How to present your manuscript to literary agents


The presentation of your manuscript makes a big difference. Agents aren't mostly looking to accept a manuscript. They're looking for early warning signs that say this author hasn't taken enough care to be worth reading further. Follow the tips below and you'll be fine.

Your Title Page

sample title pageYour title page should contain:

  • The book's title in a font as large as you fancy
  • A subtitle, if the book has one. Most novels won't.
  • A quick genre specifier, if you want it. "A crime thriller" for example. I've added "A novel" to the page on the right, only because this page was prepared for the American market where "a novel" is quite often used as a kind of subtitle.
  • Your name
  • The book's rough word count, rounded to the nearest 1,000 or 5,000 words
  • your contact info (Email, phone, address) in the bottom right hand corner, or otherwise somewhat secondary

It doesn't need anything else. It certainly doesn't need and shouldn't have a copyright notice. See an example of the title page for one of my own novels (right). You can click the image to enlarge it.

Epigraphs, dedications, acknowledgements and all that kind of stuff can be left for when your book makes it into print. At this stage you really don't need that kind of thing though, if you really have to put in an epigraph, you can certainly do so on the second page or (probably italicised) on the cover itself.

Your cover page would ideally not have any page number on it but, as you can see from the image, I didn't bother eliminating the number from my title page. It's no big deal.

Totally Trim Text

  • Use double or 1.5 line spacing.
  • Use a nice ordinary font (Times New Roman / Garamond / Georgia are all good choices. Arial is quite common, but maybe better avoided.)
  • Use a font size no smaller than 12.
  • Use standard margins - your existing defaults are almost certainly fine.
  • Chapter breaks should be marked by page breaks, so each new chapter starts on a clean sheet.
  • You can mark each new chapter with a number, if you care to. Or anything at all, really, just so long as it's clear what's going on.
  • Don't forget to insert page numbers
  • If you are sending your work hard copy, you can these days print it double-sided ... though that does tend to be a bit more annoying for the agents who will have to read the darn thing.
  • Indent paragraphs (using the tab key or the paragraph formatting menu – don’t rely on the space bar). Do not leave a double space between paragraphs except as a section break.
  • Oh, and don't overuse the ellipsis ("...") or the exclamation mark. Professional authors use those things very sparingly.

The page above (you can click to enlarge it) shows my own choices: a neat header in a smaller font size (10). Modest indentation - I like 0.3". A personal, but not wacky font (I use Garamond.) Line spacing that's clear, but not too spacy (I use 1.5 line spacing.). Plus a nice neat page number, of course.

This is the first page of the actual book, hence I chose to repeat the title in a larger font. That's my personal preference; you don't have to do the same. Ditto, my chapter numbering - the big, simple "1." - that's my choice and it's absolutely fine, but you can use other systems or formats if you prefer.

Dialogue That Dances

  • Dialogue counts as new paragraphs, therefore it should be indented.
  • When speech by one character is interrupted by a descriptive line, and then the speech continues, this all counts as one paragraph. Begin the next paragraph with the next speaker.
  • Use single quotation marks for dialogue. When dialogue is followed by ‘said X’ or 'chortled Y’ you should not capitalise either the s of said or the c of chortled. This is true even if the dialogue ends with an exclamation mark or a question mark.
  • If the speaker quotes someone else within dialogue, you show that inner quotation with double inverted commas. Like this, for example: 'No,' said Hugh patiently. 'What Sophie actually said was, "Go to hell, you bloody idiot!" Words to that effect anyway.'

An exemplary example:

     ‘This manuscript is nicely presented,’ said the agent.
     ‘Indeed it is,’ said the publisher. She paused briefly, to strike off a few zeros from an author’s royalty statement. ‘It is well presented. And intelligent. And beautifully written.’
     ‘But Richard & Judy won’t like it.’
     ‘No, indeed. Nor the Chief Buyer at Tescos.’
     ‘So we’ll reject it!’ they chorused, laughing wildly.
     Their limousine swept on through the rainy streets, leaving a faint aroma of cigar smoke and Chanel no. 5 lingering on the mild springtime air.

Use the example above for guidance - or, if in doubt, open any paperback book. The way it's laid out is the way yours should be.


Perfect Punctuation Please

  • There is one general rule for punctuation: it is there to help avoid ambiguity.
  • Commas are tricky fellas, but they are often missed out before names. Get into the habit of putting them in and you will avoid absurdities such as, I would really like to eat Paul
  • The hyphen is an endangered species, and only the writer can save it. Again, it is vital so as to avoid ambiguities and absurdities. The white toothed whale. Is it the whale or the teeth that are white?
  • It is a good rule to avoid lists of adjectives but, when you have them, check to see if any should be hyphenated. You can have a dining room, but a table there becomes a dining-room table.
  • Semicolons are also endangered and yet can bring a deal of subtlety to a writer’s style. A semicolon links two related sentences; the second often elaborates or adds context to the first. A semi-colon is stronger than a comma, not as strong as a full-stop.
  • Colons are used where one sentence introduces another. The rule is simple: use the colon when one sentence introduces the next.
  • By far the most common mistake - and the sort of thing which will have most agents screaming in frustration and hurling your book into the far corner of the room - has to do with apostrophes. These are simple beasts, so get them right ...

The Apt Apostrophe

It's means it is. It's raining - for example.

Its means the thing belonging to it. The dog licked its derriere - for example.

The son's python means the python of the son, singular.

The sons' anaconda means the anaconda of the sons, plural.