Proper Manuscript Format : Short Story Format

Get more formatting tips in FLOG, Bill's blog on manuscript preparation.

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An earlier version of this article was reprinted in Writers Write: The Internet Writing Journal, December 1998

William Shunn                                   about 1,500 words
12 Courier Lane
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                    Proper Manuscript Format
                        by William Shunn

     No one knows for certain how many good short 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 type on white paper only.  Other colors

make your work difficult to read, not to mention calling too much

attention to the manuscript itself.  Print on only one side of

the page.

     For easy readability, limit your choice of font to either

Courier or Times New Roman.  Courier (my strong preference) is a

monospaced font, which means that every character is exactly as

                                               Shunn / Format / 2

wide as every other.  It's easier for an editor to detect

spelling errors in a monospaced font than in a proportional font

like Times New Roman (in which the "i" uses less horizontal space

than the "m" does).  With a monospaced font, there will also be

fewer characters on each line, which can make your manuscript

easier to scan.  Still, many writers have come to prefer Times

New Roman, and either is usually acceptable.  (If in doubt,

consult your intended market's submission guidelines.)  Set your

font size to 12 points.

     Use nice wide margins all around your pages.  There should

be at least an inch to each side of the text--top, bottom, left,

and right.

     Always double-space between lines.  Never submit a

single-spaced manuscript.  The editor needs room to make

corrections and other typographical marks between lines--but not

too much room, so don't triple-space either.

     The guidelines I've offered so far will give you pages of

about 250 to 300 words apiece.  This may increase your page

count, but don't fret about that.  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 on each, and as a result your story may feel

as if it reads faster than otherwise.

     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

                                               Shunn / Format / 3

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 of Fantasy,

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 print.  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


     Place the title of your story one third to one half of the

way 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.  Many writers type the

title in all capitals, and you can too if you like, though it's

not necessary.

                                               Shunn / Format / 4

     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's not.  The

name in the corner is the person to whom the publisher will make

out the check.  The 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, or perhaps you are a

married woman publishing fiction under your birth name.  Whatever

the case, even if the two names are the same, both must appear on

your manuscript.

     Begin the text of your manuscript two double spaces below

your byline.  The first line of every paragraph in your

manuscript, including this first paragraph, should be indented

one half inch from the left margin.  (You can set tab stops or

paragraph styles in your word processor to help with this.)  Do

not place extra line spaces between paragraphs, as is the common

practice in blogs and other online writing.  The first-line

indentation is sufficient to indicate that a new paragraph has


     Place a page header in the upper right corner of every page

of your manuscript except the first.  This header consists of

your real surname, one or two important words from the title of

your story, and the current page number.  Do not place the header

in the upper left corner because the editorial staff will

sometimes clip your manuscript in that corner as they work on it.

                                               Shunn / Format / 5

The surname and keyword 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.

     In the days of typewriters, the usual practice was to put

two spaces after the end of every sentence, and also to put two

spaces after every colon.  This helped make the separations

between sentences more apparent, and helped editors more easily

distinguish periods from commas and colons from semicolons.  With

the dominance of computers, that practice is changing, and it is

more common now to see only one space between sentences.

Ingrained habits die hard, though, so if you're used to hitting

the spacebar twice after a period, you shouldn't stress out about

it, particularly if you're using a Courier font.

     If you intend a word or phrase to appear in italics, the

convention has long been to indicate this in your manuscript by

underlining.  This practice, too, is beginning to change.  In

Courier you should continue to underline, since italics in

monospaced fonts are easy to overlook.  In Times New Roman,

though, it's becoming more and more acceptable to use italics

directly.  (Again, consult submission guidelines when you're in

                                               Shunn / Format / 6


     If you want to indicate an em dash--the punctuation that

sets off a phrase like this one--use two hyphens to do so.  Do

not place spaces around the hyphens.  (Many word processors are

set by default to convert two hyphens to a real em dash.  You'll

want to turn that feature off if you're using a monospaced font,

since the em dash and hyphen characters are easily confused by

the eye.  In proportional fonts, this isn't so important since

the em dash is noticeably wider than a hyphen.)

     "A lot of people ask me about dialog," I told an editor

friend of mine recently.  "Do you have any suggestions?"

     "Dialog should be enclosed in quotation marks," she said.

"Some writers get away with doing it differently, but they're

rare exceptions."

     "Isn't it also the usual practice to start a new paragraph

when the speaker changes?" I asked.

     "Yes, it is.  That helps the reader keep track of who's

speaking even when speech tags are omitted."

     If you want a line break to appear in your story, then

rather than leaving a blank line you should center the character

"#" on a line by itself.  Do this for every line break, not just

for ones that fall at the top or bottom of a page.  As you edit

and revise your manuscript prior to submission, those breaks can

move around, and word processors often hide blank lines that come

at the start or end of a page.  You don't want your scene breaks

rendered invisible to your editor.

                                               Shunn / Format / 7

     Finally, though you don't need to make any overt indication,

some writers choose to center the word "END" after the last line

of a story.  This can help avoid ambiguity if your final words

fall near the bottom of the page.


     While you'll find certain variations in the way different

writers format their manuscripts, no one departs very far from

what I've outlined above.  But always check a market's submission

guidelines before sending your work.  If their guidelines differ

from mine, follow theirs.

     At the very least, these suggestions will guarantee your

work looks professional.  How the story itself comes across is an

entirely separate matter--and that part's all up to you.  Best of



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Now go ahead and study a sample excerpt from a novel manuscript.
What similarities do you notice? What differences?

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