A week or so before I started writing my first short story, in the summer of 2019, I came across an article bemoaning new writer mistakes. After breaking my arm patting my own back for avoiding the most egregious of the lot, the author of the piece brought me up short with a throwaway line in the comment section of all things. “Don’t even get me started on people not knowing to submit in standard manuscript format.”
What the hell is standard manuscript format?
Lucky for me, this is the age of the Internet, where all answers are a Bing away. Though I’m sure I’d be able to find the same information in the back of Writer’s Digest if this were the 20th Century. But having done all the work finding that information 3 years ago, it’s time to take everything I know about Manuscript Format (to give it the full respect it deserves, we capitalize) and share it with you.
Get A Template
The best resource for Manuscript Format is William Shunn’s website . Shunn’s articles on the subject (displayed in Manuscript Format to help visualize what he’s talking about) are the gold standard. His site is frequently linked in submission guidelines, at least for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery magazines. Some places reference another, even more venerable article by Vonda N. McIntyre but I feel it’s focus was more on hardcopy submissions. But the two resources back each other up, so either is good.
Shunn’s site edges in front for me, however, since he has templates for Word and OpenOffice for both short story and novel Manuscript Format, and in the Modern (using Times New Roman) and Classic (using Courier) styles. Here’s what I’m getting at; don’t screw this up by re-inventing the wheel. Read the articles, understand the format, and then use a properly formatted, industry standard template. It’ll save you months of agonizing over whether a story was rejected because the editor didn’t like it or whether you mucked about and put in .75 inch margins. Not that you would do that; agonize, I mean. We writers don’t waste time on rejectomancy, right? Right?
Use Some Software
Scrivener lets you compile your short story from their weird stack of RTF files to a nice, Shunn-alike Manuscript Format. I say “Shunn-alike” since in both version 1.x and 3.x for Windows, they use a table (tables in Word? Why?) to set up the formatting on the first page. It bothered me. I found it easy to accidently mess up after compiling the document, but your mileage may vary. Scrivener also lets you export to both Modern and Classic styles. If you like Scrivener, this is great. I don’t, but I’m a rusty old curmudgeon.There’s also the Hard Way by writing in Markdown in a text editor and using Pandoc with a template to create a properly formatted file. Did that whole sentence whoosh over your head? It’s OK. I’ll let the fine people at Autodidacts.io explain the process. I’ll note that I’ve used this method (as well as Scrivener) and I spent more time avoiding writing by “troubleshooting” the process than I’d like to admit.
There’s a number of markets that request/require anonymous submissions. That means nearly all the fun, identifying data in Manuscript Format gets blown away before submission. My advice is to have an Anon copy of the submission, removing your name and address from the front page, and your last name from the succeeding page headers. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll remember we already have two subtypes of Manuscript Format, Classic and Modern. After I finish a story (ie, all the edits and tweaks I’m going to make are done, and I type END at the, uh, end), I’ll have a file with four files in it. Modern and Classic Manuscript Format with all my information, and Modern and Classic with the document anonymized. I do this once, from a golden copy of the final draft (more on drafts later), and when the story sells and I have a professionally edited, truly final version of the story I’ll regenerate those four files from the new golden copy.
But What About Other Formats?
Other formats? What? You’ll see some markets requiring other formats. Usually anonymous submissions, maybe plain text pasted into a submission form, or a Google Sheet, or something else that really smashes the patriarchy of industry standards. I don’t do a lot with those markets. And that’s not due to some holy devotion to the One True Manuscript Format (God Bless Its Bits). It’s because these markets are creating extra work for me to reformat a file to their standard, while (and I’m generalizing here) not paying a professional rate. Now I’ll do a little extra work for 10 cents a word (that should sadden all of us, but that’s life) but I won’t lift a finger for token pay or contributor copies.