Formatting and submitting poems | Proper Manuscript Format | William Shunn

Formatting and submitting poems

A reader writes to ask:

I have three questions about longer poetry manuscripts.

In most cases, editors request poetry submissions that contain 3-5 poems, yet nearly every example I can see depicts a submission of a single poem. How, or should the subsequent poems be formatted differently? Does the address belong at the top of each poem or only the first?

When is a cover sheet appropriate? Is that only for manuscripts of poetry books and contests, or is a cover sheet also used for the typical submissions of 3-5 poems?

I see some conflicting advice online about how to format the second and subsequent pages of a poem that is longer than one page in length, but I don't see many clear visual examples like the ones you provide. Do you have any advice on those formatting issues?

These are excellent questions about poetry submissions, one of the least-discussed topics in the manuscript format conversation. Before answering them, I want to review the basics of poetry formatting.

To begin, place your name and contact information in the upper-left corner of your poem manuscript, same as you would with a prose manuscript. In the upper-right corner, optionally, you may list the number of lines in your poem. Skip a few lines, then center the title of your poem. Skip a few more lines and begin the text of your poem.

The text itself should be single-spaced (not double-spaced like a prose manuscript). Skip a line between stanzas. Rather than the standard 1-inch margins of a prose manuscript, you can set the margins for the text of your poem anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 inches, depending on how long your average line is. Your goal is for the poem to look more or less centered between the margins. If a single line of the poem is too long to fit on one line of the manuscript, it should carry over to the next line with a "hanging indent," as shown in this four-line sample:

Between me, safe in my seat on this bus,
And the decadent majesty of the salmon-red cliffs of
     eastern Utah,
A ghost landscape stands sentinel,
As if etched into the glass by a cadre of capering

Those are the basics of poetry formatting. To move on to your questions, if your poem is too long to fit on one page, then all subsequent pages need a header, including page number, in the upper-left corner. Try to break pages between stanzas of your poem, though this may not always be possible.

When submitting a package of three to five poems, each individual poem should follow the standard format, with your contact info in the upper-left corner. The page numbering should start over for each multi-page poem in your package. For example, if the third poem in your package has two pages, then its second page should still be numbered 2.

When you ask about a "cover sheet," I assume that you mean the equivalent of a title page for a novel, a separate page with your contact info and the work's title. No, a cover sheet is not necessary, but if the market's guidelines request a cover letter that lists your previous publications, then you should certainly include that.

I've updated my sample poem manuscript page, by the way, to provide a sample of a submission package containing three poems. Take a look.

(Special thanks to Chuck Sambuchino for his book Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, which was invaluable in preparing this post.)