Tips for Submitting Manuscripts

I was asked yesterday on Quora about how to present a manuscript for an editor. This is not intended to be a fully-detailed example, but it summarises my own  experiences over the last 25 years of professional writing. Since it is pretty much the same whether you are looking at fiction and non-fiction books, I thought it could be useful to put it up here. Do please let me know if you have similar questions.



This is a short summary intended to help people who want to submit a manuscript to an agent or editor. It is aimed at those who have already written their work and who are looking to take it to the next stage with a view to publication.

First, please be aware that although people used to submit manuscripts to publishers without making use of a literary agent, it is extremely rare for such a submission to be successful nowadays.

The reasons are simple: editors receive more than ten unsolicited manuscripts every day. They do not have time to read them all. Thus editors rely more and more on professional agents, who are prepared to stake their reputations on the manuscripts they send on. They have de facto become the gatekeepers to publishing.

So, how should your manuscript be presented?

First, the MS should demonstrate your very best writing. Publishers will not accept you as an author if they see poor use of language. If you repeat the same word multiple times in a paragraph or on a page, editors will be inclined to reject your work. If several sentences start with the same word, if subsequent paragraphs begin with the same word, if there are regular misspellings, if there are grammatical issues, if sentences are left unfinished, if paragraphs are left hanging, editors will reject your work.

You must, must, only give them your very best work.

What is important is, you must bear in mind at all times, and at all stages, that the editor or agent is receiving at least ten other manuscripts on the day yours arrives. They are not looking for a grain of truth, a kernel of deep understanding, a plot that blows their socks off – generally they are actively looking for reasons to reject your work. They have too much other work to want to spend time with a manuscript that won’t make it to print.

For why, you only have to look at the work of an editor. They tend to work in a pressurised environment. Publishers are political organisations, and there is always a number of young ladies waiting to be able to step into an editor’s shoes. Jobs are not as secure as once they were. 

If an editor accepts your MS, she will have to present it to all her peers in the editors’ commissioning meeting. If she puts forward a manuscript that is riddled with typos, plot flaws, and poor grammar, she will have a deeply skeptical audience – and potentially a curtailed career.

Your job is to make her life easier by presenting her with no reasons to reject your work, and you achieve that by clearing up all the typos and making the very best you can of your work.

So, print out your work. Read it aloud. By printing, you will find you read the work differently, that you spot many more typos. By reading aloud, you will confirm the language of the story. If it is wrong, you will soon hear it as you read it. Anywhere you stumble over the words, you need to look at the language used more carefully. In addition, reading aloud means you will again spot more typos.

Next, print the whole thing double line spaced and store it this way. Editors prefer this, because it leaves them space to scribble between lines. Yes, all editors use electronic systems, and yes, they will add comments and corrections on screen. However, many if not most will still read printed matter. They will scrawl on paper, and either add their own comments to the electronic copy later, or have their assistant do so. Why? Probably because people who love books like paper. They (we) are old-fashioned. There is something more pleasant and tactile about handling paper, rather than reading from a screen. Also, reading from a screen will tend to introduce interruptions. Mail, social media, diary alerts and so on will all distract when the reader is trying to concentrate. Far easier to sit back with a sheaf of papers.

There is a valid point of view that you should email the book and leave it to the editor or agent to print their own copy. 

I personally recommend that you print the whole MS and post it. Do not email it. Why? Because there is nothing so impressive to a hard-nosed editor than the sound of 500 pages of novel that could be the next Harry Potter landing on their desk. Opening an envelope to read a proposal and covering letter is always exciting. Much more so than a bleep to say a fresh email has arrived, one of a hundred or so that will hit her computer that day. 

There is another aspect, which is for the overworked, it is always horribly easy to delete an email. Emails have an air of ephemerality about them. There is something horribly tangible, on the other hand, about a manuscript printed on paper. It feels like someone’s life’s work; it feels valuable.

If you take this approach, please ensure that the copy you post is in pristine condition. Do not send one with corrections and writing all over it. Similarly, if some pages got scrumpled, reprint them. Don’t send out something that seems to imply you aren’t hugely proud of your work. 

Remember: if you don’t show your work respect, you can’t expect an editor to.

And finally, the basic and vital aspects: make sure that the pages are all numbered; make sure that there is no binding – none whatsoever – editors like to have loose-leafs to work with; do not have your own colour-printed cover. It won’t help. Editors I have spoken to all reckon that the quality of the manuscript is in inverse proportion to the quality of the front cover. You need a front sheet that states your name, your address, and the total number of words. Nothing else.

I hope that helps!

13 Responses to “Tips for Submitting Manuscripts”
  1. Grass-Berry says:

    Hey, I thanks for the pointers! An aspiring author myself, I loved your writing and the tips were great!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Grass-Berry says:

    Hey, thanks for the pointers! I love your blog, and as an aspiring author, found the tips extremely useful. I generally do focus more on my writing that on the plot, but this was useful nevertheless. Keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Grass-Berry says:

    Hey, thanks for the tips! As an aspiring author, I found the pointers extremely useful. I generally do focus more on the writing than on the plot, but this was useful nevertheless. Keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No problem. The way you write is entirely personal, so don’t think I’m saying my way or the highway! It’s whatever appeals most to you, and whichever is most comfortable for you.


  4. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    Interesting Michael – re sending a whole ms hard copy – I’ve seen quite a number of agent instructions that say they will only accept emailed submissions… So reading the instructions of an individual agent is clearly also vital.


  5. Grass-Berry says:

    I understand that every author has a unique writing style and process, and it takes time for them to develop their own style and grow comfortable with it. I’m also sorry about posting thrice, there was a problem with my device and I thought the comment wasn’t posted.


    • That’s right, and the main issue tends to be (in my experience) that people don’t trust their own voice. If you read your own work and it feels wrong, look away from the sheet and say what you want it to. If you can, dictate into your phone or a recorder, and when you play back, see where it’s different from what you wrote originally. It will help you develop your own voice.


  6. Matthew Diamond says:

    Excellent post but I have one quibble. You say “Yes, all editors use electronic systems, and yes, they will add comments and corrections on screen. However, many if not most will still read printed matter.” but most agents give extensive details on their websites about how they want submissions presented and the majority now insist the initial presentation (e.g. the first three chapters or 10,000 words) should be a Word attachment or pasted directly into the email. I would recommend printing a hard copy anyway but an agent’s stipulation should override any that appears either here or elsewhere.


    • Apologies for the delay in getting back to you – I missed your reply! Yes, I do agree. Obviously all aspiring (and existing) authors need to follow the rules as stipulated by publishers and agents. However, I still think that something that makes the author stand out is a good thing, so long as it doesn’t involve ignoring a publisher’s basic, stated requirements.


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