Proper Manuscript Format

by William Shunn
The Internet Writing Journal, December 1998

No one knows for certain how many good stories are passed over because the manuscripts containing them are formatted poorly, but it is certain that a properly formatted manuscript will be more eagerly read by an editor than a poorly formatted one. Here are a few suggestions.

First, your manuscript should look typed, not typeset. This is particularly important if you are composing your manuscript on a computer, where the temptation to use fancy fonts can be great. Use a Courier font; most every printer you can buy comes with Courier, so you have no excuse for not using it. Use a 12-point Courier, which prints out at a pitch of ten characters per inch. Don't use a 10- point Courier, which prints out at a pitch of twelve characters per inch. This is too small. (Point size refers to the height of the characters in a font; pitch refers to the width.)

Courier is a monospaced font, which means that every character is exactly as wide as every other. Never submit a manuscript that uses a proportional font, which is one in which an "i" takes up less space than an "m" does. It is far easier for an editor to detect spelling errors in a monospaced font than in a proportional font, and your primary goal should be to make things as easy for the editor as possible. With a monospaced font, there will also be fewer characters on each line, which makes your lines easier for the editor to scan.

Next, you should leave nice wide margins all around the page. There should be at least an inch on each side--top, bottom, left, and right. Under no circumstances should there be any printing closer to any edge of the paper than one inch.

Always double-space between lines. Never submit a single-spaced manuscript. Never submit a 1½-spaced manuscript. Never submit a triple-spaced manuscript. The editor needs room to make corrections between lines, but not too much room.

The guidelines I've listed above will mean that you can't fit very many words on a page--250 to 300 at the most. This means your manuscript will require more pages, but don't fret about that. The increased mailing costs are worth it, because you'll be sending out a manuscript that reads quickly. Psychologically, it's easier to read a lot of pages with fewer words on each than it is to read a few pages with lots of words on each. When an editor reads your story, he or she will be turning pages more rapidly, and your story will feel as if it reads quickly. This will give your manuscript a real advantage.

Place your name, address, and telephone number in the upper-left corner of the first page of your manuscript. If you belong to a professional writing organization, you may list your membership beneath this information if it is relevant. If you belong to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, for instance, you would want to mention that when submitting to Science Fiction Age or Century Magazine, but it probably wouldn't cut much ice with the editors at Atlantic Monthly or Home and Gardens.

In the upper-right corner of the first page of your manuscript, you should place an approximate word count. If your manuscript is between one and 1,500 words long, round your word count to the nearest 100 words. For manuscripts of between 1,500 and 10,000 words, round to the nearest 500. For 10,000 to 25,000 words, round to the nearest 1,000. For 25,000 or more words, round to the nearest 5,000. (This manuscript, for example, is 2,263 words in length, which rounds to 2,500.)

You won't get paid any more for a 6,200-word manuscript than you will for a 6,000-word manuscript. If the editor sees "about 6,200 words" on your manuscript, he or she will round down to 6,000 words before calculating your payment. Conversely, he or she will round a 5,800-word count up to 6,000, so there is really nothing to gain by not rounding things properly yourself. Your payments will even out in the long run.

Be sure to insert a comma in the proper place in your word count, if necessary. The comma is used as a separator between the hundreds and the thousands places in a number. Thus nine hundred is written "900," but nineteen hundred is written "1,900."

You do not calculate the wordage of your story by counting actual words. Figure out the maximum number of characters per line in your manuscript, divide this number by six, and then multiply by the total number of lines in your story. This gives you the word count. Round from there. Editors, you see, are not interested in how many actual words there are in your manuscript. They are interested in how much space it will take up in a magazine or book, and this method gives them a more accurate estimate of that than the actual number of words would.

It is not necessary to place your Social Security number anywhere on your manuscript. If the publisher wants to know it, then you will be asked for it after your story is accepted. Otherwise, it's extraneous information.

Place the title of your story about halfway down the first page of your manuscript. Not a quarter of the way, not a third of the way, but halfway. The editor needs all that empty space for writing love notes to the typesetter. Your title should be centered between the margins. It is probably best to type your title in capital letters, and you may put it in bold if you wish.

Two single lines below your title, you should place your centered byline. This may seem like redundant information, since your name is already in the upper-left corner of the manuscript, but it is not. The name in the corner is the person to whom the publisher is going to make out the check. Your byline is the name that will receive credit for the story when it appears in print. These are not necessarily the same. As one example, perhaps your name is J. Scott Bronson and you publish fiction under the name Everett Stone. Perhaps you are a married woman publishing fiction under your maiden name. Perhaps you publish fiction under the name Bob Jones, but your bank will only credit checks to your account if they are made out to Robert Q. Jones. Even if both names are the same, they must both still appear.

Your byline will be "by Joseph A. Snotnose" if you publish your fiction under the name Joseph A. Snotnose, and this is what you should center two single lines below your title. Do not omit the word "by," and do not center the word "by" on its own line.

