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Formatting Tips for Writers

(a.k.a. THE LAW, if you're A.D.H.D. like most of the AQ crew)

There's always a lot of quibbling amongst writers regarding the proper way to format and submit queries, synopses, and completed manuscripts to agents.

  • How do I snail mail my query and SASE in the same No. 10 envelope?

  • Do I include the agency name and business address of the agent in my email query?

  • How in the heck do I format a synopsis, and how long should it be?

  • When Ms. Agent requests to see my full completed manuscript, do I really shove all 300 pages, loose and unbound, into a box and mail it off? 

Sheesh. It's enough to get your literary panties in a bunch. We know.  We've heard the panic in your little voices when you email us, asking for formatting guidance. And we empathize with you 100%.

Let's start with a few obvious assumptions:

  1. Obvious Assumption #1: Queries and manuscripts must be typewritten NOT hand-written.
    We assume that since you are savvy enough to find our website on the internet, you are savvy enough to use a computer. Always send submissions printed out from a computer, not written long-hand, even if Sister Paula did give you an A++ for your pretty cursive back in sixth grade.

  2. Obvious Assumption #2: When we talk about "word count," we mean the word count generated by your computer.
    In MS Word, this feature is found under Tools---->Word Count. And yeah... we've heard all those crazy publishing urban legends about funky formulas for calculating manuscript word count.  Our favorite?  Multiplying the number of pages of your manuscript by "250"—the standard number of words on a printed book's page.  Bunk. Are we still living in the typewriter age? We think not.

    The 250 method is the most ARBITRARY way to calculate word count in existence. And here's an illustrative hypothetical to prove it:

    You've got a 400-page novel, using Courier 12-point font. If you calculate word count based on the 250 method, your novel is 100,000 words (400 x 250).

    However, if you use Courier 10-point font—for the same freaking novel—your novel shrinks to 350 pages, and so does your word count. Magically, you've reduced your novel's word count by 12,500 words (350 x 250 = 87,500 words).

    Now, put that same novel in TNR 12-point font, and you'll shrink it even more: 325 pages. Same exact novel. Different word count of 81,250 words (325 x 250).

    All we can say is, "Huh?" Based on how you format your manuscript, your word count changes? Is this not the dumbest thing you've heard since the news that Paris Hilton was going to marry a guy named Paris?

    The 250 method may be how publishers calculate word count, once they've perfectly typeset your manuscript with a proportional font to include 250 words per page. But heeeello?...agents aren't publishers or typesetters.

    The 250 method is not how agents calculate word count. And we care about what agents want, and agents want to know your computer's word count. In fact, once you've accepted representation, most agents nowadays (especially the younger ones) will request a digital copy of your book. And try explaining to your agent why your digital word count is only 50,000 words (Ouch!), and not 81,250 words as calculated via the 325-page, Courier-12 font, 250 method.

  3. Obvious Assumption #3: You are writing in English.
    Believe it or not, it has to be said. And unfortunately, the people who need to hear it the most probably can't understand any of this anyway.


What is the standard format for snail mail queries?

  • Word Count: As many words as you can neatly fit on one single sheet of stationery paper: approximately 100-500 words
  • Spacing: Standard business letter spacing and alignment: all text should be flush with the left margin, and single spaced. No paragraph indentations, but a space between each paragraph.
  • Margins: 1.0-1.25 inch margins all around
  • Font: Should be 12-point Times New Roman. Don't shrink your font down to 10 or 9 in order to fit more words on a single page.
  • Agent Info: Agent's contact information (name, agency, mailing address) should be arranged at the start of your query, flush with the left margin, in accordance with standard business format.
  • Date: Should be positioned under the agent's contact address
  • Salutation: Use a formal business greeting.
  • Title: Your book title should be italicized
  • Closing: We like good 'ol boring "Sincerely," or "Best Regards," or something else plain vanilla.  Do NOT use  "Very Truly Yours," or "Your Most Humble Servant,".  The only thing worse than that is "Cheers,".
  • Your Info: Your contact information (mailing address, phone, email address) should be listed in the header or footer. It may be bolded and centered, and you may use an illustrative font to mimic professional business "stationery" look and feel, but don't get too crazy. And although many agents still DON'T accept email queries, they aren't completely stuck in the twentieth century; many of these same agents DO use email to correspond with a writer, especially to request partials and fulls. So always include your email address in your contact information of your snail mail query letter.
  • SASE: Always include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) with your snail mail query for the agent's response

What is the best way to snail mail my query letter?

