SIXTY-SECOND SUB TIPS: Formatting

Welcome to our Sixty-Second Sub Tips series, where we’ll take a close look at various aspects of the general submission process to get skills sharpened and foots in doors! The sixty-second part? There’s a Quick Review Checklist Box at the bottom of each post!

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After our first Manuscript Musings post (now that the Spring 2022 issue is in the bag, another one is coming soon), some of our readers asked for tips on proper manuscript formatting.

Why is this important? Formatting a manuscript professionally is critical, because it ensures easy reading and room for notes (on paper or electronically, especially if Track Changes is used), which, in turn, keeps the publication’s workflow moving—which means a faster response time to writers.

Why should you care? The truth: editors have hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions to read and evaluate, and decision-making is always difficult. Anything that can be eliminated quickly is helpful. Therefore, those that aren’t formatted according to the project’s guidelines, or even just professionally, are an easy mark for rejection. In fact, it’s stated in many guidelines that improperly formatted submissions won’t even be read.

Unfair? No. Efficient business. Employers do the same thing when they’re screening job candidates. The similarities between the two processes are staggering: editors, like employers, are looking for the best match.

Professional formatting makes a positive first impression. It sends the message that you’re not only serious about your art form, you consider yourself a professional, which, in turn, indicates that you’re going to be easier to work with. Any manuscript will go through edits before publication, which means you’ll be working as a team with an editor. A properly formatted manuscript tells editors you know what you’re doing, resulting in less time, less hassle, and a better final product.

Scenario: Suppose there are two stories in the pile competing for one spot. They are equally our vibe, and equally excellent. One manuscript is professionally formatted. The other isn’t. I can’t speak for any other editor, but I can speak for myself. This is what would go through my head:

Professionally-formatted manuscript: Wow. This person’s a pro, so I won’t have to worry about having to spend time explaining how the process works or how to use Track Changes. This person will probably take my editing suggestions seriously and will be as open to compromise and discussion as I am, because we both want the best result. This person will probably understand that we’re on a deadline and will respond in a timely manner. The manuscript will be easy to prepare when we send it to layout, because we already know what we need to change to fit our format—three or four quick changes and off it goes. This is going to be a breeze. This is going to be fun.

Improperly-formatted manuscript: Formatting professionally is easy. If this person’s serious about the work, why didn’t this person do it? If it’s a lack of experience, then, does this person know how to use Track Changes? How much time am I going to have to spend walking this person through the process? Will it take forever to get the edits back because there’s a lack of knowledge about what’s a good suggestion and what isn’t? If it’s not professionally formatted because this person believes he or she is so good he or she doesn’t need to follow the rules, then there’s an arrogance there, so … is this person going to balk if I make a small change? Will we be able to come to any compromises if the person doesn’t like my suggestion? If it’s out of laziness, will this person just not respond in a timely manner or not want to do anything further and cause a disruption in our workflow? We’ll also have to strip the entire thing down to text and reformat it, because we don’t know what’s lurking underneath the code that might mess up our layout process later. That will mean I’ll have to compare the original with the plain text to make sure I don’t miss any paragraphing, bolding, or italics, and I’ll probably have to reformat all the smart quotes and everything, which is easy enough with search and replace, but one or two always gets missed, which means I’ll probably have to read it aloud more than once to make sure. I’m anxious about what it will be like to work with this person, and it’s going to be more work no matter what. Ugh.

Guess which one gets the coveted slot?

I have no problem appearing judgmental, because here’s the reality: a manuscript’s appearance sends a message. It’s no different from getting an email from a strange address full of typos requesting money versus an email from a trusted company that’s perfectly polished asking you to consider an investment. Which one makes you feel safer?

Professional formatting is easy. After you do it a few times, it just becomes second nature. As long as the guidelines don’t ask for something specific (like a specific font, or single spacing, or something like that), Shunn or SFWA formats are the way to go. Either one covers all the basics, and your manuscript is guaranteed to look professional—with minimal effort. These links give very specific instructions.

Shunn is preferable. I only included SFWA here because some publications will specify they want that one, and I wanted you to know what it is.

Shunn Classic Formatting for Short Fiction

Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America [SFWA] Format

What about poetry? Shunn has a format for poetry, too, and it allows for the unique layouts and spacing of poems. So, yes, you can still go with a professional format for your poetry without messing with its original intended presentation. I’m bolding this because many poets don’t realize that double-spacing poetry is not required (unless, of course, that was the poet’s intent), and if the poem is visually spread out or designed, that’s okay, too. Editors expect poetry to appear in non-traditional form, but there are still rules regarding font, name/contact information, and other basics that won’t interfere with the character of the piece.

Shunn Formatting for Poetry

If you don’t know how to perform a specific task—such as removing the double-spacing between paragraphs—or a market requires a certain format-related item you’ve never even heard of, much less know how to do, there is no shame in that. We’ve all been there and learned by doing, and you can find anything on Google these days. Step-by-step instructions for your specific word processing program and version are just a search away.

Above all, the most important thing is that your name and contact information appear on the manuscript itself (unless the guidelines specifically tell you to take it off—some publications read blind, so make sure you’re paying attention and remove your info if that is what they ask for. We’ll talk about this in a future installment). Most publications have a team of readers and/or editors, and during the consideration process, documents get shared. In the best case, work can get lost in the shuffle. In the worst? That fabulous poem you wrote could be attributed to another writer. While both of these scenarios are unlikely, would you really want to take that chance? Mistakes happen. Ensuring your contact info is on the manuscript protects yourself and your interests.

Manuscript Formatting Quick Tips Box

We hope you found this helpful! If there’s anything you’d like us to cover, please leave a comment below or reach out to us through our contact page. We’d love to hear from you!

–Kristi