How to properly format a manuscript — Be a conformist

PROLOGUE:

There is a lot of information on the internet about all aspects of the writing process. Yet, I’m asked the same dozen or so questions by writers in every workshop or seminar I lead. Certainly, I don’t mind answering any questions about writing, editing, or publishing a writer or interested party might have. After all, that’s what I’m there for. And if there is anything that makes me chatty, it is giving me an opportunity  to share what I know about writing, editing, or publishing.

Without further ado, let’s tackle the first question in this series.

HOW DO I PROPERLY FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT?

There’s a reason for the formatting rules, and it has nothing to do with causing poor, hassled writers more troubles. Editors are busy people, so a manuscript has to be especially good for an editor to waste time on reformatting. Besides, editors have better ways of driving writers crazy.

Here are some basic rules of formatting you should follow (unless you’re submitting to a publication that states otherwise in its guidelines):

  • Double line spacing is the rule. A common mistake made by new writers is to single space paragraphs and double space between paragraphs. This is a common format seen in articles of text on the internet, but it’s not how editors generally want a manuscript formatted (This editor HATES IT). Psychologically speaking, when reading double spacing, the editor feels as though he or she is whizzing through the lines (comparably). It looks cleaner and neater on the page. It allows for editorial comments and typographical markings between the lines should an editor wish to print out the story (and we often do). With modern-day word processors, none of this formatting is difficult for the writer to achieve.
  • Use a common and practical monospaced font. Most of the time, Courier New will suffice. A few editors I know prefer Times New Roman, so this is a case where doing a little bit of research might pay off.
  • Use a readable font point size. Don’t go any lower than 12 point. Don’t go higher than 14 point.
  • Leave at least an inch of white space margin on all four sides of your manuscript. This will give the editor room to makes notes and will help make your submission look cleaner. The left margin of text should be justified and the right margin of text should be jagged.
  • Use black ink on white paper and use only one side of each sheet of paper. I agree, the editor should be hip to the times and allow electronic submissions, but some dinosaurs are slow to move.
  • You don’t need a dedicated title page for short stories. You do for novels and novel-length collections. On the first page of your manuscript, using the upper half of the page to place your contact information and word count, followed by the story’s title along with your byline.
  • On all pages but the first, include a right justified running header with your byline, the story’s title, and the page number. This is in case the editor jumbles up your pages and needs to reorder them. I won’t lie, editors are notoriously disorganized individuals. I am the perfect example of this assertion.!

Master and conform to these seven basic instructions and you’ll be on the path to publication. Okay, at the least, you’ll be ahead of the 5 to 10% of submissions that get tossed due to blatant manuscript formatting shenanigans.

Wait, more rules???

There are many other ‘picky’ rules of manuscript formatting. Thankfully, a gentleman named William Shunn wrote an essay that covers such quandaries as “Do I list professional organizations of which I’m a member with my contact information?” and “Do I use the Microsoft Word word count or do I have to manually count the words or use some other formula?” You can find this excellent essay (titled “Proper Manuscript Format”) at www.shunn.net/format.

One trap many writers fall into is reading a publication’s guidelines once and never checking again for updates. Sometimes word count ranges change, or a publication has a change in editors and now prefers Times New Roman or Courier font. Because of this, be careful when using resources such as Duotrope.com, Ralan.com, and the Writer’s Digest Guide to Short Fiction Markets. They’re useful as a first port of call, but always refer back to the official guidelines of your chosen market before sending off your baby.

As I mentioned earlier, it might pay to research a market’s editorial style. This goes beyond just reading the guidelines. Do they prefer the American style of punctuation or the British style? Will they laugh at you if you put a copyright statement on the title page (Yes, probably)? Do they prefer a single space or a double space after ending punctuation? I once suffered public ridicule in a writing workshop run by a well-known science fiction editor over my double spacing after punctuation. I’m still scarred by the experience. Read previous publications by that market. Read the editors’ blogs. There is plenty of information out there.

When in doubt, ask. Most of the time, editors are nowhere as intimidating as those burly dudes dressed as Klingons you see at every convention. In fact, Apex editors like receiving questions. It makes us feel like we have friends. It makes us feel like we are important.

Trust me, editors love feeling important.

EPILOGUE

Follow my advice about manuscript formatting. Please don’t let a simple thing you can control be the one thing that gets you rejected.

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