How Do I Format a Novel?

Doug Landsborough
June 2, 2023

You’ve just spent months, maybe even years working on your book. Your characters have compelling arcs, your quests are epic, and your worldbuilding is the stuff of legends.

Heck, you’ve even worked with beta readers and editors to make your story as close to perfect as possible. So what’s next? Well, you need to learn how to format a novel.

It’s not a sexy process, but manuscript formatting isn’t as scary as some writers think. We’ll cover it all in this article, including:

  • Preparing your manuscript
  • Formatting guidelines
  • Formatting e-books vs. paperbacks
  • Submission guidelines

How to accomplish each of these steps varies depending on your word processor, but anyone using Google Docs or a Word document will be able to include all of these suggestions.

A quick note: we’ll be sticking to best practices and industry standards when it comes to formatting a novel and submitting a manuscript. Certain publishers and self-publishing platforms might have their own guidelines, so make sure to check first!

Manuscript Preparation

Preparing your manuscript properly is essential to ensure a professional and polished look. It’s not as important as the plot and characters, but paying attention to details such as font selection, margins, line spacing, your manuscript title page, and page elements will make your work easier for agents to read or improve its readability once published.

Here are some of the elements you want to consider when formatting a novel.

Choose the Right Font

The font you choose for your novel should be legible and easy on the eyes. You want to balance a professional appearance with the reading experience.

When choosing a font for your manuscript, opt for a serif font like Times New Roman or Garamond, and make sure to use the same font throughout.

For e-books, sans serif fonts like Arial are your best bet.

Avoid distracting decorative or overly stylized fonts. Sorry, Comic Sans lovers.

Next, set the font size to 11 or 12 points. All body text should be the same size, while headings (for chapters, parts, etc.) should be a consistent font size, too.

Save bold, italics, and underline for specific purposes, such as emphasizing words or indicating titles within the text (we’ll chat about this later).

Setting Margins

Proper margin settings ensure that your own manuscript format has a clean and balanced layout. Check out these numbers:

  • Top and bottom margins: Set them to 1 inch (2.54 cm) to allow sufficient space for headers and footers.
  • Left and right margins: Set them to 1.25 inches (3.17 cm) for a balanced appearance.

These margin sizes provide enough white space for readers and allow room for binding if the entire manuscript is printed.

Self-publishing platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing and IngramSpark will have templates available using their specific margins.

Choosing the Right Spacing

Again, simple and to the point: use 1.3-1.5x spacing. Err towards the larger for children’s books.

Note that e-books will automatically space lines based on their reader’s preference. 

Adding Page Numbers, Headers, and Footers

Page numbers, headers, and footers help readers navigate through your manuscript and provide a professional touch, but what you include is ultimately up to you. If you’re self-publishing, check your favorite books and see what style you like. 

When you’re ready, consider these guidelines:

  • Page numbers: Place them in the header or footer. Start numbering from the first page of the main text, excluding any front matter sections.
  • Headers: Include the author's last name and abbreviated title.
  • Footers: Use footers sparingly, typically for important notes or additional information that doesn't fit within the main text for non-fiction.

Formatting a Manuscript Title Page

The title page is the first page of your manuscript and should include essential information about your novel. Follow these steps:

  • Center-align the title of your novel on the title page, using a larger font size (e.g., 18 points) to make it stand out.
  • Type your name as the author below the title, centered on the page.
  • Optionally include information about the publisher at the bottom of the page.

Adding a Copyright Page

The copyright page provides legal information about your novel and protects your intellectual property. Include the following elements, if you’re self-publishing:

  • Title: "Copyright" or "Copyright Page" centered at the top of the page
  • Copyright symbol: © followed by the year of publication and your name
  • Edition information, if applicable
  • Publisher information
  • ISBN (International Standard Book Number) or other identification numbers
  • Disclaimers or copyright statements
  • Permissions and acknowledgments

Remember to research specific requirements for copyright pages based on your country or region.

Formatting Guidelines

While a lot of the previous section varies between publishers, platforms, and preferences, the following guidelines use standards that are near-universal. Some decorative changes might occur (like fancy chapter headings or scene breaks), but you’re in safe hands if you follow these guidelines.

Why? Because proper formatting helps convey your story effectively to readers and makes your manuscript more appealing to agents, publishers, and ultimately, your audience.

Starting a New Chapter

A clear distinction between chapters helps readers navigate your novel smoothly. When starting a new chapter:

  • Begin each chapter on a new page
  • Center-align the chapter title or number at the top of the page
  • Leave a few blank lines between the chapter title and the start of the main text

Using Paragraph Indentation

Paragraph indentation is crucial for readability and clarity. Here's how to handle indentation:

  • Indent the first line of each paragraph by 0.5 inches
  • Use the "Tab" key or adjust the paragraph settings in your word processing software to automate consistent indentation
  • Avoid using extra spaces or manual indents to maintain a clean and professional appearance

Note: Hitting the spacebar a bunch of times will end up in formatting problems down the road.

Formatting for Dialogue

Newer authors often fall victim to improperly formatting dialogue. You can check out our guide to writing dialogue here, but use these guidelines when formatting a novel:

  • Start a new paragraph each time there is a change in speaker
  • Use double quotation marks around dialogue
  • Use dialogue tags to attribute speech
  • Indent just like you would for regular paragraphs

These formatting conventions make it clear who’s speaking and make dialogue sections more accessible to readers.

