This is an article by
SFWA member William Shunn that's intended
for writers. It explains the proper format to use for short story
manuscripts. This article is licensed and distributed under a
Creative Commons License.
For details, click here.
Note: An earlier version of this article was
Writers Write: The Internet Writing Journal (December 1998).
William Shunn about 1,800 words
12 Courier Lane
Pica's Font, NY 10010
Active member, SFWA
Proper Manuscript Format
by William Shunn
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, use black ink on white paper only. Any other colors
make your manuscript difficult to read, not to mention calling
too much attention to the manuscript itself. The manuscript is a
window onto your story. It should not obscure the story, but
should be as transparent and unobtrusive as possible.
Your manuscript should look typed, not typeset. This is
particularly important if you are composing your manuscript on a
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computer, where the temptation to use fancy fonts can be great.
Use a Courier font like this one; every printer you can buy comes
with at least one version of it. Set the point size to 12, which
prints at a pitch of ten characters per inch.
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,
for example, 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.
Leave nice wide margins all around the page. There should
be at least an inch on each side--top, bottom, left, and right.
Always double-space between lines. Never submit a
single-spaced manuscript. The editor needs room to make
corrections between lines--but not too much room, so don't
Following the guidelines I've listed so far will mean you
can't fit many words on a page--250 to 300 at the most. This
will give your manuscript a higher page count, but don't fret
about that. It may cost a little more to mail, but sending a
manuscript that reads more quickly is worth the extra pennies.
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
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on each. To the editor, your story will feel like a faster read.
By the same token, print on only one side of the page.
Now, to the first page of your manuscript. Place your name,
address, telephone number, and E-mail address in the upper left
corner. If you belong to a professional writing organization,
you may list your membership beneath this information, but only
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 Asimov's or Realms ofFantasy, but it probably wouldn't cut much ice with the editors
at The New Yorker or Cat Fancy.
In the upper right corner of the first page, place an
approximate word count. Round to the nearest hundred words
unless you're edging up into novella length, at which point
rounding to the nearest 500 would be appropriate. The point of a
word count is not to tell the editor exactly how many words there
are in the manuscript, but rather how much space your story will
take up in her magazine. If your word processing software
doesn't give you a word count, you can estimate the total by
counting the number of words on one page and multiplying by the
number of pages in the manuscript.
Though many sources say you should, it is not necessary to
place your Social Security number anywhere on your manuscript.
If the publisher wants to know it, you'll be asked for it after
your story is accepted. Otherwise, it's extraneous--and in fact
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Place the title of your story about halfway down the first
page. The editor needs all that empty space for writing notes to
the typesetter and copy editor. Your title should be centered
between the margins. Most writers type the title all in
capitals, and you can too if you like.
One double space below your title, center your 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 will make
out the check. Your byline is the name that receives credit for
the story when it appears in print. These are not necessarily
the same. Perhaps your name is J. Scott Bronson but you publish
fiction under the pseudonym Everett Stone. Perhaps you are a
married woman publishing fiction under your maiden name. But
even if the two names are the same, they must both still appear
on your manuscript.
Begin the text of your manuscript two double spaces below
your byline. The beginning of every paragraph in your
manuscript, including the first, should be indented five spaces
(one half inch) from the left margin. Do not place extra double
spaces between paragraphs. The indentation is sufficient to
indicate that a new paragraph has begun.
Place a header in the upper right corner of every subsequent
page of your manuscript, but not the first. The header consists
of the surname from your byline, one or two important words from
the title of your story, and the current page number. Do not
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place the header in the upper-left corner, because the editorial
staff will often clip your manuscript in that corner as they work
on it. The keyword and surname are important because sometimes
unbound manuscripts happen to fall off editors' desks and become
mixed up with other manuscripts. The header helps the editorial
staff reassemble yours in the proper order.
Except for paragraph indentations, the left margin of your
manuscript should be ruler-straight. The right margin, however,
should be ragged, not justified. Right justification messes up
the spaces between words and sentences and makes the manuscript
more of a chore to read. This annoys 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 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 the word
"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 showing up in the final printed version of your story.
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Always place two spaces after any sentence-ending
punctuation. "Always?" you ask. Always! Some people will tell
you that two spaces aren't required these days, especially if
you're submitting a manuscript to be typeset directly from a
computer disk. Don't listen to these people. Unless you are
Harlan Ellison, your editor is actually going to read your
manuscript before sending it on to the typesetter, and her eye is
accustomed to seeing two spaces at the end of every sentence.
Anything else will annoy her, which should bring to mind the
cardinal rule of manuscript formatting, as mentioned above.
In addition, put two spaces after every colon: like so.
This convention helps the typesetter distinguish more easily
between colons and semicolons.
If you intend a word or phrase to appear in italics for
emphasis, indicate this in your manuscript by underlining.
Never use actual italics. Italics in a typewritten manuscript
just aren't as obvious to the eye as underlining is. If you're
tempted to use italics anyway, remember that the ultimate goal is
for your manuscript to look typewritten--and most typewriters
lack an option for italics.
If you want to indicate em dashes--the punctuation that sets
off a phrase like this one--in your manuscript, use two hyphens
to do so. Do not place spaces around the em 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
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line break, not just for ones that fall at the top or bottom of a
page or might otherwise be ambiguous.
Finally, you don't need to make any overt indication 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 comes when
the last line of your story falls close to the bottom of the
page. In this case, you may wish to write the word "end" by hand
in blue ink in the bottom margin.
While you'll find slight variations in the way different
writers format their manuscripts, follow these guidelines and
your work is guaranteed to come across as professional, at least
to the casual eye. You'll have scored points with the editor
right away, who, after rejecting that migraine-inducing green-on-
yellow submission, will find the prospect of your crisp, clean,
black-and-white manuscript as soothing as settling back with his
pipe and slippers.
What the editor thinks after reading your manuscript is
another matter, and a subject for a very different essay.
The author would like to thank Damon Knight and Algis Budrys
for their forceful instruction in proper manuscript format so many years ago,
and Scott Edelstein for his very helpful work
(Writers Digest Books, 1990).