This will be the first in a series of informational posts about the pragmatics of fiction writing and submission. When I was brand new, it was extraordinarily difficult to find definitive answers to even the most basic questions. Such as: in what format do I send my stories when mailing them to a magazine or other short fiction publisher?
STANDARD MANUSCRIPT FORMAT
Even though e-publishing has begun to change the rules a little bit, one thing that hasn’t changed is that most editors still want their manuscripts submitted to them in a format that is a) easy for them to read and is b) immediately familiar. Thus the retention in the business of what is commonly called STANDARD MANUSCRIPT FORMAT. All by itself, this phrase is meaningless, and if you look it up in Writer’s Market or some other book, you’re still liable to be confused because those books seldom actually show you what this is supposed to actually look like on the page.
The sole goal of Standard Manuscript Format is to make your story’s physical and visual format ‘transparent’ to the editor. Ergo, not noticeable, because it’s what the editor is used to seeing. So that your story — not your formatting — is the focus.
That’s where SF writer Vonda McIntyre did the industry a huge service by creating her seminal article, “Manuscript Preparation.” (click here for the link.) I originally ran across this article about a dozen years ago, when I was at the end of a frustrating period of fruitless short fiction production, and wondering if perhaps part of my problem was that I’d been using an incorrect format when sending to the publishers.
SF writer William Shunn has also done his own version (click here for the link) which follows McIntyre’s almost exactly. In both cases — McIntyre and Shunn — we can identify immediate points of format commonality:
1. Use 20 lb. white bond 8.5″ x 11″ paper, which is basically just a standard ream of copier or printer paper from your local office supply or all-in-one store, like Target or Wal Mart. Do not use colored paper or paper that is not 8.5 inches by 11 inches in size. Colorful paper or unusually sized paper marks you as an amateur, and guarantees rejection. Also, do not use heavier bond paper, photo-quality paper, construction paper, butcher paper, etc, etc. Unusual types and kinds of paper are distracting, and are to be avoided. Make it plain white standard copier or printer paper, and you’re good to go.
2. Use a “typewriter” font such as Courier or Courier New. SF writer Robert J. Sawyer excellently suggests using a special font from Hewlett-Packard called Dark Courier, which renders beautifully from most laser printers where Courier New appears too “light” on the page. Dark Courier can be downloaded for free from the HP web site. (click here for the link.) Do not use proportionally-spaced fonts such as Times New Roman or Arial. Yes, a font like Times New Roman is how we’re all used to seeing words on a page in a book or magazine, but this is not what an editor needs or expects during the submission phase. Assuming your manuscript is purchased, it will be re-formatted at a later date. So stick with a “typewriter” font, and keep it at size 12 in your word processor program. Anything larger or smaller is unusual, and to be avoided. Also avoid artful or “cute” fonts, which will mark you as an amateur.
3. Always double-space the body of your story. That doesn’t mean putting a return (‘enter’) at the end of every sentence on the page, like in the typewriter days. It just means that when you’re done writing your story — because, really, you’re going to write the darn thing in whatever spacing and font works best for you — you have to go back through and quick-format all the pages to use double-space. Not 1.5 spacing. Not creatively fudged point spacing. You might be tempted to save paper by hedging on that double-spacing, and if you do an editor will know when they see it, and probably reject as a result.
4. Don’t bold or italicize anything in the body of the manuscript. If you want to put emphasis on a given word or string of words, simply underline them. Like much else about this process, underlining is a holdover format from the typewriter days when nobody had formatting options other than underlining. Again, that’s not how we’re used to seeing stories in print in books and magazines, but how your story is formatted at the point of print is never going to be the same as how it’s formatted at the point of submission. So underline only. No italics, cute or deviant fonts, bolding, strikethrough, or other non-standard appearance.
5. Make sure you have a 1-inch margin all the way around the edge of each page. You might be tempted to save paper by going with smaller margins, but anything smaller than 1 inch is going to be noticed by an editor, and possibly cause problems. Also, don’t make the margins any larger than 1.5 inches. A too-large margin is also liable to be noticed by an editor. When I format my manuscripts I have 1 inch at the left, right, and bottom margins, with a 1.3 inch margin at the top to make room for the page number.
6. Your page numbering should always be the same font and size as your body text, and should always be in the top right corner. Again, this is a convenience for the editor because that is where the editor expects it to be. You also need to put your last name as part of the page number line, and at least one to several words of the story title — if not the entirety of the title itself. Separate these elements with a slash ( / ) as shown, with either one or two spaces. I tend to use two spaces just because that’s my personal preference. The page number lines should appear on all pages of the manuscript, save for the first page which generally has your contact information and word count and is, by assumption, Page 1. Since your manuscript will never be stapled — NEVER USE STAPLES ON A MANUSCRIPT! EVER! — you need these page number lines to ensure that if your manuscript is ever shuffled or spilled, it can be easily put back together again by a glance at the page number line.
