Submissions | Proper Manuscript Format | William Shunn

A reader writes to ask:

The font I have been using for 10 years is Arial. I like it alot. Any comments. Should I check with Sheila Williams, the editor at Azimovs.

No. No. No. A thousand times no. Use Courier or Times New Roman. Do not use Arial, and do not bug Sheila about it. Do check the spelling of your intended market before you submit your manuscript. That is all.

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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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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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Composing a cover letter


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:

I came upon your blog when asking a question about short story indentation at I don't know if you'll ever read this, but if you do and can spare some time, I'd appreciate a response.

I was just about ready to submit an anthology of short stories to the printer. I am self-publishing some of my stories.

Anyway, for some reason, this afternoon I looked at four short story anthologies in my personal library. In three of them, all of the stories begin without any indentation. In the fourth, there is an indentation, but the first letter of each story is formatted in an oversized capital letter.

I have begun each of my stories with a standard paragraph indentation, just as I note you indicate short stories should be formatted. But now seeing the formatting of the anthologies in my possession, I wonder if I should re-do the formatting of the first paragraph of each story.

You seem to be confusing book design with manuscript formatting. Let me try to explain the difference.

Manuscript formatting is what you do to prepare your book or story for submission to an editor. The editor's job is to decide whether or not to accept the manuscript for publication, and then to offer suggestions on improving the manuscript. He or she will likely make a lot of notes directly on the manuscript itself. That's why, when submitting a manuscript to an editor, you should do the things I suggest in my manuscript formatting guidelines, such as using a big, readable font, double-spacing, indenting paragraphs half an inch, and so on.

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Copyrighting your work

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A reader writes to ask:

At the end of your podcasts, you include the important fact that your podcasts have a Creative Commons license on them, and I'd like to ask how I can be sure my own work has that protection. I've uploaded some of the preliminary drafts of chapters of my unfinished book onto a website in PDF form, and I did put a copyright statement at the bottom essentially stating "it's my work, don't steal it," but I don't know if I need to receive any official documentation of a Creative Commons license, or if there's a more secure way to make my work available for anyone who wants to read it.

I want to preface this (slightly off-topic) discussion by stating that I am not an expert in copyright. Bearing that in mind, the first thing you should understand it that your work is copyrighted automatically by virtue of the fact that you wrote it. You don't need to include an actual copyright statement on your work to make that true (though you can, of course). If you anticipate ever litigating over unauthorized uses of your work, you might consider registering your copyright. (Learn more about American copyright registration from the U.S. Copyright Office at

The only reason you would need a Creative Commons license is if you want to be able to make your work available for others to repost, reuse and/or remix for free. With Creative Commons, you can customize the license under which you release your work, choosing which rights you want to reserve and which you want to give away. Cory Doctorow and other high-profile writers routinely release their books online under such licenses, and for some of them it seems to be working out very well indeed. (For more info on Creative Commons and how to license your work, please see

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Looking for Bill's original properly formatted article on proper manuscript format? Click here.
Proper Manuscript Format Illustrated - Click here.
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 info at format dot ms. 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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