Begin the text of your manuscript four single lines (or two double lines, same diff) below your byline. The beginning of every paragraph in your manuscript, including the first, should be indented five spaces from the left margin. Not one, not four, not six, not ten, but five. Also, you should not place blank lines between paragraphs as separators. The indentation is sufficient to indicate that a new paragraph has begun.

You should place a header in the upper-right corner of every page of your manuscript except the first. This header will consist of: the surname used in your byline, one important word from the title of your story, and the current page number. Do not place the header in the upper-left corner, because the typesetter will often have your manuscript clipped in that corner as he or she transcribes it and will not be able to see what the current page number is. The keyword and surname are important because sometimes unbound manuscripts happen to fall off editors' desks and become mixed up with other manuscripts. This information will be essential if your manuscript is ever to be reassembled in proper order.

Except for paragraph indentations, the left margin of your manuscript should be ruler-straight. The right margin, however, should be ragged. Never right-justify your manuscript. You may think that right justification makes your manuscript look prettier, but your editor will not. It messes up the spaces between words and sentences, and it will only annoy the editor. And the cardinal rule of manuscript formatting, if you haven't guessed it by now, is to do everything in your power to avoid annoying the editor, who is a cantankerous person anyway, thanks to all the poorly formatted manuscripts that cross his or her desk.

If a word is too long to fit at the end of a line, then move the entire word to the beginning of the next line. Only if a phrase is normally hyphenated may you break it up at the end of a line. Thus, you must always place "antidisestablishmentarianism" on its own line, no matter how much empty space this leaves at the end of the line above. You may, however, break up a hyphenated phrase such as "jack-in-the-box" when it falls at the end of a line. This guideline is directed mainly toward typewriter users, but you computer users should pay attention, too. Never include a hyphen that you don't want to have show up in the final printed version of your manuscript.

As a corollary to this, never use a word that you cannot fit completely on one manuscript line.

You should always place two spaces after any punctuation used to end a sentence. "Always?" you may ask. Always! Some people will tell you that two spaces aren't required these days, especially if you submit a manuscript to be typeset directly from a computer disk, because the extra spaces are going to be deleted anyway. Don't listen to these people. Unless you are Harlan Ellison, your editor is always going to actually read your manuscript before sending it on to the typesetter, and he or she is used to seeing two spaces after every sentence and will be annoyed to see anything else. Remember, above all else, do not annoy the editor. (If you are Harlan Ellison, you may ignore all these guidelines. You could submit your stories in crayon on a roll of toilet paper and they would still get published.)

Also, you should always put two spaces after a colon. This helps the typesetter to distinguish between colons and semicolons.

If you intend a word or phrase in your manuscript to appear in italics in the final printed version of your manuscript, then you should underline it in your manuscript. Never use actual italics in any manuscript that you plan to submit. It will only annoy the editor, and it makes it too easy for the typesetter to slide right past your emphasized word without noticing that he or she should have set it in italics. (You need to make life easy for the typesetter, as well, or you may find strange or obscene words showing up in the final printed version of your story.)

If you want an em dash--the punctuation that sets off a phrase like this
one--to appear in your manuscript, use two hyphens to indicate it. Do not place spaces around the dash.

If you want a line break to appear in your story, then rather than leaving a blank line in your manuscript, you should center the character "#" on a line of its own. Do this for every line break, not just for ones that fall at the bottom or top of a page. As you revise a manuscript, you will find that the positions of these line breaks shift around, and this method is easier than hunting for those pesky blank lines after every revision and trying to determine whether or not they need to be marked.

Finally, you do not need to do anything overt on the manuscript to indicate that your story is over. This should be obvious both from the story itself and from the fact that there are no more words after a certain point. Do not place "#" or "30" or "The End" or anything of the sort at the end of the story. The exception to this comes when the last line of your story happens to fall at the bottom of a page. In this case, you may wish to write the word "end" by hand and in blue ink in the bottom margin of the last page.


The advantage you'll get by following these guidelines is that your manuscript will look professional. You'll look like you know what you're doing, and sometimes, when dealing with a cantankerous editor, simply looking like you know what you're doing is half the battle. It will put you on his or her good side from the start.

What the editor thinks after reading your manuscript is another matter altogether, and a subject for another essay. One written by someone else.
To see this article in proper manuscript format as described by the author, Click Here.

Photo of William Shunn**William Shunn has been selling short fiction to such magazines as Fantasy & Science Fiction and Science Fiction Age since 1993. His story "Synchronicity and the Single Girl" is currently featured online at Blood Rose, and his next appearance in print will be with the story "Stalin's Candy" in Realms of Fantasy in early 1999. His current projects include a memoir (written solo) and a screenplay (in collaboration with Christopher J. Rivera and James Callan), both based on his experiences as a Mormon missionary arrested for terrorism in Canada. Born in Los Angeles in 1967 and raised near Salt Lake City, he now makes his home in Brooklyn, New York. Visit his website Inhuman Swill for more info, or send him email at bill@shunn.net.




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