The manuscript format

“What is ‘standard manuscript format’?”

I’ve heard that question asked many times at writers’ workshops and groups, even at groups aimed at the “more advanced writer”. So I thought I’d give a run down here. In fact, there are several answers depending on whom you ask. Some of the “rules” you’ll hear are “guidelines” rather than hard-and-fast instructions. And undoubtedly many will relate to the specific requirements of individual publishers and editors. But there are some basic rules that are applicable across the board and will make most editors happy. These are:

Chose the correct paper size: A4 in Europe, Letter in the USA. Only once have I seen a market specify US Letter, saying that anything on A4 would be rejected – this seemed draconian to me but it is best to select the appropriate size

Margins of 1.0-1.5 inches (2.5-3.0 cm) all round

If you are British writing for a British market, set your spell checker to British-English. It really does help. And likewise, if you write for the American market…

Double-space text

A standard, easy-to-read font, such as Times New Roman (especially if you send a hard copy) or Arial at 12-point

No extra line between paragraphs, but is acceptable between section breaks and chapters

Indicate section breaks and chapters with *** or similar (or the chapter title)

Indent the first line of new paragraphs (although the first line of the first paragraph of new sections or chapters may be left without the indent). Many publications request that you do not use the tab or space bars when making indents – use the ruler guide instead. If you are writing specifically for online or e-publication, these rules may be altered – read the guidelines

Left justified only

Do not use an extra space between sentences. Depress the space bar just once between sentences

Use italics for titles of films, books, etc (some publications may ask for these to be underlined)

Include the author’s contact details (address, email) on the first page (repeating this information on the final page may be useful, especially on longer manuscripts)

If the guidelines state a maximum story length of 5,000 words do not send a submission of 8,000 words without checking beforehand. And if there is a theme and/or other requirements, ensure your submission meets them

If submitting electronically, use the stipulated format. If the manuscript is required as an attachment do not paste the story in the body of the email

If you are not sure on the file type, RTF is the best option

Usually, the email subject line must include information that readily identifies your submission; use both story title and your name (not the file name if different)

Typically, a short covering letter or email is all that is required, stating basic details. Most publications do not require a complete bibliography. A link to your blog or website will be sufficient 

A brief biography of, for example, 50-100 words is frequently required if your story is selected for publication. Do not send a 700 word essay

Speech marks: individual editors/publishers have their own preference. Read the submission guidelines. If you use double quotes, use single marks for quotes within speech (see the first sentence of this blog)

If the guidelines state that all submissions will be read after the submission period ends allow a sensible period before querying – say six-eight weeks. Please bear with the editor

Frequently, stories will be accepted subject to editorial suggestions – for sense, grammar and house style. Suggestions are intended to help the writer improve the story so consider them carefully

These guidelines are not meant to be onerous. They will help new writers develop their trade, to learn how to send professional-looking manuscripts to all publishers, big and small. Smart, clean manuscripts are more likely to be read than ones presented in an idiosyncratic format.

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