When Page Numbers Don’t Help

Messy desk

Editors are never happy. First they throw a fit if you send in a manuscript without page numbers, but once you send them a paginated work, they complain when you try to discuss a sentence on page 67. What’s the deal?

Creative writers will benefit from understanding what editors and copyeditors face when it’s time to discuss changes to your manuscript.

Paginating Your Work

First, there’s no question that page numbers are important. This is true especially for book-length works, fiction or nonfiction. Whether you submit electronically or on paper, it’s essential to number every page. Check your publisher’s manuscript submission guidelines: they will undoubtedly include an instruction to number the pages, perhaps even specifying the location (upper-right corner, etc.).

When Page Numbers Don’t Help

So let’s say you’ve done everything right and you’re confident your manuscript is paged all the way through. But somewhere between submission and page proofs, you realize your character Annie is unrealistically pulling up carrots in Missouri in June, and you have to change the carrots to potatoes. You find the carrots in your manuscript on page 67 and shoot an email to your editor or copyeditor.

Here’s the problem: by this time, your manuscript has changed.

The reason for this is that the instant someone else starts fiddling with your electronic file—whether it’s in MS Word or some other format—the text is going to move around for any number of reasons. For instance, if the exact font you used isn’t included in the font library of the computer of the person who opens your file, that computer will substitute a slightly different font. Just like that, words that are suddenly a bit wider or narrower will skitter from one page to the next, quickly compounding into whole lines and eventually paragraphs that land a page away from your original.

And once an editor starts inserting comments and feedback, rewriting, resizing headings, changing the line spacing and margins or whatever, more havoc ensues.

Page shifts are especially dramatic if your manuscript file included images. Most publishers prefer images to be submitted in separate files, so an editor or assistant will probably pull them out right off the bat, and without its photos, your 302-page memoir is only 286 manuscript pages long.

Alternatives to Page Locations

During the months and sometimes years that a novel or other long work is moving through the publication process, there may be many times when writer and editor need to be on the same page discussing very specific issues and corrections to the wording. If the discussion happens before the pages are fixed by typesetting, page numbers won’t be the best way to do this.

Normally, the quickest route to a passage will be to search for a string of words, such as a chapter title, and count paragraphs from there. Or, if the exact location contains a unique and easily searchable phrase, use that. There’s no harm in including the original page number as well, if you think it will be useful.


When communicating about specific locations in a long manuscript, queries like these are more helpful than queries that rely on page numbers alone:

  • Could we talk about the use of the first person in chap. 3, 5th para from the end?
  • Could we change “devoured by locusts” to “mauled by a bear” (orig. p. 92)?
  • Do you think Gino should hesitate more in the middle of the “Teletransport” chapter? (after “when the serum phosphoresced”)

Getting on the Same Page Fast

Occasionally, a writer and editor will want to have a lengthy phone or email session devoted to many issues at once. A quick check will determine how far apart your respective manuscripts are in their page numbering. Since page numbers really are the fastest way to convey manuscript locations, here’s a workaround if the two manuscripts are considerably out of whack: the editor can create a PDF file from the latest version of the working manuscript and send it to the writer to refer to during the conversation. (To ensure stable pagination in the file, the editor may need to embed the fonts before sending.)

Why Have Page Numbers in the First Place?

Even if you never print out your manuscript, editors and agents often do, and you can imagine their fury after they print out three hundred pages without noticing there aren’t any page numbers.

If a MS is unpaginated and they pull out a few pages to read on the train or share with a colleague, or if they put aside pages they’ve already read or drop the MS on the floor—I have done this several times myself—or if in some other way get the pages out of order while they’re reading, they will curse you when it proves impossible to reassemble the manuscript.

Of course it’s easy for an editor to put the page numbers into a Word file. But why not impress that editor with what a smart and professional and courteous writer you are by adding that little step to your submission checklist?

Photo of messy desk by Promote365 (Pexels).

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

Carol Saller

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Carol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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2 thoughts on “When Page Numbers Don’t Help

  1. Many years ago, when every book came to us as a paper ms., the first step in production was to stamp numbers on every page with a self-inking, auto-advancing rubber stamp contraption. Those were the days.

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