#WritersResources: How to format a manuscript

I’ve been trying to get more of my short-form fiction into (paying) magazines, which is one of the drivers for the changes to the blog that have been happening recently.  One of the key tenets for the magazines is, it doesn’t matter how low-key your blog, once it’s out there, it’s published.  So whilst I still want to share my writing, from my perspective it’s going to be much more of the micro/flash fiction and the experimental stuff.  And I’m using ‘Flash Fiction’ here in both senses – stuff that is written on a short deadline (no time to over-think things!) and stuff that is quick to read, typically 1000 words and under.  Anything over this is going to be heading to a magazine, probably.

As with everything to do with writing, there is a learning curve.  The publishing industry has been around for a while, and despite the digital revolution there tends to be not just a way of doing things, but THE way of doing things.  Some of these date back to the time when you would have sent a type-written manuscript in the post to the editor.  If they didn’t like it, they’d send you the manuscript back and you could hawk it elsewhere.  If they did like it, then they might scribble some changes they wanted, perhaps to fit with a house style, perhaps because they had it in for the Oxford comma, and send it back for changes, or agreement to the changes.  They might simply scribble on it and send it downstairs to the typesetter.

Cutting to the chase because, for reasons that will be self-evident in a moment, I want to keep this post brief, there is a standard format for manuscripts.  This is not to say that all magazines conform rigidly to this standard, nor that all magazines follow it at all.  However, having been less successful than I might have liked, and having had to submit certain stories to successive magazines, I have noticed that many editors direct prospective authors to one or other of two key  articles on formatting.  These are worth a read (links below), but not when you are in the process of trying to re-format your work ready for submission.  All the information is given, but not in a nice succinct way to make your life easier.  What I have done here is to pull out the key points for easy reference.

DISCLAIMER AND HEALTH WARNING: Always check what the magazine wants first.  These points are to help if someone refers you to either Shunn’s style guide or McIntyre’s, but it’s up to you to make sure that your document is formatted correctly – Fiction Can Be Fun cannot be held liable if your story gets rejected out of hand because it’s in the wrong format.  My opinion of the features of the standard format doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to give it.  It’s what’s been asked for, and that, as they say, is that.

All of that said, the two style guides mentioned are written as essays, with the formatting discussed.  This is a great visual reference, but a complete pain if you are frantically trying to sort things out so:

  • Courier or Times New Roman fonts.  Nothing else.
  • 1″/25 mm margins on all sides.
  • Double spaced.  Not 1.5, not 3, definitely not single.  Double.
  • Do not justify the text, leave it left aligned, with a ‘ragged’ right edge.
  • Do not leave lines between paragraphs.
  • Indent the start of a new paragraph.
  • If you have a section break (in the sense of the narrative, rather than with respect to formatting) mark it with a single #, centered.
  • If your text requires italics for emphasis, then italicized words should be underlined.
  • Mark dialogue with speech marks and remember what Shunn says:

“When a new person speaks, start a new line.”

  • As a header, place Surname/Key word/ page number in the top right corner.
  • Some people want a cover page, in which case the header starts on the first MS page.
  • Start the MS half way down the first MS page.  Just above this, put the document title, then your byline.  Top right, your name, your address, email. Top left, ~ word count (rounded to the nearest hundred for a short story and 500 for a novella).
  • If you are doing a cover page, put the title about a third of the way down, byline underneath this.  Your name, address etc goes a further third down the page, on the left, and the approximate word count goes to the right.
  • Some people end the document with ‘End’, to indicate the end.

Hope that helps.  If you’ve got some top tips, stick them in the comments!

 

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