Formatting nonfiction

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A reader writes to ask:

Love your clear instructions on manuscript preparation and am wondering if the formatting is the same for memoir?

Yes, exactly. You should format a personal essay the same as a short story, and book-length memoir the same as a novel.

These are, in fact, the same formats you would use for many types of general nonfiction. As you move into more specialized types of writing, however—journalism, academic writing, scientific writing, technical writing—more specialized types of formatting are required, and you should consult a relevant style guide.

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Setting off a new paragraph

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A reader writes to ask:

Why not have a triple space between paragraphs? (Because of the double space between the lines, the paragraphs are not distinguished.)

I infer from your question that you're confused about how to indicate the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next. You don't see how this can be done without inserting any extra vertical space between the two. If each line on the page is the same distance from the one after it, in other words, how in the world can the reader tell where a new paragraph starts?

Several different styles of paragraph formatting exist, but for the purpose of this discussion I'm only going to talk about two. The first is called block format. Each paragraph in block format appears as a simple, left-justified block of text, with vertical space separating each paragraph from the next. Many business letters are written in block format, as are most types of online writing, including this blog entry.

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A reader writes to ask:

When sending stories via email attachment, some markets insist on RTF, so I'll go to my Open Office files, where all my stories are .DOC, formatted in Standard Manuscript Format (SMF), and save the .DOC as RTF. Opened as RTF, the first paragraph is lined double spaced and then everything else is single spaced between lines. Then every once in awhile, a market will send it back saying they want it SMF. They've called for RTF, but then they say SMF. Okay, so what should I do, go back to .DOC and send it? or is there something I can do to get the RTF to be double spaced between lines??

You are confusing file format with manuscript format. When a market asks for an RTF file, they are only talking about the file format (in this case, Rich Text Format), which has to do with how your document is actually stored on your computer disk and what word processors can read it. You still have to make sure that the contents of your RTF file are formatted according to standard manuscript format, and that means making sure it's all double-spaced.

Fortunately, that's easy to fix. After you export the document, open the new RTF file in Open Office. Hit CTRL-A to highlight the full document. Then go into the formatting menu and change the line spacing from single to double. That should get the full document double-spaced for you. Save it again and send.

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Choosing the right printer

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A reader writes to ask:

I came across your web site while searching for information on the correct way to format a manuscript. I failed to make a note about electronic file printing. Do you have any recommendations regarding the brand and model of a printer which can handle this type of printing?

I won't name any brands or models because almost any desktop printer you can buy these days is capable of producing a fine, readable manuscript. (It used to be advisable to avoid submitting dot-matrix printouts, but nowadays even those work plenty well enough.) I would suggest a laser printer over an inkjet or impact printer simply for the sake of speed, but you should look for something in a price range you're comfortable with, keeping in mind that paper plus toner or ink cartridges will be ongoing expenses.

Also, be sure to buy the correct high-quality paper to match your type of printer. Read the label before purchasing to make sure it's recommended for use with your printer.

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A reader writes to ask:

Thanks for all the useful, easy-to-follow information about formatting on your web site. If I were submitting pages by snail mail, I think I'd be set. But the vast majority of agents I'm planning on querying ask for sample pages along with the query letter, and ask that the pages be submitted by email in the body of the message. This seems to make irrelevant a number of issues of formatting. For example, if it's translated into plain text, then the font and the spacing and so forth, that's all suddenly out of my control. Can I assume most will be able to read emails in html? In which case I am trying to approximate the format the best I can or..? I can't find advice on this anywhere. Help!

Formatting submissions for inclusion in the body of an email is indeed a very different beast from formatting them for paper or as email attachments. These days it's rare to find someone whose email client doesn't support reading HTML, but you still don't want to try to duplicate standard manuscript format in email. Instead you should reformat the message to match the medium.

The generally accepted guidelines are to single-space the text of your story, double-space between paragraphs, and not indent the first line of paragraphs—in other words, to format it just like this blog entry, as if you were posting it online. (Some markets expect you to go so far as to place _underscores like these_ around emphasized text instead of underlining or italicizing. I think that's a little excessive myself, but it's probably important to editors who read email in a text-only client.)

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I wrote the original version of my manuscript formatting guide in 1993, modeling it after a much older two-page guide I received from Damon Knight in 1985. Back in those days, even for those who'd made the switch to composing prose on computers, the goal of formatting was to produce a document for submission that looked as much as possible like it had sprung to life rolling through the platen of a typewriter, offspring of holy intercourse between paper, typebar, and ink ribbon.

The world of writing and publishing has changed plenty in these past seventeen, or twenty-five, or God knows how many years. A manuscript used to be the mere blueprint for a printed book or story, instructions in a coded language to the typesetter who would laboriously rework the entire thing into clean, finished type. Now the gap between manuscript and book has shrunk to the size of a computer file. Electronic submissions mean that the only physical keystroke in the life history of a given letter in a published work may well be the one executed by the author himself.

