How to Format Your Manuscript Like a Pro

A few gangster Microsoft Word tips can make everyone’s life easier—especially yours.
Feb | 5 | 2024
  Feb | 5 | 2024
BY Phil Simon
  Phil Simon

How to Format Your Manuscript Like a Pro

A few gangster Microsoft Word tips can make everyone’s life easier—especially yours.
Phil Simon
Feb | 5 | 2024

How to Format Your Manuscript Like a Pro

TL;DR: A few gangster Microsoft Word tips can make everyone’s life easier—especially yours.
Phil Simon
Feb | 5 | 2024

I I know a thing or six about writing books. After all, I have penned 14 of them, edited one, worked on several ghostwriting projects, and started two hybrid publishing outfits. Toss in all of the blog posts and end-user training guides from my consulting days, I’m sure that I’ve spent more than 10,000 hours in Microsoft Word. It’s been my killer app for much of my career. It’s fair to call me proficient. At the risk of being immodest, each of my editors and project managers has complimented me on my pristine manuscripts.

Today, I’ll show you how to make your submissions as clean as possible. Trust me: Your editor, proofreader, book designer, and ebook conversion specialist will thank you later—not to mention your readers when your book finally drops.

Styles 101

Fiction writers may be able to get away with a paucity of styles in their manuscripts. Non-fiction authors, however, need to use a bevy of them. The usual suspects include:

  1. Normal text.
  2. Separate formats for the book’s parts and chapter titles.
  3. Ditto if you use chapter subtitles.
  4. In-chapter headings and subheadings. (Rarely will you see a business book go beyond three levels of headings in a chapter.)
  5. Pull quotes.
  6. Sidebar headings and body text.
  7. Bullet points.
  8. Numbered lists.
  9. Endnotes.
  10. Footnotes.
  11. Temporary, in-text notes for your designer or editor, although some authors rely on comments for the same purpose. (See the blue production style below.)
  12. Figure and table captions.
  13. Table-specific headings and entries.

I’ll stop here, but I could keep going. My old Wiley template contained nearly 200 different styles, most of which I never used because they didn’t apply to my book. For instance, ten of them applied to software code alone.

Need a custom style? No worries. They’re easy to add.

Headings Revisited

Let’s return to arguably the most important style in the manuscript: headings. At a high level, properly titled ones help readers understand what’s coming in each section. Think of them as guideposts. (Yes, even on blog posts.) We readers want cues. Give ’em to us.

Professional non-fiction writers realize that multi-page-long blocks of continuous text suck. Here’s a page from Scott Berkun’s book Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management:

Note how many formats exist in this simple one-page excerpt. Apart from the single heading and the body text, you’ll find four more styles:

  1. The figure number.
  2. The caption description.
  3. The lead sentence in the bullet point.
  4. The remaining text in the bullet point.

But wait. There’s more.

Efficient Navigation While Writing, Reading, and Editing

Religiously using headings as you write offers another, more selfish benefit. It lets you, the aspiring writer, easily navigate to different destinations via Word’s Navigation Pane. Here’s a screenshot from the manuscript from Project Management in the Hybrid Workplace.

Click on image to embiggen.

Click on an item on the left. Voilà! Much like the headings at the top of this post, you’ll magically go there. Why waste time scrolling to get Chapter 2 or the endnotes? And don’t worry about running out of screen real estate if you’re using a boatload of headings. Thanks to collapsible hierarchies, you can shrink chapters and parts with a single mouse click. (Just look at the arrows to the left of each heading containing subheadings. They do exactly what you’d expect.)

Headings also make creating tables of contents easy, although your designer should create far more visually appealing ones. I love the one that Jessica Angerstein created for The Nine. Finally, without headings, Outline View isn’t nearly as useful.

Background Color

What’s with the blue background, you ask?

For the last two decades, I have eschewed the white screen.

I find light blue less taxing on my eyes over time, but there’s another, less obvious benefit.

During your writing process, odds are strong that you’ll copy text from a third-party program like Chrome, Firefox, or Adobe Acrobat Reader. Have at it, but keep two things in mind. First, make sure to cite your sources. (Ask recently departed Harvard President Claudine Gay about that subject someday.) Next, use Paste Special. Doing so strips out extraneous formats and keeps your manuscript pristine.

See what happens when I lazily paste text (via CMD or CTRL + V) from a webpage in Brave:


My sloppiness has inadvertently created a new style in Word—one that fuses the default Normal with a whole bunch of other crap. The text’s white background is a dead giveaway of my egregious error. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen someone do this …) A white document background hides the issue and contaminates my manuscript.

If I leave the text as is, I’ll introduce issues when the designer lays out the book in Adobe InDesign. Clients’ careless formatting prompts designers to write posts like these. Oh, and it gets worse. Left unfixed, those same amateur errors will bite us in the ass when we create the ebook, too. Why create superfluous work for other folks?

Check Yourself

Clicking Styles in Word displays the specific format you’re using in any given location, but here’s a neat trick. If you click the box next to the yellow arrow below, Word displays the defined style’s number and color to the immediate left of each line of text.

This short but invaluable tip will tell you if you’re employing the wrong style in any part of the manuscript. For example, in the body of the text, I should be using Normal. Maybe, though, I accidentally selected a table-specific style like TB Body. (Hat tip to my new buddy Paul Nylander for showing me this time-saver during a recent chat. I didn’t know that you could do that.)

Meet RacketHub

Bonus Tips

Your non-fiction book will contain many styles. Format them properly to save time and money.

Also, did you see how I put the document version number (1.5.9) in the footer next to the page number above? That’s no accident. You’ll want to do that in the document’s properties. Update that field when you create a new version and store the old one in Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, or a similar tool:

If you think that you’ll never want to revert to a previous version of your manuscript, think again. (Cue Kafka quote.) Also, when I open a previous version of my manuscript on my external monitor, I change its background color from light blue to light green to eliminate any confusion.

What You Need to Know: Be both methodical and curious.

Remember two things. First, writing a full-length book is time-consuming, but you can save yourself considerable time and money by strictly adhering to document styles. What’s more, your team will appreciate your attention to detail. “Thank you for giving me a manuscript with all sorts of formatting errors,” said no editor or designer ever.

Second, even if you’ve spent oodles of time in an app, there’s always more to learn, especially in an era of AI. That maxim applies to newish and evolving tools like Notion but also industry stalwarts like Microsoft’s ubiquitous word-processing program.

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