#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!



#WritersResources: Wordcloud


Welcome to the first in a new series that we’re starting here at Fiction Can Be Fun.  We’ve been running a resources page for a while now and it seemed like a good time to a) give this a bit of a refresh and b) take a closer look at these resources and see what you might want to do with them.

The first one we’re going to take a look at is actually one that is a relatively recent addition and one that we became aware of thanks to the lovely @KMPohlcamp over on Twitter. (KM is the award winning author of Apricots and Wolfsbane, as well as being a Flight Controller for NASA; you can check out her blog here).

Cutting to the main feature, today we’re talking about WordClouds.  The idea of producing a picture based on the words used in a document is not a particularly new one.  (One wrinkle on this idea that you sometimes see in galleries is some kind of iconic image from a book which is formed from the text of that book).  The neat trick that KM pointed out though, was to use the frequency analysis to point out words that are being overused.  You’d expect the names of characters, for example, to be high on the list, but are there words that you rely on with out noticing?  The literary equivalent of the y’know, like, and um that fill conversations when people are trying to think of what to say next.

wordcloud_November Deadline

The most straight forward thing you can do is to just dump a load of text into the analyser and let it do it’s thing – which is what we did to get this image. The text we used comprises a little more than half of the manuscript of the novel that we’re working on, and that generates a word list that looks a bit like this:


Because I’m still getting used to this, I’m not sure if using ‘one’ 181 times in ~50,000 is too many, but something that is probably worth looking at it in the editing round… the word list goes all the way down to anything that is used two times or more.

What’s to like

The website is incredibly intuitive and straight-forward to use.  Even better, there is an amazing wizard that takes you through the steps involved, with direct links to the separate tools that you use to get to the end result.  There’s a great range of shapes to get you started…


…and you can upload your own images should you want to.  There’s a lot of functionality to help you customise the wordcloud:



What’s not to like

It’s very easy to lose valuable writing time playing around with making the wordclouds!  In all seriousness, it’s hard to find anything to criticise.  There are a couple of things that don’t necessarily make 100% sense: there is a slider bar to make an adjustment, but it’s not really clear what it is changing.  I think that the slider changes the overall size of the words, which means that you can fit more into an available space, but it bugs me not knowing if that’s correct.  Despite how easy the tool is to use, I’d really like some kind of help, even if it’s just a rollover.


Let us know if you give this tool a go, and what you think of it – we’d be interested in what you create with it, and if you find it useful (or not).

© David Jesson, 2020