How to format a novel: book formatting fundamentals

We all know the importance of a good first impression. It’s true for books and short stories, too. We’ve compiled some basic tips that will help make your novel format and design inviting and readable. You’ve invested a lot of time and effort into writing your novel and the way it looks should reflect that effort. If your pages look clumsy or amateurish, you might scare readers away before they have a chance to fall in love with your prose. And, once they’re in, you want the page design to help them along—not get in their way.

Page design is a fine art, but don’t despair. Even if you aren’t a professional designer, there are simple things you can do to make your novel design and pages look more polished. Pull any bestseller or classic off your shelf and you’ll see all of the following principles brought into play. Use them yourself, and your book will belong with the best.

1. Keep the margins roomy

Page margins are a common problem in books by first-time self-publishers. It can be tempting to cram as much text as possible on a page to reduce a book’s page count, but don’t do it. Tight margins make pages look cramped and intimidating. Even worse, some of your text can get lost in the “gutter,” or inside edge, meaning the reader has to torture your book, prying it open just to read it. A nice, roomy margin all the way around the page makes the book feel more inviting, allows the reader to hold it comfortably, and leaves space for notes or marks.

How much margin is enough? For a 5 x 8 inch book, try 5/8” (.625”) to start. For a 6 x 9 book, 3/4” (.75”) is more appropriate. Make the inside margin slightly larger so words don’t fall into the gutter (this is especially important for longer books, which have deeper gutters). There are some detailed resources online if you want to explore this topic in depth.

2. Choose readable fonts

What is a “readable” font? For a book, we mean a typeface that is easy on the eyes—not only attractive at first glance, but comfortable to read over a hundred pages or more. This is one area where the tried-and-true is still best. Fonts like Garamond, Janson, Caslon, or Minion have very long pedigrees in the book world. You see them everywhere, because they were designed specifically for use in books. They draw the eye along a line of type, grouping letters for easier recognition as words. You can’t go wrong with any of these fonts.

If you want to branch out, look for fonts that are easy to read in paragraphs—fonts with an even look, with some (but not too much) contrast between thick and thin lines. Don’t be afraid of being “boring.” When you read, you should see the words, not the font. You can always add spice by choosing a livelier font for your cover, title page, chapter titles, and other accents.

3. Use a comfortable type size and leading

Once you have your font, start looking at the size of the type on the page. Make it too big, and you’ll wind up with one of those “large print” editions. Too small, and the average reader will need a magnifying glass. Many modern books are set in 11-point type, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Slightly different letter shapes make some fonts look bigger or smaller than others. Count the number of letters or words that fit on a line. Aim for about 10–15 words per line (be sure to check several different lines of text, not just one!).

Leading is the space between lines (or, more accurately, the distance from the bottom of one line to the bottom of the next line). If you’re using a professional tool like Adobe® InDesign®, you have very fine control over leading. Start with the automatic setting and tweak it as needed. If your software doesn’t allow such fine control, compare single-spaced text and 1.5-spacing to see which looks best. Print out the same page at a bunch of different font settings and decide which is easiest to read on paper. Then ask a friend for a second opinion.

4. Justify your text

In typography, to “justify” a paragraph means to set it so the text runs right up to both the left- and the right-hand margin, making a nice, even rectangle. All word processors and layout platforms have this option. It may seem a bit odd at first. Most of us are used to writing documents with only the left margin aligned, while the right edge is “ragged”—each line is a different length. But look at almost any professionally designed novel and you’ll see justified text. The idea is that straight margins make very long chunks of text easier to read. Your eye is not distracted by the uneven edge, and can focus on the flow of the words.

5. Indent the first lines of paragraphs

The beginnings of new paragraphs should always be easy to see on the page. Otherwise, your text just looks like a big, run-on block of words. Indenting the first line by a quarter-inch will usually do the trick. Half an inch is probably too much. Some writers, especially those familiar with web design, separate paragraphs with a blank line. That’s a good practice for text displayed on a screen, but, in the pages of a novel, it’s better to indicate new paragraphs by indenting the first line.

6. Use running heads (and/or footers)

A running head is optional, but it’s the sort of detail that makes a book design feel complete. This is the little heading that appears above the main text block on every page. Running heads anchor the text and help readers navigate the book. A running head typically contains information, usually the book’s title and author’s name. Sometimes, the chapter title might appear instead. The headers are usually different on left-hand and right-hand pages (author on the left, book title on the right, to give a common example). There’s some leeway here. You can center the header or align the information to the inside margin with page numbers aligned to the outside margin. Sometimes page numbers appear in the footer (below the text block) instead of the header. These are small decisions that can have a big effect on the look of your pages and overall novel design.

7. Give chapter openings special treatment

Chapter beginnings are different from other parts of your book and have their own set of standards:

  • Start each chapter on a new page. Some books go further and start each chapter on a right-hand page, but that really isn’t necessary (except for the first chapter; always start your novel on a right-hand page).
  • Start the text about one-third of the way down the page, with the chapter number above. It is not necessary to write out the word “Chapter,” often just a number is fine.
  • Style the chapter numbers and/or titles so they’re distinct from the text. You might want to reuse the font from your cover here to give the book unity. Whatever font you choose, make sure it looks good above the body text.
  • Omit any running headers from the pages that start new chapters (leaving them in is a common rookie mistake).
  • You also don’t need to indent the very first paragraph in a new chapter. If your software supports drop-caps, give that a try. You can also try formatting the first few words of the first sentence in all capital letters or small caps.

All of these flourishes help to establish the sense that one part of your story has ended and a new phase is beginning.

8. Mark scene breaks with a blank line

Often, chapters have changes of scene in the middle. The easiest way to indicate this is with a single blank line between paragraphs. This helps the reader to “reset” and understand that the perspective has changed. If you want to go a step further, consider making the break a little wider and placing a small ornament in the center. Keep it simple and this can be a fun, subtle way to reinforce the mood or theme of your book.


These are just the basics of page design, but a little effort will go a long way. A reader may not be able to pinpoint exactly why justified paragraphs, running heads, or roomy margins look professional, but they will recognize these elements from other books and feel more comfortable committing to yours.


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