Formatting a manuscript: Fonts for Submissions

Why are font choices important?

When reading a piece of writing, perhaps even more important than the actual text, in terms of letting the reader actually comprehend your work is your formatting. In particular, the choice of font and line spacing you’ve used.

If you’ve chosen your font properly and set your line spacing appropriately to the work, you’ve given your work a proper chance to shine. On the other hand, even if your work rivals Dostoevsky or Hemingway, a bad choice of font will render your work inaccessible to all but the most dedicated and stubborn of readers.

If your choice of font is cramped or overly elaborate, it creates an additional barrier to readers and editors.

There are three times when your choice of font can make all the difference; submitting to a publishing house, publishing and when designing a cover. Not every author will be involved in each stage, however, with the rise of self-publishing, it is important for a writer to have an idea about how to use fonts.

Submissions

You might think “a publishing house will just make the quick changes they need to before reading my manuscript.” A publishing house, even an indie publisher, receives dozens of manuscripts every day and many editors cannot afford the few minutes it may take to bring your work into their format. By ignoring submissions guidelines you are effectively stating that you don’t care if your work gets reviewed.

Some publishers have very strong preferences for submissions. You may have heard of the Van Halen tour rider; the document with everything a band wants a venue to take care of. Van Halen famously had a requirement that a venue must provide them with a bowl of M&M’s with all the brown ones removed. This may sound silly but it was an easy way for the band to check if the venue had read their rider and the important technical requirements.

In the same way, adhering to a publishing house’s submission guidelines shows that you have made a serious consideration about sending them your manuscript, that you haven’t just sent out a generic manuscript to as many publishing houses as possible, hoping one picks you up.

Writers will often be advised to use a monospaced font. A monospaced font is one where each character occupies the same physical width. This is useful for the editor as it allows the editor reviewing your submission to guess at your approximate word count. You may be thinking “ah, but I’ve put a word count at the bottom of my novel/story.” In publishing terms, the word count is the amount of space your work will occupy – five characters plus a space. Many short story publications are paid for by the word but they calculate based on the publishing worlds definition of word count. This stops writers going out of their way to use the shortest possible words to flesh out their content. This word count is helpful to editors as it allows them to quickly work out if they have room in their publication for your story. With novels, monospacing allows the editor to quickly guess page count and the cost to print your work. This rule also applies to scripts. A monospaced font means it’s easy to calculate the approximate timing of the script.

Courier is the font of choice for many editors. It’s simple, clean and monospaced. This font may seem hard to read in but its uniform thickness means it’s much easier to read at great length without straining the eyes. The extra space around the letters also gives editors a little bit more room to make their notes. In a variable-spaced font, it can hard to flag spellling issues that automated checks have missed.

I often hear people complain that “Courier looks boring. Can’t I use a more interesting font?” No! The fact it is boring is exactly why it is used, it’s light and uncomplicated.

Times New Roman is also widely accepted these days. It is not monospaced but it is the most widely used font thus it has become easily read because it is the most widely used font. I find after 100+ pages it can wear on the eyes however, hence why it is not universally accepted for submissions.

Often when I am given a digital manuscript I will do my first pass reading in Times New Roman, while I check the actual content of the piece. On the second I will convert to Courier to pick up any errors.

These rules are there for a reason and If you ignore them to “try and stand out,” the chances are you work will just be thrown out.

As a fun bonus to illustrate one of my points, I deliberately misspelled “spelling” with three l’s. Did you notice?

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