Formatting Tips for Your Manuscript: First Line Indents and Double Spacing

So, last summer I received feedback on my manuscript, Footfall, from a published author. It was great feedback, very helpful. But one of the items of feedback that caught me off guard the most had nothing to do with the content of my story, but instead how it was formatted.

At first, this raised my hackles. I wasn’t about to submit to an agent, I just wanted feedback on my story. Why did formatting matter? But, after some thought, I realized that proper formatting of a document can really help a reviewer get to the meat of the story and eliminate distractions. And, recently I’ve done some beta reading for various writers and I’ve found this to be true: I am more distracted by bad formatting and not able to offer as good of feedback on the story. So, what’s a writer to do?

Well, Googling manuscript formatting provides some basic guidelines that seem pretty straight forward: use 1-inch margins, place page numbers in headers, indent the first line of each paragraph, and double space all lines. Not too bad, right?

From my beta reading experience, it’s these last two items that seem to catch people off guard. And no wonder: they are both paragraph formatting and it isn’t always easy to find these settings in your word processing program. So, I’m going to tell you how to make these adjustments in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Open Office. But first, I feel like it might be helpful if I provide a bit more explanation as to why these are important. Queue the visual aids!

Why Indenting and Double Spacing are Good

Right, so the below image is of a Word document without any line spacing.

Text Source: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte (Public Domain)

Notice anything? It’s a little hard to read, right? It’s hard to tell where a paragraph begins, and it’s a little painful to read when the lines are so close together. Imagine having to read 100+ pages of this?

Here is the same text, but with paragraph formatting to add indents and double spacing.


Better, yes? So we agree that having some formatting is a good thing. Nothing too fancy, mind you. But how to do it? Well, there’s a right way and a… laborious way. Unfortunately, I see the second way happen all too frequently, so I’m going to cover that and why it’s bad.

How Not to Add First Line Indents

Now, sometimes when I review someone’s work, I’ll notice that they do have a first line indent, but when I see it done a certain way, I cringe. Here’s what I’m talking about:


(Most people who open the document won’t see what I show here because they don’t have “Show/Hide Hidden Formatting” selected. However, I’m a technical editor and always have this selected.)

Now, what do I see in the screenshot above that’s so egregious? You see that short, little right-pointing arrow on the first line of every paragraph? That’s the symbol for the tab key. When I see that symbol, I know that someone manually hit the tab key at the first line of this paragraph. Say you have a 350-page manuscript. You would have to indent the first line of every paragraph on each of those 350 pages. Every. Single. One. You know what I call that? Nightmare fuel.

Now, some word processors are smart and will notice when you start hitting tab and automatically start assuming this format for every paragraph, which can seem like a good idea… except when the feature stops working (because some word processors are glitchy), and then you’re back to square one. So, still not great.

Repeat after me: “friends don’t let friends use tabs to add first line indents.” There’s a better way, and I’m going to show you how in three common word processors: Microsoft Word, Open Office, and Google Docs.

How to Add First Line Indents and Double Spacing

Microsoft Word

The following instructions apply to the Microsoft Office 365 version of Word (what I have on my computer). Older versions of Word might be a little different, but the basics are similar. If you have issues, I would Google “change paragraph formatting [the version of Word you are using (e.g., Word 2010)].” Also note that in Word, everything is easier if you set up styles, but I don’t go into that in this post. Maybe I’ll devote another post on how to save time with styles in Word.

  1. Select all text in your document (Ctrl+A is a fast way to do that).
  2. Go to the ribbon at the top of the page. From the Home tab, go to the Paragraph area and select the little arrow in the bottom right of the box.Word_Paragraph_getto
  3. The Paragraph panel will open. Under Indentation > Special, change it to First Line and then under By change it to 0.5″. Under Spacing, change Line spacing to Double. Hit OK.
  4. Da-dum! You have a pretty-fied document that’s 100% easier to read.

Open Office

Open Office is very similar to Word (well, at least older versions of Word), and you’ll follow very similar steps to add your paragraph formatting:

  1. Select all text in your document.
  2. At the top left corner of the window, go to Format and then ParagraphOpenOffice_gettoparagraph
  3. The Paragraph pane will open up. Under Indent, set the First line to 0.50″. Under Line spacing, select Double from the drop down. Hit OKJE_OpenOffice_ParagraphSettings
  4. All done!

Google Docs

Of the three programs, Google Docs kind of stands on its own. It favors a more streamlined approach in its formatting options, but you can still get what you need for formatting your document.

  1. Select all text in your document.
  2. In the top left corner, go to Format > Align & indent > Indentation options.GoogleDocs_GettoIndentation
  3. The Indentation options pane will open. Under Special, change to First line and 0.5. Hit Apply.
  4. Go back to the Format tab, select Line spacing, and then select Double.
  5. Done!



There you have it: how to add first line indents and make your paragraphs double spaced in three separate programs. This was kind of fun for me. I essentially spend at least 30% of my day at work making formatting changes like this in technical documents. So, if you want to know any more about how to do certain sort of formatting for your manuscript or any tips or tricks to make it easier, leave me a comment below! I’m still looking for ideas for future posts and it would help me if there was any sort of demand for info like this.

One response to “Formatting Tips for Your Manuscript: First Line Indents and Double Spacing”

  1. Thank you for saving a day’s work. I was almost going to go through 52,000 words and hit the tab to indent the paragraphs. I am uncertain if dialog needs to be indented on separate lines. Thanks again, Meredith


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