The accepted and acceptable standards of manuscript formatting have evolved to reflect this. Proportional fonts are used more and more in manuscripts, while typographical tricks that were necessary on typewriters now no longer make sense. More and more writers are submitting manuscripts that would have looked unacceptable a decade ago, and more and more editors don't mind this one bit. With the almost complete dominance of the word processor, topics like word-count approximation and end-of-line hyphenation are no longer relevant to most of us. It was long past time to update my format guide to reflect this new reality.

You old-school writers and editors, don't worry. I won't abandon my Courier font and double sentence spacing (more on that topic in a future post) without a fight. If I have my way, the manuscripts I produce fifty years from now will look the same as the ones I produce today. But I did want to acknowledge that mores are changing, and that not everyone agrees anymore about what proper manuscript format even means.

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A reader writes to ask:

I read your article on proper manuscript submission and found it to be very informative. I submitted my manuscript to a publisher and received an email that they would like to print but it is lacking formatting. I did not know of the correct formatting until I read your article. Question: Do I resubmit with your recommended format (courier, double spacing, etc.) for printing or do I do something else for the printing version? New at this.

The format described here on my site is intended only for manuscripts being submitted for consideration by an editor or agent. It is not a format for "camera-ready copy," which refers to the layout you see in a published book. A publisher asking you to provide a manuscript ready for printing is most likely a vanity or subsidy publisher, one that you pay out of your own pocket. In traditional commercial publishing, the publisher pays you for the right to publish your book, and then does the bulk of the work to prepare it for printing.

Commercial publishing can be hard to break into, with its complex systems of agents and editors and their rigorous ways of doing business. Getting your book published commercially can also take a very long time. What you get from a commercial publisher, though, is a certain level of professional treatment of your manuscript. If an editor likes your manuscript and wants to buy it for publication, he or she will guide you in rewriting it to make it the best and most compelling work it can possibly be. A professional copyeditor will help iron out spelling, grammar, and continuity errors. A professional typesetter will take your plain manuscript and render it in the sort of clean, beautiful format you're used to seeing in other published books. A professional marketer will, hopefully, help advertise your book in all the right places. A professional sales representative will convince bookstores to stock it, and a professional book distributor will deliver it to those stores.

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Composing a cover letter

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A reader writes to ask:

I am going to FEDEX my short fiction story to [a certain American] magazine, who were the only gracious ones to send me a response to my e-mail query (out of hundreds of e-mail queries sent). Before i do that, i need to enclose a cover letter with it. Would you have a sample i could use?

That's a bit outside the scope of this blog, but since it does have to do with the image of yourself as a professional writer that you present to an editor, I'll judge it a fair question for consideration here.

A cover letter should almost always be short, simple, and to the point. What it contains will be different depending on the circumstances of your submission.

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A reader writes to ask:

I am submitting a short story collection, but the publisher requests just the first 50 pages.

How do I handle this in terms of what I would write for word count? Do I include the number of words in first 50 pages? The entire manuscript?

You mentioned including a list of where stories had been published. What should this list look like? A simple 1, 2, 3? Should I title the page?

In your cover letter—and this goes for novels as well as collections—you should mention the word count for the full manuscript. That's the information your editor needs in order to understand the size of the book you're proposing. There is no need to give a word count for the 50-page excerpt.

I'm not aware of a hard-and-fast rule for how to list the publication history for your stories, so use your best judgment. I would simply include a page headed "Publication History" at the end of the sample pages. (You can indicate in your cover letter that such a list will follow the excerpt.) It would be fine to single-space within entries on this page, and numbering them is not required. To get even fancier, you could use hanging indents for each item in the list.

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A reader writes to ask:

My question is in regards to formatting a prologue. My story is a fantasy/sci-fi tale that has two separate events that occur to two separate groups that lay the foundation for the actual "chapter 1" of my tale.

In my manuscript, I want them to be the prologue/precursor to my story, but I am unsure as to what the correct formatting rule would be (if there is one) in connecting the two. Do I just add an extra space and start the new scene or do I need to add a new heading of some sort?

There is no rule about headers for new scenes in fiction. The standard thing to do in your scenario would be to just skip a line and start the new scene—we call this a "scene break" or a "line break"—but really you can do whatever you want. You could label the two scenes "1." and "2." within the prologue if you wanted, or you could treat each like a separate prologue and call them "Prologue A" and "Prologue B." You don't even need to call the prologue a prologue if you don't want to. You could simply label it "Earlier" or "1987" or "February" or "Bob Jones." Or you could give it no label at all.

If you go to the bookstore or your own bookshelf and start flipping through novels at random, I'm sure you'll see all those methods, and more. The point is, it's your book and you can call your chapters and scenes what you like, if you like. Whatever you think works best for your story.

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Looking for Bill's original properly formatted article on proper manuscript format? Click here.
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FLOG is Hugo- and Nebula-nominated author William Shunn's blog on manuscript formatting and preparation for fiction writers. It features formatting questions from real readers and writers like you. Submit your questions to format at shunn dot net. Identitying information will remain private. We regret that we can't always respond individually to submissions, and that we can't answer every question we receive.
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