Adding Italics and Boldface

Italics and boldface are useful for emphasizing words, indicating thoughts, or highlighting important elements. Follow these best practices:

  • Use italics for emphasis, internal thoughts, or titles of books, films, or other creative works
  • Use boldface sparingly (almost never in fiction)
  • Avoid excessive use of italics or boldface, as it can become distracting and lessen their impact

Adding Scene Breaks

Scene breaks help indicate transitions within your narrative, such as shifts in time, location, or point of view. Here's how to format scene breaks effectively:

  • At minimum, a blank line between paragraphs
  • Consider using a centered symbol, such as an asterisk (*) or hashtag (#), to visually separate scenes
  • Avoid using excessive or decorative symbols that might distract from the story

Clear and consistent scene breaks aid in smooth transitions between different parts of your novel and help maintain reader engagement.

Formatting for E-Book vs. Formatting for Print

As an author, it's important to understand the differences between formatting a novel for e-book publication and formatting it for print. Each format has its own audience, so you’ll want your novel to be set up for both styles.

Formatting for E-books

E-books offer the convenience of digital reading and require specific formatting to accommodate various e-reading devices. Here are some important guidelines to follow when formatting your novel for an e-book:

  • Text flow: E-books have a dynamic text flow, allowing readers to adjust font size and style. Avoid using fixed formatting elements such as page numbers or headers and footers.
  • Formatting styles: Use basic formatting styles such as standard paragraph indentation, italics, and boldface. However, avoid complex formatting like text boxes or multi-column layouts, as they may not translate well across different e-reading devices.
  • Hyperlinks and table of contents: E-books can use hyperlinks for navigation, and you should create an interactive table of contents.
  • Testing and proofreading: Always test your e-book on different devices and platforms to ensure the formatting remains consistent. While you’re at it, proofread the digital version to catch any formatting errors or issues.

Formatting for Print

When formatting your novel for print publication, consider the following essential guidelines:

  • Page size and margins: Choose an appropriate trim size and set margins for your printed novel. Most platforms offer templates for this.
  • Font and font size: Select a legible serif font, such as Times New Roman or Garamond, and use a standard font size of 11 or 12 points throughout the manuscript.
  • Chapters: Begin each chapter on a new page and use clear chapter headings or titles to visually distinguish their beginnings.
  • Paragraph indentation: Indent the first line of each paragraph by 0.5 inches or adjust the settings in your word processing software for consistent indentation.
  • Pagination: Include page numbers in the header or footer. Maintain consistency in their placement and style.
  • Scene breaks: Use visual cues like asterisks (*) or centered hashtags (#) to indicate scene breaks.
  • Proofreading: When you receive a proof version, thoroughly read the entire thing for widows, orphans, and other formatting errors.

Submission Guidelines

Once you have formatted your novel, it's time to prepare it for submission to agents, publishers, or self-publishing platforms. Following submission guidelines is crucial for presenting a professional manuscript and increasing your chances of success. Consider the following best practices:

Manuscript Length

Pay attention to the recommended manuscript length for your genre. While guidelines can vary, here are some general guidelines:

  • Novels: Aim for a word count appropriate for your genre, typically ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 words or more. Research the specific requirements for your genre to ensure you're within the expected range.
  • Young adult or middle grade novels: These genres often have slightly shorter word count requirements, typically ranging from 40,000 to 80,000 words. Again, research specific guidelines for your target audience.
  • Short Stories or Anthologies: Follow the specified word count guidelines for short story submissions. These can range from a few hundred words to several thousand, depending on the publication.

Adhering to recommended manuscript lengths demonstrates your understanding of industry standards and increases your manuscript's chances of being considered.

Submitting to Agents or Publishers

When submitting your formatted manuscript to agents or publishers, keep the following in mind:

  • Research: Research agents or publishers who are a good fit for your genre and writing style. Visit their websites or consult reputable literary directories to understand their submission requirements and preferences.
  • Query Letter: Craft a compelling query letter that introduces your book, highlights its marketability, and showcases your writing credentials or relevant experience. Here’s a great guide to writing a query letter.
  • Submission Package: Typically, a submission package includes the query letter, a synopsis (usually one to three pages summarizing the plot), and the first few chapters or a specified number of pages.
  • Submission Method: Agents and publishers may have different preferences for receiving submissions, such as email, online forms, or postal mail (I know, it’s 2023). Follow their instructions carefully and include all required materials.

Submitting your manuscript in a professional and well-prepared manner increases your chances of capturing the attention of agents and publishers.

Self-Publishing Options

The self-publishing journey is one that could fill a series of books. Among all your other duties, you’re the one who has to do all the hard work (or hire someone to do it). Here are some of the higher level elements to keep in mind:

  • Formatting: Follow the specific guidelines provided by your chosen self-publishing platform. Ensure your manuscript meets their requirements for file type, layout, and design.
  • Cover design: Invest in a professional cover design that looks great, fits your genre, and appeals to your target audience.
  • Editing: Hire a professional editor to ensure your manuscript is polished and free of errors.
  • Metadata and Keywords: Optimize your book's metadata, including title, subtitle, description, and keywords, to enhance discoverability on online platforms.

Let Dabble Help

If you don't want to format a book by hand, Dabble does most of the hard novel formatting work for you. When you export your manuscript from Dabble, it automatically formats using industry standards. It doesn’t get easier than that, right?

Add on tools built for fiction writers by fiction writers, writing on any device, and automatic cloud back-ups, and you’re in great hands with Dabble.

You can give it a shot, with all the bells and whistles like the Plot Grid, writing goals, and more for zero dollars and zero cents for fourteen days, no credit card required. Just click here.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.