Formatting a Poetry Manuscript

Formatting poetry provides a few complications when compared to plain text. This is a guide to setting up poetry on a page.

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When writing plain text, we let our word-processors handle the text wrapping. A paragraph is one solid line of text, formatted so it fits within the margins of our document. With poetry, each line of a stanza should be on a separate line, and each stanza should have a paragraph break. Most people just use the Enter or Return key to create a new line. This creates a paragraph break, not a line break. A line break is a smaller break but still puts the text on a new line. You can create one of these by holding down Shift and pressing Return. Each line of the poem needs a line break; only stanzas need paragraph breaks.

If you have a line that doesn’t fit in your margins, an indent will suffice on the second line. I recommend setting this with the margin ruler at the top of your word-processor, not the Tab key. This indicates it is not a new line but a continuation.

When you begin a new stanza, the paragraph break is used, as this slightly larger break will keep your stanzas separated, and any changes to the line spacing will increase this break proportionately.

Next, we need to look at line spacing. A typical manuscript submitted will be in double space. This means there is twice the space between the lines of the text, not “you have to put an extra space between all the words.” A poem is different because typically there is much more space around the writing, leaving the editor room to make notes. If you have your poem set in double spacing, your editor will assume this is how you want the work presented.

If you’re putting together a full collection, make sure you always use page breaks between poems. It is common to see poetry manuscripts divided by repeated abuse of the paragraph break. This is ill-advised as any changes to the page size will result in a string of blank lines hanging over across text. Under the “Insert” menu, there should be an option labelled “Page Break”. This will create a new page, regardless of changes made to the text above it or modifications to the page settings.

For ease of navigation, it is also useful to use the Heading styles in your word-processor. These formats are customisable; I know many writers have avoided them because they don’t like the font or size of the default options. The Heading styles will give you a section header and can be used to create a table of contents. Heading 2 will appear as a subheading of Heading 1 etc. This is exceptionally useful if your poetry manuscript is divided into thematic sections.

Many poets like their work to be centred on the page, however in recent years this has become passé. If you must centre your text, do so for a reason other than “it looks nice.” If the content actual demands centre alignment, that’s fine, but many editors will not print centre-aligned works.

One of the surest ways to tell if a poet is new to the craft is their choice of font. Times New Roman is almost universal in the world of poetry. Using a different font to “stand out” will more likely see your work ignored. Use font size 12 for the poem itself, and 14 for the title. Underlining and bolding your title is usually frowned upon.

Poetry is not bound by the same rules of grammar as prose, but it’s still important to give things a read through. Poems don’t require capitalisation but your word-processor may automatically have added some. If you’re going for a capital-less poem, make sure you’ve been consistent.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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