Manuscript formatting tips for MS Word

I see a great many manuscripts come through where some fundamental--and some more advanced--formatting techniques have not been utilized, but would greatly help the manuscript. So, today, I'm going to give a few tips on using Microsoft Word to your advantage. This will not only help you to present a great-looking manuscript to an editor, but will also help to cut down on those edits once you have a contract in hand.

The most prevalent issue I see is not using a manual page break to begin a new page. As you all know, Word automatically creates a new page when you get to the bottom of one. However, if you finish a chapter in the middle of a page, you do not need to "enter" down until a new page appears. In fact, this is the wrong way to create a new page because then, when you edit, any addition or deletion of a line here or there, will cause your new chapter to either be on a different page or to be further down/up the page than you intend. When you need to create a new page use the CTRL+enter command. This creates a manual page break--and the kind that publishers need when properly formatting. So, let's say you end chapter five and you're in the middle of a page, just hit CTRL+enter, and you'll have a fresh page ready for chapter six. If you later end up removing fourteen paragraphs from chapter five, chapter six will still begin on a separate page.

Next, the backwards apostrophe. "Go get 'em," he said. That leading apostrophe automatically wants to curl towards the E in em, but we need it to go the other direction. Instead of typing just the apostrophe and then the em, type CTRL+apostrophe+apostrophe (yes, that's the apostrophe key twice) CTRL+' ' will turn your apostrophe the other way 'round.

Finally, make sure you use em-dashes for speech cut-offs and phrase offsets. That's the long dash, not a hyphen and not the shorter en-dash. I see a goodly number of mss where an en-dash or single hyphen is used in these instances. Many Word versions will have the autocorrect set so that if you type two hyphens (--) it will automatically changed to an em-dash. If you don't have the autocorrect feature set, and either don't want to or don't know how, at the very least, type two hyphens where you want an em-dash. However, I suggest using the autocorrect feature, at least on the first draft.

Happy writing!


  1. Thanks for the pointers, Nicola!

    Also for the em-dash, you can go to Insert up on the toolbar, choose insert Symbol and then go to the special characters tab. This is much more cumbersome than the autocorrect feature, but comes in handy if you are going back to fix hyphens or en-dashes that you've already inserted. You can use the insert/Symbol tool for ellipsis also (that's ... for those who aren't aware of the name :D)

  2. Thank you for this.

    Is there a way to solve the backwards quotes after an em-dash? All I get is “Steve—“

  3. Thanks for adding that, Tammy. The other thing you can do if you're fixing things after the fact is a global find/replace. Find an en-dash (or the -- if that's what you've done) and highlight/copy it. Open your "replace" box and paste what you just copied in the "find" box, then put CARAT + + ( that's a carat symbol and the plus-sign [^+]) in the "replace" box. Then hit replace all, and it will change them all to em-dashes.

  4. Clare,

    I haven't found a quick fix for that issue other than what I've done, and that is to set up an autocorrect. In Word, you can set up your own autocorrect functions. I copied the em-dash and the wrong-way-round end quote and copied it into the "correct-this" side. Then, I manually made the quote go round the right way (type the em-dash, then any letter, then the quote, then erase the letter), copied that and pasted it into the "correct to this" side. Now, when I type an em-dash followed by a quote mark, it automatically turns the quote the right way round.

  5. I need to quit reading this blog. It's making me paranoid. LOL

    Actually, I needed the emdash advice. I'm going to do the search and replace. My manuscript I'm finishing up is full of hyphens. :(

    Blessings, Teri

  6. LOL, Teri. No paranoia allowed. :)

  7. I just found a way to overcome the backwards ” after an emdash. Purely by accident as my autocorrect refused to do it.
    I do a “Steve—“” then backspace once and remove the “ It's much faster than going back and adding a letter then a ” as I already have shift 2 pressed anyway.