. Come away from the water, Shirley by John Burningham and Rosie’s Walk by Pat Cummings are examples of printed books in which the text and art show—and do—different things.
If this kind of visual irony is pervasive and essential to the book as a whole, the illustrator notes should be included in your cover letter. If you need to provide notes on spreads—and only if it’s really necessary—include them in parentheses in italics below the text, like this:
[illo note: description of the illustration here]
Make it a habit
It’s not a bad idea for you to create your manuscripts in a similar format for similar reasons. Black 12-point Times New Roman, double spaced with one-inch margins make the work legible as you’re working on it—and your eyes matter too. Vary the fonts, sizes, and/or colors if it supports your process; but my suggestion is to use the same basic font and general format. I’m assuming that you need to number the pages—easy to do in a Word document—but that you know who you are and what you’re writing. On the other hand, in the throes of the creative process, some writers have been known to forget their own names. . . . Seriously, though. Make standard formatting a habit that you don’t have to think about. Then you’ll be freed up to do the real work, the creative work, the exciting work of creating an exceptional picture book manuscript.