25 February 2013

the nitty-gritty: formatting your chapbook

The Our Lost Jungle Chapbook Challenge: Formatting
Okay, folks … This is what some of you have been waiting for. The formatting. The dirty work. The “Stop with the fairy tale jargon and tell me what to do!” point of our challenge. Get ready for it, ‘cause here it is.

Here’s how this post is going to go down. I’m going to start with some basic general formatting tips. Then we’ll move on to some specific formatting tips across three primary genres: poetry, prose, and photography.

So get your heavy-duty work gloves on, folks, and let’s get started!

general manuscript tips

If you are working with text, now is the time to type all your work into a single word processing document. If you want to play it old school, a typewriter gives you a little more control over the generic formatting choices (i.e. indentations, line breaks, etc.). However, a computer gives you more control over things like font choices, special formatting (italics, font sizes, color, etc.). If, on the other hand, you are working with art, now is the time to scan your work into a word processing document and save your work to a disc. Some publishers or competition runners will want your art in both formats, so saving it that way now saves you from having to backtrack later!

Consistency is key. When it comes to titling your works, make sure you maintain the same format, whether your preference is to put titles in all caps or to italicize a photograph’s title as a caption under the art. Spacing should also be consistent. Typically for prose it’s going to be between 1.5 and double-spaced lines. Artists, don’t think you’re off the hook with spacing! You might want your art’s title directly above or below a piece, or a few spaces above or below a piece … no matter what, maintain consistency.

Pages should be numbered. Here you’ll want to pay close attention to what the various publishers or contest runners you’re considering sending your work to are asking for. In general, your page numbers will appear in either the center of the footer of your page or with odd numbers on right-hand pages (known as recto pages) and even numbers on left-hand pages (known as verso pages). This also means you’ll be creating a Table of Contents. If you are not technologically savvy (you don’t have to be too savvy to be able to create and format a TOC, but it can be a pain in the keester), check out this guide from Microsoft Office on how to create it with Word tools or manually.

Print on one side of the page. This is something some folks would argue against. We are, after all, in something of a “go green era.” But in the world of publishing … trees are sacrificial lambs. And when it comes to submitting your work, you don’t want to be that submitter who irritates a publisher with improperly formatted work. If you want to save paper, consider submitting primarily to contests or publishers who accept electronic submissions.

for poets …

Print no more than one poem per page. Again, plant a tree later for good karma with Mother Earth, but for now … you’ll have to sacrifice. The exception may be if you’re working with short poem forms like haiku, in which case publishers will generally allow multiple poems per page. (There’s also an understanding that with short-form poems the book format may be different; i.e. pocket-sized layouts rather than a more traditional 5x7” book size.)

Include a list at the end of your manuscript acknowledging anywhere any of your poems have previously appeared in print. By this I mean other journals or publications … you don’t have to acknowledge every poem you ever published on your blog. However, you will want to check with the potential publisher to make sure they’re okay with poems that previously appeared on a personal website.

Avoid too much special formatting. A lot of poetry publishers prefer work that is easily formatted, especially if they have a particular style they like to print in or a special program they use (i.e. your computer may have no problem formatting your shape poems, but a program like InDesign or other publishing programs tend to dislike that much special formatting).

Be sure to include acknowledgements of found poems, quotes, borrowed lines, and poems written “in the style of” another author. Some publishers may want these acknowledgements listed at the end of the manuscript along with “previous publication” credits; others may want you to include them directly following the poem (for example, a few lines down on the page after the last line of the poem) or on the line after the title of the poem.

for prose …

Some of that consistency we spoke about earlier comes into play when it comes to formatting your paragraphs. We’re all used to indenting the first line of a new paragraph. However, you’ll want to check for any paragraph preferences of a publisher. Some, for instance, prefer extra spacing between paragraphs rather than indentation. Some prefer .25” indentations (basically, what you get if you hit the space bar five times) to the typical .5” “tabbed” indentation.

Avoid special fonts. If you’re like me, you may enjoy playing with fonts in a manuscript: I love to give different characters different font styles to match their personality or even mimic their “handwriting.” When it comes to publishing, however, the more fonts you use the harder it could be to get your work published, for a number of reasons. The publisher may not have access to the same fonts. The fonts maybe free to use, but have restrictions on commercial use (which would mean an expense for your publisher if they tried to maintain your work). If you’re sending work electronically, special fonts may not transfer properly leading to errors or inadvertently improper formatting.

Be aware of font size and spacing. Your manuscript should be printed in a readably sized readable font. Basically, avoid using anything smaller than 11pt font (generally, you’ll want to stick with 12pt). Try to stay within the “Serif” family of fonts: Garamond, Times New Roman, Georgia, Bodini, Century, and Courier are among the most commonly used. The typically-considered-“safe” fonts are Arial, Calibri, Cambria, Garamond, and Times New Roman.

for photography and art …

The good news is there’s a bit more freedom when it comes to formatting an art manuscript. The major cautions for you are:

Avoid full-page art with “masked” fonts. In other words, if you have a full-page piece of art, make sure the title of the piece is still readable.

When sending artwork, make sure you have high-resolution versions to submit. If you are sending hard copies of your work, print your pieces with the best settings your printer offers. If you are submitting electronic versions, make sure you have saved your art in a high-resolution format. It may take longer to download, but it will also ensure that, when printed, your art maintains its best appearance.

Use thicker paper. With text submissions, writers will generally use a standard weight printer paper (something like 20 lb paper). With artwork, however, a standard weight may be too thin, leading to ink bleeds, page curling, discoloration, et cetera.

Your Task

Your task for today is to format your chapbook. There’s really not much too it, despite the information presented above. I recommend that as you format you not only use this as a guide, but also take a careful look at the guidelines for some of the places you think you might (now or eventually) submit your work to, and see what they ask for in terms of manuscript formatting. The big things to remember are to include:
  • A title page, including your name and contact information
  • A title page excluding your name and contact information (for blind submissions)
  • A dedications page (typically optional)
  • A Table of Contents
  • A properly formatted manuscript body that is CLEAN (no smudges, stains, or white out!)
  • A list of acknowledgements (if requested)
See the links below for some more helpful resources! Have fun, and good luck!


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Check out these helpful manuscript-formatting resources and guides!


  1. Yes, thank you, Khara!! Excellent post...I'm going to need to catch up...I'm glad this is here to refer back to. :)

  2. Hi Khara and all! ... Well... I must have gotten "lost in my own jungle" somewhere .. been looking for this chapbook challenge and found it tonight... At any rate I do have a bunch of poems that have been previously gathered around potential chapbook themes. I just started at the first post and skimmed through back to tonight and maaaayyybee I'll be able to catch up. Nevertheless, KHARA YOU HAVE A BOOK ON HOW TO WRITE A CHAPBOOK HERE! but you already knew that I'm sure... Thank you, for the motivation. I'm going to give some things a go through the next few days. Good luck to everyone and get those chapbooks moving. :)

  3. Thank you, Patricia, Hannah, and Pearl!


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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