7. The first page of your manuscript should contain the title of your story, the “by line,” your contact information, and an approximate word count. Also, if you do not want the whole manuscript returned to you via full-sized envelope, mark the manuscript as “disposable copy” underneath the word count. The exact layout for this can be seen on both Shunn’s and McIntyre’s examples, with your contact info single-spaced in the top left corner and your approximate word count in the top right corner. The story title does not need to be in in quotes, bold, underlined, in a font different from the ordinary size 12 “typewriter” font, or italicized. Nor does the title need to be IN ALL CAPS. Just type the title in what is called Caps Case, with important words other than “and” or “the” possessing an initial capital letter, then double space down and do a “by” followed by the name you will use for the story. This may or may not be your pen name. If using a pen name, put it after the “by” so that this is how it’s printed when published. Your name in your contact info in the top left is always your real name — the name that’s going to get the payment for the story! Also, the “by” name is the same name you will use in your page number line.
8. Scene breaks — those spaces between scenes in stories where time and/or setting alters to some great degree, without having to be described — should be indicated with a pound symbol. ( # ) This is generally going to be centered on the page, by itself, with no alteration in the double spacing of the body of the text. Additional returns (‘enters’) before and after the # will not be necessary. The # indicates to an editor that this is a scene break. Also, at the end of your story, it doesn’t hurt to do a line of three or more # right after one another, as a way to visually let the editor know that the story is complete. McIntyre uses <<>> at the end of stories. Your choice, as this is one of the few areas where the formatting is not rigid. I use five # symbols ( # # # # # ) centered, which seems to work just fine at the end of the stories I have sold.
Okay, that covers the manuscript itself. When in doubt, go click on the Shunn or McIntyre links and take a look at the formatting as presented visually. Many beginners tend to make this whole formatting process far, faaaaaaaaaar more complex than it needs to be. As I said at the start, your objective with format is to make the format ‘invisible’ so that the editor gets right to the story, without distraction.
THE COVER LETTER
Some editors and authors disagree as to the value of a cover letter. It might be argued that the presence of the manuscript, all by itself, is a tacit statement of submission when that manuscript shows up in an editor’s in-box. Other editors have stated explicitly that a cover letter is a convenience, as a sheet allowing them to make notes on the story or record other information. I personally use one because it’s the only place I get to mention previous sales, since my name isn’t well known enough yet for it to have become a ‘quantity’ at the editor level.
Beginners won’t have any publication credits, so the best advice I’ve seen is to keep the cover letter as simple and as unassuming as possible. (click here to see my example.)
Now…. There is a huge debate among entry-level writers as to what actually constitutes a publication credit. Does your high school newspaper count? How about a community college yearly? A no-pay or token-pay web ‘zine? Audio or pod casts?
I suggest — and this is just me stating raw opinion here — that a publication credit of any sort does not matter unless it was the kind of publication for which you were paid a decent sum of money. Ergo, no less than 3 to 5 cents (US) per word. Penny per word, fractions of a penny per word,” 4-da-luv,” or “contributors copies” payment is almost meaningless when sending anything to a professional fiction market. Mostly because the markets that pay that low aren’t even going to be on a pro editor’s radar, as a market with standards at least as high as that editor’s own standards.
Which is really all a publication credit does: it tells an editor to whom you have never sold that you are capable of selling at the level that editor requires. Ergo, when sending a story to one of the Dell digests, your unpaid publication in the Upper Skoakokie Valley Tech College Quarterly isn’t going to mean much.
NOTE: I am not saying such publications should mean nothing to you as the writer, I am just saying that an editor at a pro short fiction publication isn’t going to care if you’re listing a track record that isn’t already at that level, or better. When in doubt, reference the SFWA.ORG web site and check out their list of what they consider to be acceptable, professional, ‘stream-of-commerce’ short fiction markets. Anything else… Well, use your best judgment. Did you sell a short story to a rising podcast market for $200? That’s probably a good credit. Did you sell a short story to a reputable small press anthology for 2 cents a word, plus royalties? That too is also a good credit. But the kind of “credit” one gets from an unpaid appearance on Ed Schmed’s Web ‘Zine or Joe McNobody’s Fanfic Blog is liable not to matter.
Indeed, a string of such appearances on your part — story after story at the token and no-pay level — might hurt you. Because that tells the editor you’re plateuxing at a level that is beneath the needs of that editor, and you’ve just front-loaded that editor’s expectation about the kind of quality you’re able to deliver. So even if you do have scads of token and no-pay publications, resist the urge to trumpet about them in your cover letter when mailing to the professional level markets.
Now, formatting the cover letter is much less standard than the manuscript itself, but I stick to using the same font as I used in the manuscript, as well as a few basic rules.