All snail mail query letters must be accompanied with a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). The SASE allows an agent to mail her response back to you. And yes, most of the time it is a form rejection letter, but every once in a while, a few agents will jot a positive sentence or two right onto on your query letter, despite still rejecting you. And, of course, it's not unheard of that an agent requests a full or partial via your SASE (and boy, when it happens, it feels better than finding a crisp one dollar bill in your junk mail). But you'll never know if you forget to include the dang thing.

For this reason, writers always ask, "How in the heck am I supposed to fit my SASE inside that tiny No. 10 envelope? Do I fold up the query letters in thirds? Then fold up the SASE, and shove both items inside a regular No. 10 envelope?"

Short answer: No. (unless you're an origami master).

Long answer: You can. But we think folding up your query letter and SASE and stuffing BOTH inside that cramped No. 10 envelope is not really the way to make a professional first impression. And that much nipping and tucking should be reserved for Cher. 

Instead, we recommend mailing your query letter flat inside a bigger envelope (9 1/2 x 12 1/2). Drop in your standard sized No. 10 SASE and voilà! Everything fits perfectly, and no origami required. 

In addition, we highly recommend sending along the first five pages of your novel with your query letter, even if our submission guidelines only say, "query letter with SASE." Most literary agents will be happy to glance at a short sample (first 1-5 pages; no more!) of your writing included with your query letter.  And it's one of the major benefits of snail mail queries: if your query is marginal, but your first five pages hook Ms. Agent, she's likely to request a partial.  And isn't that the ultimate goal?

I don't live in the United States and my foreign post office doesn't sell American stamps for my SASE. What should I do?

Go to the US Post Office website and buy a roll of US stamps (go for the "forever" stamps, in case the USPS raises postal rates on you while you're waiting to hear back from Ms. Dream Agent). The USPS website delivers US stamps to almost any country in the world. Our European AQ users have confirmed that a letter from the UNITED STATES gets mailed to sunny UK with 80 cents stamps. And we've sent a "test" SASE to THE NETHERLANDS, and received confirmation that it arrived less than a week later with three 39-cent stamps. And remember, as a foreign writer, you should say in the first sentence of your query letter that you are a resident of a foreign country. It's a nifty fact that will impress an agent and help you stand out from the rest of the slush pile. Agents don't get many snail mail queries from Japan or Romania or Demark, and many agents are open to the idea of representing high-quality books, written in English, by international writers. On the other hand, if you don't feel like paying for US stamps for snail mail SASEs, just query US literary agents who accept email queries.

What is the standard format for email queries?

  • Word Count: 150-250 words. The shorter, the better.
    Look, the reality is that email queries are cheap, fast, and efficient. However, the disadvantage is that agents blink through email queries like they're flipping through channels on their Super-Premium-Deluxe Cable TV. Rejection is as simple as the click of the "delete" button. In other words, the entire fate of your 300-page novel rests in the hands of your 30-word hook. If your first sentence fails to capture Ms. Agent's attention, forget the rest of your 150-word query. You're cyber toast.
  • Agent Info: Forget listing the agent's contact information (name, agency, address) at the top of your email query. There's no time for foreplay. Just get straight to the greeting.
  • Salutation: There is a tendency to use casual language in email queries. Don't.
  • Spacing: Put a space between each short paragraph. Don't indent paragraphs.
  • HTML: Avoid HTML settings like bold or italics or underline. Believe it or not, everyone's web browser isn't the same and not everyone's email browser is set to display HTML tags. Funky, frilly HTML settings could get dropped in favor of plain text.
  • Title: Play it safe and CAP your TITLE; avoid HTML italics
  • Closing: Be sure to list a closing like "Sincerely," or "Regards," and then list your full name—first and last.
  • Your Info: You may put your phone number, and city and state under your name.
  • URL: Don't list a website address or blog address unless it specifically pertains to your book. Ms. Agent should focus on your query and book idea, not drift off into your blog— a diary of your querying exploits in which you enumerate each agent that has rejected you.

