Series Overview and Audience    to top

The Complete Idiot's Guides® (CIGs) started in 1993 as a line of easy-to-understand computer books for people who were intimidated by software and related technology. The books were immediately successful, and in 1994 the series expanded to include titles on topics such as personal finance, wedding planning, home care, and self-help. By 1997, the CIG brand appeared in over 25 bookstore categories. And in 2002 it expanded yet again to include cooking, gardening, pet care, auto repair, tax guides, and dieting. As of this writing, there are hundreds of Complete Idiot's Guides®, and the growth of the line each year continues. In addition to Complete Idiot's Guides®, there are also Pocket Idiot's Guides™, Complete Idiot's Guides® Illustrated, and Complete Idiot's Guides® for Teens.

CIGs are reader-friendly, fun to use, and authoritative. They are written for the novice or the relearner. All CIGs share the following qualities:

  • They cover all the basics of a topic.
  • They offer expert insight and advice.
  • They take the reader step by step through the topic, from beginner activities to more complicated issues.
  • They are entertaining, easy to use, and quick to read.

As we say on the back cover of every CIG, our readers are not idiots. In fact, they may be highly knowledgeable, but not on every topic. And when it comes to new or complicated subjects, they may feel like complete idiots. The following characteristics generally describe people who look to CIGs for information (not all apply on every title):

  • They are intelligent people who may be experts in some things, but admit to being intimidated by or impatient about the topic at hand.
  • They have limited time to gain the information and knowledge that they want or need.
  • They want an enjoyable approach to acquiring information.
  • They are facing a critical event and need to prepare for it.
  • They have a natural curiosity about the subject.

The Complete Idiot's Guide® Style    to top

A key selling point of CIGs is their readability, conversational tone, and (where appropriate) irreverent humor. Remember, you are writing for an intelligent, busy audience that doesn't want to be patronized or bored. The following guidelines should help you find the series voice.

Informal Tone

  • You are the expert on the subject and you should speak as such. Remember, you are a helpful tutor providing insider guidance to the reader. Keeping this in mind, it is important that you use quotations from other sources sparingly.
  • Speak in first person, directly addressing the reader as second person: "I" speaking to "you."
  • Never assume readers know a fact—sometimes a piece of information that's obvious to you is the one thing the reader has been seeking to understand. Don't take anything for granted.
  • The writing should be conversational, avoiding lengthy, complex sentences. Grammar can be a bit loose. For example, some sentence fragments may be acceptable if the usage is common and acceptable in conversation. However, don't use sloppy grammar without purpose and don't use too many short paragraphs.
  • Use slang and contractions where appropriate.
  • Write in a concise and direct manner, with humor and wit. Clarity should never be sacrificed for cleverness.
  • Anecdotes and examples are desirable.
  • Be careful of regionalisms: you do not want to inadvertently mock any particular group or ethnicity.

Easy to Use

  • Complete Idiot's Guides® are meant to be easy to get through. Readers should be able to find the information they need fast.
  • Use heads and subheads liberally, to continually signal the direction of the material. (There must be at least a paragraph under any head before you introduce a subhead.)
  • Try not to write more than six or seven paragraphs of unbroken text without introducing some visual element: a table, sidebar, bulleted or numbered list, or a new head.
  • Use tables or charts when they will help the reader reference or remember key information.
  • Remember, these books are intended to be reference works. As such, each chapter should be as self-contained as possible. Some repetition between chapters (friendly reminders to the reader) is acceptable, but use cross-references to help the reader refer back to information already introduced, or to wait for further discussion coming up. Avoid redundancy!


  • Humor should be sophisticated. Aim for dry wit over slapstick.
  • Don't be sarcastic, condescending, critical, insulting, or controversial.
  • Do not use ethnic, racial, or gender-related humor. Language can be misinterpreted, even with good intentions.
  • Keep the material rated "G"—sexual innuendo and coarse language can offend some readers.
  • Use puns and asides sparingly, and don't be trite or rely on clichés.
  • It's OK to "wink" at readers, but don't elbow them with corny remarks.

Book Structure
CIGs are approximately 350 printed pages, unless a different page count is approved in advance. Your editor will provide you with specific guidance on the requirement for your title. The following guidelines are for an average CIG:

  • 25-30 chapters organized into 4 to 6 parts
  • 12-15 pages per chapter in single-spaced 12-point Courier type
  • Appendixes—minimum two per book, one a glossary
  • Figures (if appropriate): line drawings and black-and-white photographs. Some titles include center inserts containing color artwork.
  • NOTE: Chapter and appendix text should total approximately 320 printed pages.

