Something I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that most writers have trouble getting their manuscript formatting right.
I suspect this is partly due to the Internet. A few years ago, the standard way (in the UK) to plan your submissions was to get hold of a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which had handy sections on manuscript preparation. They were right next to the lists of magazines and book publishers, and hard to miss for writers getting ready to send out work.
These days, a lot of people submit just by Googling variations on ‘short story submissions’, or just by contacting their favourite publications direct, and so maybe miss out on that useful information. But even in the digital age, getting manuscript formatting right is very important. It doesn’t just show professionalism on the author’s part: it also helps the editor to connect to the words themselves. (If the editor spends the first 30 seconds with your manuscript adjusting it to be easily read, that’s your first impression gone.)
The key thing to remember about manuscript formatting is that it’s not about looking pretty, or showing off creative or literary credentials. The idea is to make the formatting itself disappear, so that the focus is on the words and nothing else. And the easiest way to make the formatting disappear is to make it look exactly the same as all the others. The six rules below should help you to do that.
Incidentally, I’ve written this post specifically with regard to electronic submissions, but the rules below apply equally to printed submissions (though the reasons may vary). And all publishers vary: if a specific publisher asks for different formatting, it’s always best to give them what they ask for.
The Basic Rules
1. Use 12-point Times New Roman. Everybody is used to seeing Times New Roman on their screen (or on paper), and every computer has it. It’s the most invisible font there is. On a standard paper size (see below), 12-point text is comfortable to read, and if reading on a screen, the editor will be set up for it.
2. Double space your text. Even if the days of making notes between lines are over—on the screen, at least—the extra white space helps your writing go down easily. Always apply double-spacing through the formatting menu: don’t just hit ‘return’ twice at the end of each line. (We get a few of those.)
3. Mark a new paragraph by indenting the first line; don’t leave an empty line between paragraphs. Each new paragraph, or line of speech should be indented. Again, there’s an option to indent the first line of each paragraph automatically in the paragraph formatting options: don’t use the tab key to do it. Leaving a complete blank line between paragraphs is something you’ll see when reading online, including on this site but, has no place in text documents.
3a. If you want to mark a change of scene or time, the kind of thing that would have a blank line left in a printed book, mark it with a centred hash, as I’ve done at the bottom of this list. This means it will still be visible when the text is copied into other software for typesetting. An empty line may just get lost at this stage.
3b. Don’t indent the first line of the story, or the first line following a chapter break or scene change – anywhere you would expect to see a blank line left in a printed book, or marked with a hash as in (3a) above. (The job of an indent is to make it clear that there’s a new paragraph starting, and this isn’t necessary in these cases as there’s no paragraph immediately above.)
4. Leave margins of roughly an inch and a half. A little more or less won’t hurt, but don’t go too far in either direction. There’s no need to shrink the margins to squeeze more words onto the page, or to make them larger to give the text ‘breathing space’.
5. Use a normal ‘paper’ size. In Europe this means A4, in the USA use US Letter. Don’t try to mimic the page of a book or use any other size.
6. Use a simple header. Personally, I’d suggest having author name on the left, title centred, and page number on the right. For the first page, use a unique header (it’s a Word setting) that has your full name and contact details, and word count. All of these details belong in the header and nowhere else: never try to put the page number at the top of each page within the body of the manuscript, because the smallest edit near the top will make a mess of the whole thing. (It’s rare that people do this, but it does happen.)
So there are six basic rules. If you can stick to those, your formatting will be in the top 1% of manuscripts we see. And while it may feel like you’re jumping through hoops, it’s really just about making sure that you’re showing off your writing to its best advantage.