Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of editing quite a bit of short fiction. I’ve noticed a number of trends based on the manuscripts I receive and the questions that come along with them. Since I have long experience in submitting short story manuscripts for myself and others, I thought I’d take a look at a few of the issues I’ve observed lately in this and future blog entries.
This time I’ll focus on proper manuscript formatting, which seems to have fallen out of favor among aspiring writers. I suspect that many writers have become a bit too accustomed to online formats, where paragraphs typically aren’t indented, and are double-spaced between paragraphs but single-spaced internally. In other words, just the way I’m formatting this blog as I write it, and as I suspect it will appear online.
The standard online format is fine for what it’s intended for: blogs, Facebook, Web copy, and the like. But fiction magazine/journal editors remain somewhat old-fashioned, and prefer a specific format—generally the classic format so ably explained by William Shunn here.
One of the first things I do when I receive a manuscript, whether for a sample edit or full edit, is to format it the way Shunn reveals in his article: with double-spaced, indented paragraphs; Times New Roman, Courier New, or a similarly serifed 12-point font; an identifier line in the header; etc. I also prefer generous 1.25-inch margins to the left and right, with 1-inch margins at top and bottom. The idea is to make the manuscript easier for the editor, first reader, slush pile miner, or whoever to read. Not following the rules may get your manuscript rejected out of hand, even if you are the next Joyce Carol Oates. Bottom line: You can’t get published the traditional way if no one will read your submissions!
I learned this when I was a teenager, reading my annual Writer’s Market. Before the publisher decided to spin off endless variations on the basic book, WM was a treasure trove of articles on various writing subjects, including Manuscript Mechanics. Perhaps it still is (I don’t use it much anymore), but you’d never know from the way most writers format their manuscripts. Ironically, the one thing that most of them still do is include two spaces after each sentence, which is a relic of the old typewriter days. While the jury remains divided on this one, most editors see it as unnecessary.
Readability is important, but there’s another reason the editors want you to format your manuscript in a particular way: they want to see if you can follow instructions. All magazines provide guidelines, often posted online, where they specify precisely how they want you to format and submit your manuscripts. They may require only paper submissions, for which the standard format is mandatory. In such cases, deviations from the standard—not to mention email submissions—will result in rejection. If you’re submitting online, they may ask you to attach the story to an email in the standard format, or may require you to use a submission form where you cut and paste your manuscript, or submit an RTF or DOC or XYZ file, or whatever hoops they want you to jump through.
The point is this: you need to follow the formatting and submission instructions precisely—or your hard work might go straight into the rejection pile. This is especially true in the tight literary market, where hundreds of stories vie for each available publishing slot. The editorial staffs of literary magazines, many of whom are notoriously far behind on their slush piles, are happy to find any reason at all to reject your manuscript—even if it’s because you’ve used Helvetica instead of Times New Roman. Seriously. This happens.
And for heaven’s sake, never single-space between lines or use an experimental style unless they specifically ask for or allow it. Why tempt fate? Given the fact that many literary magazines are charging reading fees these days (that’s a whole ‘nother topic for a whole ‘nother blog), if nothing else, think of the money you’ll save by formatting your manuscripts correctly.
If you want professional publishers to take your manuscripts seriously, you have to play by their rules. Remember, they own not only the ball but the whole playing field, the stands, the lighting, and access to the audience.