What Your Manuscript Should Include    to top

Table of Contents (TOC)
Provide us with a list of chapter titles, as well as the main subheads (subtopics) within each chapter. This is not the TOC that will appear in your book; it's a working map of the book's content and organization for your editors to use. As such, it should be updated, with Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature turned on, and resubmitted every time you make changes.

Front Matter (FM)
The FM includes a few different elements that will appear in the front of the book:

  • TOC at a Glance: This consists of the chapter titles and a 1-3 sentence summary of each chapter's contents. (You do not need to compile a complete Table of Contents for this part; the final detailed TOC will be done at the end of the layout process.)
  • Introduction: Three to five pages that introduce the reader to the topic and structure of the book. Summarize the material in each part and explain all the book's elements, including the content of each sidebar.
  • Acknowledgments: A chance for you to thank anyone whom you believe has contributed to your manuscript. This element should be limited to 1 page.

You will also need to provide the following extra elements:

  • Author bio: Your biographical information will appear in two places: on the back cover of the book and on the inside back cover of the book, so we ask you to provide two versions. Include relevant previous writing experience (books, magazines, newspapers, professional journals or trade publications, etc.), and credentials relevant to the topic you are covering.

    * Long version (for the inside back cover) should be 100-200 words.
    * Short version (for the back cover) should be 60 words.

  • Inside Front Cover: "Dear Reader" This is a letter to readers introducing yourself and the book's content. It's where you make your pitch!
  • Tear-out Card: If you and your editors agree this book should have one, this will be a handy reference of key information. Most CIGs do not include this element.

This is the core of the book. Each chapter should be presented in narrative format, divided into 4-6 major sections denoted by heads. Each major section may be further divided into subsections.

Each chapter starts with a preview list called "In This Chapter," and ends with a summary list called "The Least You Need to Know."

Chapter elements and structure are detailed in Writing Your Manuscript.

A sidebar is a boxed note that is an aside to the main text. CIGs use five sidebar types, of which we ask that you use at least four (listed below). The fifth is an optional, longer sidebar (100-150 words) whose content can be anecdotes, case histories, or other background information. Authors give each type of sidebar a unique name specific to the subject of their book.

Definitions—Short, clear definitions of vocabulary words, including jargon, slang, and other language specific to the subject area. Keep these to fewer than 65 words.

  • Defined words should appear in the main text as well as in the sidebar. A defined word should be italicized the first time it is used in the text, and then bolded in the sidebar.
  • If you are introducing several new words at the same time, you may include more than one definition in one sidebar. However, if you are introducing more than three, a bulleted list in the text may be better.
  • All of the words introduced in definition sidebars and bulleted lists should appear in the glossary at the end of the book. It's a good idea to "build" your glossary as you write.
  • Do not repeat exactly the same language in the sidebar as in the text.

Info/Tips—These either present interesting or useful information that isn't directly relevant or helpful hints to make the reader's life easier, maybe helping the reader save time or money.

Warnings—These prevent someone from getting hurt, losing money, or wasting time. In some books, the "warning" simply corrects myths or false information. Make sure there are ramifications—something can go wrong if you don't heed the advice in this sidebar.

Quotes—These provide advice or an insight from an outside authority. You'll need permission for copyrighted material, and the source must be cited by title.

In the back of the book you will include additional reference material for readers. For most topics, it will be appropriate to include:

  • A glossary
  • A further reading list
  • Important other resources, organizations, support groups, websites, and so on.
    Please limit your appendix material to 5% of the total manuscript.

Your manuscript may also contain photographs, black-and-white drawings, diagrams, forms, computer screen captures, and/or print-ready tables or charts to clarify or embellish the text. If you and your editor determine that figures are important to your book, you will be responsible for acquiring and submitting those figures with their respective chapters. Your editor will provide you with detailed Figure Submission Guidelines.

Writing Your Manuscript    to top

We have already discussed what to include in your manuscript. The following are some general guidelines for formatting and writing your manuscript.

Time Frame
When you agree to write a book for us, you take on the responsibility of organizing and preparing a large quantity of material in a short amount of time. Timely delivery is an essential part of your contractual obligation. Your manuscript deadline will be decided between you and your acquisitions editor, and will be part of your author contract. You will be expected to turn in all of the materials in the correct format and style by your agreement deadlines.

Target Page Count
Your book has a target page count (usually between 352 and 384 pages), but this is printed pages, not the number of manuscript pages you need to provide. Follow these guidelines for the number of chapter and appendix pages you should submit as your manuscript. (FM/Intro materials do not count in this total.)

