Formatting Your Manuscript: The Final Step Before Pressing Send
By Windy Lynn Harris
Do you ever get so excited by the completion of a new short story or poem that you zip it out to magazine editors before checking how it looks? I’m not talking about how the story holds together, but how the accumulated pieces of paper appear to an editor’s eyes? Why not? Proper manuscript formatting is easy, and submitting your work correctly is as important as wearing an ironed shirt to an interview.
Before you push that SEND button, take time for a full inspection. Titles need to go where titles go, paragraphs need indentions, and page numbers need to appear. Is your manuscript wearing his best pants and most beautiful tie? Did she take a shower this morning and shave those literary legs? How about those teeth? Shiny and clean, are they?
STANDARD MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING RULES
Some of these formatting rules may sound obvious, but the guidelines are specific for a reason—some writers out there (probably many of them) have made simple avoidable mistakes. Don’t be one of those writers. Be the kind of writer who gets published.
First, the basics:
1. Print manuscripts on 8 ½ X 11 inch, white paper (use only one side of the paper)
2. 1 to 1 ½ inch margins all around
3. Use 12 point, Times New Roman or Arial (no fancy script)
4. No end-of-the-line hyphenated words or justified right margin
5. Double space the entire manuscript (except poetry, then single space)
6. Indent paragraphs five spaces (preset on your “tab” button already)
7. No additional spacing between paragraph
Next, add identifying information, your byline, and the header:
8. Type your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address in the upper left corner, single spaced. In the upper right corner, type the word count. You can round the word count up to the nearest hundred or the nearest ten in short pieces, if you’d like.
9. Drop down about half way on the first page and center your title. Your title can be in all caps if you’d like, or only capitalize first letters. Your byline goes beneath the title with a double space between them.
10. On page TWO and subsequent pages, you’ll add a header that includes your title and your name. This is where you’ll insert your page #s. Scoot your header over to the right as far as it can go without wrapping around (this will keep it out of the way of the story as readers devour your pages).
11. Be sure to double check the font of your page #s and headers. They are formatted separately from the body of the document and can sometimes be overlooked.
A FEW OTHER NOTES
1. Poems are the only single spaced manuscripts. Because an artistic layout to your poems can add to their appeal, submit these works formatted in any way you want to see them in print (all left justified, some lines centered, one word as a single line, etc). You are the artist here. Do what feels right.
2. If you are using a pen name, place your real name (the person you want the check made out to) at the top left hand spot on the first page and use your pen name as your byline underneath the title. It’s always a good idea to mention using a pen name in your query letter as well.
3. In the body of your work, save italics, boldface, and words typed in all capital letters for an emergency. Don’t use them unless you really need to. And then ask yourself, do I really need to use them?
4. Reminder: Use only ONE space after each period (or question mark or exclamation point). This is the industry standard now, even if you learned a different rule in the past. You can easily reformat any manuscript from two spaces to one with the “find/replace” function if you need to. Editors can fix it easily too, if you forget, but why give them something that needs fixing?
5. The publishing world uses Microsoft Word, and you should too. Save all documents as Word files, even when you create prose in Pages. For Pages users, export a copy to Word and use that document for submission uploads. When attaching a story to an email, always attach a Word-friendly document.
6. Industry format standards were put in place to make your manuscript easy to read by those overworked editor eyes, but don’t be too rigid on the small stuff. If you like your page numbers in a different spot—do it. Just make sure the result is a manuscript that looks clean and professional.
A 10-STEP CHECKLIST
1. Take a look at your font. Is it 12 point? Arial or Times New Roman? Don’t forget to check your page numbers too! They will automatically print in your default font, so you might need to change them.
2. Make sure your margins are all tidy.
3. Did you double-space your manuscript?
4. Did you indent each paragraph?
5. Are there any extra spaces between the paragraphs to omit?
6. How does your identifying information look? Is it tucked up there in the left corner all single-spaced and pretty? Did you include your name, address, phone number and email?
7. Is there a word count in the top right hand corner?
8. Is your title centered?
9. Did you remember to put your byline below your title?
10. How does your header look? Is it scooted over to the right as far as possible? Does it begin on page two? And is is the same font as the rest of your manuscript.
See? Manuscript formatting is quick and easy. It’s just a matter of checking the details so your prose can march out into the world looking his best. Don’t let your story leave your computer until you’ve spit on your hand and smoothed every stray hair out of place. Editors will thank you for it.
Windy Lynn Harris’ short stories and essays have been published in The Literary Review, 34th Parallel, Arcadia, and many other journals. She is the founder of Market Coaching for Creative Writers, and is working on a non-fiction book for writers: a step-by-step guide to getting that short creative work off your desk and into the hands of magazine editors. More about all that at www.windylynnharris.com.