Indent or Tab in a Manuscript?

Should you set up an indent or use the tab key at the start of each new paragraph in your manuscript? Does any of this stuff really matter anyway?

Quite simply, it does matter, at least if you're serious about publishing professional-quality work, so here’s what you need to know about formatting with indent or tab in a manuscript.

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What really matters?

If you want to set the right impression when sending your manuscript off to agents, publishers, and editors, you need to pay attention to detail. Knowing how to format your manuscript can take your professionalism up a notch.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which font you prefer to write your book in, nor the size and spacing of your text and margins, as all these things can be easily changed at the touch of a button to suit an agent/editor/publisher’s preference later down the line.

The same goes for your formatting preferences, although it’s generally much easier to start as you mean to go on, because these things are a little trickier to adjust.

What’s really important is that you keep aware your manuscript will need to be formatted to standard expectations before you send it out to a publishing professional. This, of course, means you need to know how to indent your text correctly.

Indents in a manuscript

Indenting the first line of text is the simplest way to show the start of a new paragraph. You’ll notice this is the case in most printed books, and it’s the correct way to format a manuscript for submission or publication.

A similar effect can be achieved by pressing the Tab key on your keyboard. On most word processors, this will allow you to manually insert an indented first line—but it’s not the most intuitive way to indent your work.

Inserting an indent

To insert an automatic indent at the start of each paragraph in Microsoft Word, you’ll need to select “Format” from the toolbar at the top of your screen and then hit the “Paragraph…” option. This should open a new dialogue box with various formatting options.

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Within this dialogue box, under the “Indentation” heading, you’ll need to hover over the “Special” drop-down menu and select “First line” from the list of options. You can then increase or decrease the size of your indent to your personal preference. The standard 1.27 cm size will work just fine for most fiction manuscripts, though personally, I prefer a smaller 0.5 cm indent.

Make your changes and then press “OK” to close the dialogue box. When you begin typing, you will now notice Microsoft Word automatically inserts an indent each time you drop a line.

NB: You’ll need to select any text you wish to indent before completing the above steps if you are not starting a new document.

Why should I indent my manuscript instead of using the Tab key?

Using the Tab key to indent your manuscript makes it a lot more difficult to format your manuscript for publication.

Tab key indents give you no control over the size of the indent, nor do they register as indents when you want to make bulk changes to the formatting of your manuscript.

That’s not to mention, there’s no way of automatically applying a Tab key indent at the start of each new paragraph, so you’ll have to remember to hit Tab every time you begin one. Seems unnecessary when you can set up an automatic indent, doesn’t it?

What’s the easiest way to replace tab indents with formatted indents?

The easiest way to replace your tab indents is to use the “Find and Replace” function in the “Reviewing Pane.”

Simply copy and paste a Tab key indent into the “Find” bar and leave the “Replace” bar empty. Click on “Replace All” and watch as all of your Tab key indents disappear.

You can then follow the steps above to reformat your indents so that they appear automatically instead.

If you’re struggling to format your manuscript, a freelance book editor can help you out. Please click here to view my affordable book editing services. Alternatively, you can contact me directly by using the contact form on this website or email

Photos used in this blog post were sourced from


I am a freelance editor and published writer offering friendly, affordable book editing services. From my base at home in the UK, or while over in the USA, I work with authors and publishers internationally. I'm a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading.


Bryony Leah, freelance editor, freelance writer, affordable book editor, affordable book editing services, ebook editor, romance editor, fiction editor
Bryony Leah, freelance editor, freelance writer, affordable book editor, affordable book editing services, ebook editor, romance editor, fiction editor
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