Approximate Page and Word-Counts for a CIG

Book Length Pages of Manuscript Manuscript Word Total
352 320 112,000
384 335 117,250
400 350 122,500

If your book includes less than ~30 figures, you don't need to take them in account when targeting your page count. If you have more than ~30 figures in the book, estimate that each figure will be about 1/3 of a page subtract that amount from your target manuscript page count.

If you are writing a Pocket Idiot's Guide or a CIG that is smaller or larger than our standard size, these formulas will not apply. Discuss your target page count with your editor.

Formatting Basics
In order for your manuscript to convert cleanly to our design, we ask that you follow these specific formatting rules:

  • Use 1" margins all around the page (left, right, top, bottom).
  • Use Courier 12-point font.
  • Single-space your manuscript.
  • Format your manuscript flush left. Do not justify any text.
  • Do not put headers, footers, or page numbers in your manuscript.
  • Insert only one hard return between paragraphs. Do not indent paragraphs.
  • Do not use your word processor's bulleted or numbered list feature.
  • Do not use bold, all capital letters, or underlining for emphasis unless absolutely necessary. Italics are preferred for emphasis.
  • Do not center anything. Keep heads, sidebars, and all other elements flush left.
  • Avoid all extra fancy touches, graphics, or unusual formatting styles. We will only delete these when we format your manuscript for editing.

Over the next few pages you'll see material in boxes like this to highlight the formatting we prefer. DO NOT use boxes like this in your manuscript!

Chapter Number and Title
The chapter number and title should appear at the opening of the chapter in upper and lower case. The number is an (a) head and the title is a (b). Each has its own line (with one blank line between them). Try to keep chapter titles fairly short, and make them simple and clear.

(a)Chapter 7
(b)Speaking When You're Afraid to Open Your Mouth

"In This Chapter" section
A bulleted list of 4-6 items listing the main points of the chapter. This is not a list of the heads in the chapter, but phrases summarizing the chapter's content.

(d)In This Chapter
[lb] The meaning of dreams
[lb] The psychic side of dreams
[lb] Controlling your dreams
[lb] Understanding your dreams

Opening Paragraph(s)
The next step after the chapter number and title is to introduce the reader to the chapter in one to three general paragraphs (no more and no less!). State clearly what the chapter will be about, what tools the chapter will provide, and what readers will learn to do.

(c) and (d) Heads
C-heads designate the main points of your chapter. If the material under a particular c-head is complex or lengthy, you may wish to break it down into d-head sections. If you break down a c-head section, it must contain at least two d-head sections. Remember to make c- and d-heads engaging without making them lengthy or unclear. D-heads should run no longer than 40 characters (including spaces).

(c)The Mystery of Hunger
(d)Inside the Pleasure Dome
(d)Is Your Hunger in Your Head?

(c)The Dieter's Dilemma
(d)It's So Appetizing
(d)Maybe It's in Your Genes

Production Directives
Indicate where you want to place a special element—figure, sidebar, chart—by inserting production directives in your manuscript. These are notes indicating placement and any directions you want us to follow when formatting your manuscript. All production directives are written in bold capital letters and set off with three asterisks. (See the following example, under Tables.)

Any time you arrange text in columns, label it as a table. Enter tables following the paragraph in which they are cited. Separate columns by a single tab. Do NOT use the "Table" feature in your word processing program.

If a table is complicated and difficult to format clearly, discuss how to submit it with your editor.

It helps to provide a hard copy of complex tables or charts (either rough sketches that you draw yourself, find in another publication, or format on your computer), as this will clarify column breaks and assist us in designing your table or chart for the final book. The following is an example of how to format a typical table in your manuscript:

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development
Stage The Plot The Motive
Stage 1 Seek pleasure, avoid pain Avoid pain, getting caught
Stage 2 Weigh costs and benefits Achieve the most rewards
Stage 3 Be a good kid Be popular, avoid disapproval

Note that most tables include an overall table head and a head for each column. Enter the table head in bold on its own line. On the next line place the column heads with one tab between each.

Figures and Directives
Where you want a figure to appear in your manuscript, insert a production directive calling for the figure by its number, along with the caption and any necessary credit(s). Do not embed electronic figure files in your manuscript.


The Food Guide Pyramid offers guidelines for planning what you should eat each day in different food groups.

(Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Using this example, the FOOD GUIDE PYRAMID is the second figure in Chapter 7. Your editor will provide more details on numbering and submitting figures.

Bulleted and Numbered Lists and Checklists
Bulleted and numbered lists are useful tools for breaking up information into points or steps that are easy to remember or follow.