I've sent email queries to dozen of agents who haven't replied.  What should I do?

Unlike snail mail queries, agents often only respond to email queries if they are interested in seeing more. If agents aren't interested, they don't reply. And why should they? It's a quid pro quo. It took you a whole thirty seconds and cost you nothing to zip your email query into Ms. Agent's inbox.  Now, Ms. Agent will return the favor and spend 15 seconds—if you're lucky—discerning if she should delete and scroll onto the next one. After all, you're one, single email query out of 100 email queries that day. And Ms. Agent only has a half an hour to glance through her slush.


What is the standard format for a novel synopsis?

  • Word Count: 500-1000 words (approximately 2-3 pages)
  • Spacing: One-page synposis: single-spaced with breaks between paragraphs, one-inch margins. Two-pages or more: double-spaced, one-inch margins.
  • Tone: Regardless of the tense and point of view of your novel, your synopsis should always be written in third-person, present tense.
  • Font: Times New Roman, 12-point font
  • Page Numbers: upper right-hand corner
  • Header: Last name and book title in upper left-hand corner. Steinbeck/Grapes of Wrath
  • Content: Describe the main conflicts and plot points as they occur chronologically throughout the book. Introduce main characters and describe how their relationships grow, evolve, or dissolve from beginning to the end.
  • Ending: This isn't a movie trailer. Reveal the whole plot; do not finish with a "teaser" or "cliffhanger" ending

What is the best way to snail mail a requested partial for a novel: first three chapters and synopsis?

Priority Mail:  Whether it's the first three chapters, the first 50 pages, or the first five pages, priority mail with delivery confirmation is always the best mailing method.  Use the flat rate priority envelopes provided by the U.S. post office. They're free and waterproof, and trust us: agents love them. Sleek, easy to open, and your submission pages stay flat, crisp, and unfolded. When agents consider their stack of mail, they open priority envelopes first—every time.  Delivery confirmation with priority mail costs an extra 55 cents, but hey, it gives you a nifty way to use the internet to track your submission's location and arrival date, so there's no need to follow-up with a desperate "didyaget it, yet?" email.  You're not a chess club geek sending flowers to the cheerleading prom queen, for godsakes. So save some face.

Labels: You can purchase Avery 5163 shipping labels and print Ms. Agent's contact name and address or you can use the post office's free priority labels and neatly write her name and address. Either way, in the bottom right-hand corner, be sure to mark the address label as a REQUESTED SUBMISSION. You'd hate to have the mailroom throw out your submission because the agency has a strict policy of not accepting unsolicited submissions.

No Signature Required:  The beauty of priority mail with delivery confirmation is that it will be delivered right into the agent's mailbox without a signature.  Don't send a partial via Fedex or any other manner that requires a signature. First of all, it's a waste of money.  Second of all, agents won't chase your package down if they missed its delivery the first time.  And even though it feels S-P-E-C-T-A-C-U-L-A-R to get a request for a partial from an agent, you're really just one step above the slush pile and ten steps below "current client" status, so don't be presumptuous and force the agent to sign for your partial at this point.


What is the standard format for a completed manuscript?

  • Word Count for first time novelist:
    Adult fiction: 80,000-100,000 words.
    Young Adult fiction: 40,000-60,000 words

    Look, publishers want a product they can sell to the reading public for $24.95 a pop. How many adult novels are you willing to fork over $24.95 hardcover if they're only 40,000 words in length? Not many. Major publishers want 80K-100K novels because they're easier to market and sell to the reading public—a reading public who already has certain expectations about how long books should be and what they're willing to pay.

    Now, just when you thought it was safe to write an 80,000-word novel, you should know that we've heard agents give some genres of fiction a bit of flexibility with length:

    Erotica novellas/short story collections: 40,000-60,000 words
    Cozy mysteries only: 50,000-70,000 words
    Most romance novels: 50,000-70,000 words
    Short Story Collections: 40,000-75,000 words
    Historical Fiction: 80,000-140,000 words
    Adult Fantasy: 90,000-140,000 words
    (FYI: a 140,000 word debut novel is about as scary as Joan Rivers' face. So if you're shopping a 140K chubby moon-glop monster, you might want to consider NOT advertising this fact in your query letter).