  • Use bulleted and numbered lists to break the text down into specific steps or distinctive points. Use a numbered list when describing steps done in sequence, or in a "Top 10" context. Use bullets when the number or sequence isn't important.
  • Introduce all lists with a sentence or two, and include concluding text after.
  • Identify bullets with the code [lb] before each item in the list (that's "l" as in Larry, "b" as in Bob), with a tab before and after the code. Note the use of brackets instead of parentheses!
  • For a checklist, use [cb] instead of [lb] to indicate a checkbox.
  • For a numbered list, use the number and a period (no brackets), with tabs before and after.
  • Do not use your word processor's bulleted- or numbered-list feature.

All bulleted or numbered lists should be presented flush left. If your bulleted material goes on for more than one line, do not indent the second line.

Sidebars are to be written as you write each chapter, inserted near related subject matter. Do not submit them separately or at the end of the chapter. The following example shows how a sidebar should appear in your manuscript.


Bad Reactions

When inserting the isotopic abundances into the equation for average atomic mass, make sure to convert the percents into decimals by dividing by 100. Otherwise, you'll find that your average atomic masses are very, very large!


As you write, try to follow these sidebar guidelines:

  • Some sidebars may be paraphrased or summarized from the text; however, sidebars should never be merely redundant.
  • Your manuscript should include at least one sidebar every two pages; however, don't force a sidebar when it doesn't make sense!

The Least You Need to Know
Each chapter ends with "The Least You Need to Know," a bulleted list of the top 4-6 pieces of information the reader should take away from the chapter.

  • Present each topic in one full, punctuated sentence, as a directive.
  • Each bullet should be 1-2 lines long at most. Longer is not better!

(d)The Least You Need to Know [lb] Keep your guest list down to 25. [lb] Invite children to the event only if necessary. [lb] Send your invitations six weeks before the event. [lb] Make sure the dishes are clean. [lb] Have non-alcoholic beverages available.

Submitting Your Manuscript    to top

It is essential that you send files in a format we can accept. Please read the following guidelines carefully.

  • We prefer all materials to be submitted as attachments to e-mail, but you may also mail disks.
  • Microsoft Word files (6.0 or above) on PC are preferred, though MAC is also acceptable.
  • Each chapter must be in its own separate file.
  • File names should be labeled by chapter number: ch01, ch02, ch03, etc. Use two digits for all numbers (01, 02), so that the chapters will be ordered correctly when stored on computer.
  • Submit front matter and extra elements (introduction, author bio, etc.) as separate files.
  • Please make sure that you have and use anti-virus software.
  • Back up all material to eliminate fallout from drive crashes or other computer problems.

Permissions and Trademarks
Please prepare a list of trademarks used in your text. Provide the full and correct name of the company that produces each trademarked product. Indicate whether the product is registered ® or simply trademarked ™. Alpha is sensitive to protecting our authors' rights. Therefore, we make every effort to include a disclaimer on the copyright page of every work (occasionally adapted to suit the subject). If you have special needs regarding a disclaimer, please discuss this with your editor at contract stage.

You are responsible for getting permission to quote or reprint any material under copyright or other ownership, and to cite the source of anything that is not your original work. This includes written works as well as figures or photos.

  • You must send all written permissions—with identification of the illustration, text or other material to which they pertain—with the final manuscript.
  • Request rights for the first and all subsequent editions, as well as worldwide rights in all languages.
  • Two useful sources of information about rights and permissions are Johnston's Copyright Handbook and The Chicago Manual of Style (use the most up-to-date edition).
  • Please note that song lyrics and poetry—even as little as three words—can be copyrighted. If in doubt, do not use such material, as determining the copyright holder and then obtaining permission can be a laborious (and expensive) process.
  • As you are aware, plagiarism—no matter how unintentional—is a serious matter and could lead to legal entanglements for you, your book, and Alpha. Please be careful not to inadvertently take language and/or full concepts from other printed or online sources, whether they are journals, books, or web pages, without permission. If uncertain of a copyright issue, consult a copyright attorney prior to delivering the manuscript to Alpha.

A Note on Fair Use
"Fair use" is the assumption under which one uses copyrighted material without obtaining permission. There is no hard and fast rule or formula that can be applied to determine what or how much "use" is "fair." Section 107 of the Copyright Law provides the following considerations in determining fair use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is for commercial or for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the whole; and
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

You, the author, are responsible for putting researched information into your own words. Reading an article and then writing what you learned in your own words is paraphrasing. Paraphrasing does not require permission, but if you merely rearrange words or retain similar phrasing, organization, and sequencing of material, you may be guilty of plagiarizing. You are responsible for recognizing the difference.

Guidelines are subject to change and amendment. Alpha Books will make its best efforts to alert authors to changes.

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