  • Layout: Double spaced.
  • Margins: 1.0-1.25 inch margins all around.
  • Font: 12 point Times New Roman.

    Yeah, yeah. We know. Lots of insiders say that "Courier New" is the preferred font. Courier New is known as the "typewriter-looking" font, and thus, suggests to us...old and archaic. Hey, we're young, we're hip, and when publishing professionals claim Courier New is easier on the eyes, we say... get new glasses.

    Courier New is also the screenwriting standard and shouts, "screenwriter-turned-wannabe-novelist!" Maybe we've just been corrupted by one too many years in the Hollywood film scene, and developed an aversion to Courier New. Regardless, we think novels are pure and deserve Times New Roman, so we're sticking with TNR unless otherwise directed by our agents and editors.  Or unless we're suddenly born-again (not likely any time soon).

  • Page Numbers: Upper-right-hand corner
  • Header: Your last name and "tag" title should be listed in the upper-left-hand corner on every page of your masterpiece. Steinbeck/Wrath
  • Chapters: Each new chapter should start on a fresh page and its first paragraph should begin one-third down from the top of the page.
  • Title Page Format: Your title page should list your contact information, the word count of your book, the title of your book, and your name. Your manuscript's title page should have your name, address, phone number, and email address listed as five separate lines in the upper-left-hand corner of your title page

    Marcia Brady
    1530 Davey Jones Lane
    Hollywood, CA 90212
    (310) 555-1212
    WORD COUNT: 85,000




  • Pseudonym: Don't list your pseudonym. Okay, okay, okay. If you must list your pseudonym, list it like this: MARCIA BRADY (WRITING AS FABIOLA FABULOSA)
  • Word Count: Don't forget to put "WORD COUNT: 85,000" in the upper right-hand corner. Always round word count up to the nearest 500 words. If your computer tool counter says your masterpiece is "102,343" words, list your novel as "102,500" words.

I already sent a partial consisting of the first three chapters to Ms. Agent. Now she's requested a full.  Do I send the beginning again? Or do I just send the remaining part of the book?

For the love of god, send her the WHOLE freaking masterpiece. This is not the time to be cheap or easy.  Save that for your MySpace dates.  Never send a submission piecemeal to an agent. If she's requested a full, send her the entire novel and the synopsis—AGAIN.  And...send her a copy of your original query letter AND a polite cover letter, reminding her that she requested to read your partial or full. As always, be sure to thank her for considering your work.

What is the best way to print, package, and mail my full manuscript?

  • Spacing & Format: single-sided, double spaced. That's about 280-350 pages for a manuscript with 1 inch margins, 12 point Times New Roman font, and 80-100K word count.
  • Margins: 1-1.25 inch margins on all sides. (Just in case you missed it the first time).
  • Binding: DO NOT BIND YOUR MANUSCRIPT IN ANY WAY such as using three-hole punch paper and brass brads or spiral book spines.  We don't even like the idea of using those massive elastic rubber bands.
  • Boxes: Your manuscript must be sent to a prospective agent with all pages LOOSE. Yes, it does seem to defy logic, but that's how agents like their manuscripts.  LOOSE. So buy a manuscript box from the Writers Store (we've also heard you can find similar boxes from The Container Store or from or from Staples, or at your local UPS store) and place your 300-page manuscript—pages loose, no additional binding—directly inside. It should fit snug and perfect. If not, you've written a monster manuscript, 500 pages or more, and you, our fat, wordy AQ friend, are on your own in your quest to find the right manuscript box.  But the "loose pages" rule still applies.
  • Padding: Slip your box inside a self-sealing padded white envelope to protect it during its Middle Earth journey, and slide it inside a soft flat FedEx mailing bag. Ship it two- or three-day business afternoon (you'll spend about $12.50) and sign for "signature release" so Mr. FedEx man can leave the package for Ms. Agent while she's out to lunch with Mr. BigWig Editor.

More Tips from our AQ users

Got more formatting tips and mailing tricks you'd like to share? Send us an email to and we'll post them!