1. Even though you put your contact info on the front page of the manuscript, repeat this same info on your cover letter — this time in the top right corner. Same name, address, phone, cell, e-mail, what have you. The content of the contact block will be identical to that of the manuscript itself, only its position on the page will be different.
2. Space down, left-justify, and put the contact name and address of the editor/market to which you’re sending. This will be the same name and address you use on the outside of the envelope when mailing to a market. Be careful when using cover letters because it’s easy to forget to change this part — and you will look silly sending a story to Stan Schmidt at Analog SF with Gordon Van Gelder’s contact and market info on your cover letter.
3. Put a date either above or below the editor/market contact info. Useful for you and editor alike, in identifying when a manuscript was sent out. Change this date every time you re-submit a story, and never use it to indicate a story’s date of creation. A story written years in the past might tell the editor that it’s bounced through a lot of markets, and again you’ve front-loaded the editor’s expectations, which is almost always bad.
4. Begin the letter with either, “Dear so-and-so,” or even just, “Mr./Ms. so-and-so.” If you’re not quite sure who the editor might be — and this happens sometimes — then omit this line altogether. Don’t write, “To whom it may concern,” or any kind of generalized opening line like that. Either address an editor directly by name, or don’t address them at all.
5. The body of the letter — especially at the aspirant level — is going to be extremely short. “Here is my story titled such-and-such, it’s this many words long. Thank you for your time. The end.” Lengthy or verbose cover letters don’t matter unless you’re talking about previous professional publication — or perhaps non-fiction publication, or professional education or experience that demonstrates applicability to the story, or which demonstrates your history as a non-fiction professional writer. Again, editors at the pro level won’t care about token or no-pay credits. And they won’t care who else might have read the story, or especially who else might have read it and rejected it.
CAVEAT: The only time a name-drop like this might be worth something is if a Name author or other editor — a ‘quantity’ on the editorial radar — has read the story and has either a) liked it a lot or b) liked it and suggested explicitly that it be sent to the precise editor you’re sending it to now. That kind of thing counts. Otherwise, stating that your mother, your sister, your best friend, your Army buddies or office co-workers, or someone else read it and liked it, won’t be worth anything. These are not opinions a professional editor is liable to consider worthwhile — he or she is wanting previous demonstration of your quality at professional level. All else below that… is not worth mentioning.
6. Put your real name (not your pen name) and a signature — though perhaps not your “bank signature” as it’s become increasingly hazardous to fling your legal signature around. Justify the signature block however you like, according to whatever rules you’re familiar with. Left, right, middle, offset, whatever.
7. Be sure to put an ENCLOSURES block at the bottom of the letter, usually on the left. List your manuscript’s page length — not word length — and whether or not it’s disposable, as well as whether or not you have included an SASE. This again assists an editor because sometimes when a story gets pulled from an envelope, pages can get stuck inside without the editor realizing it, as can the Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope — the SASE. That way if the editor reads the cover letter, but only has 30 pages of manuscript when there should be 32, or has not found an SASE, he or she can go back to the original envelope and search inside for the missing items.
THE MAILING “PACKAGE”
Now that you’ve got your manuscript properly formatted, and the cover letter put together, and you’ve printed both items, it’s time to “close escrow” and package and mail to the market you’ve selected. It’s important to note that unlike novels, it’s considered bad etiquette to mail a story to more than one short fiction market at a time, so for the purposes of this article I’m only going to address packaging in that manner: one market at a time, no more, no less.
1. The Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) is little more than a standard white paper #10 size business envelope. The purpose of the SASE is not to have the manuscript returned to you — I always advise marking all manuscripts “disposable” in that regard — but to have the editor’s response returned to you. Just write — or print, or sticker — your mailing address on the front of the envelope, as if you were mailing it to yourself — no return address in the upper left corner is required — and use one of the new “forever” style standard first-class stamps that the U.S. Post Office issues in place of the denominated stamps. That way you never need fret over an SASE not having enough postage if you send something out, and the first-class rate goes up while the manuscript is out.
2. Place the SASE on top of the cover letter, and place the cover letter on top of the manuscript. In that order. Then set that entire “stack” aside.
3. Get a standard orange, white, or brown paper manila-type clasp envelope — generally sized at around 9 x 12 inches — and write the exact same market contact and address on the front of it as you used in your cover letter. Generally, editor’s name, then the name of the market, followed by street or post office box, city, and zip code. Do this in fairly decent, legible hand print with a dark pen or permanent marker, like a Sharpie. NOTE: if using a Sharpie be sure to address the envelope before you put the manuscript inside, as the marker may bleed through and you’ve ruined the manuscript. Put your return address in the upper left corner — smaller but neat print — using either a ball point pen or permanent marker. Or, if you prefer, you can print these things on Avery-type stickers, or using a Dymo-type label maker, thereby avoiding hand print entirely. Either way works, as long as it looks clean and neat and legible.
VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: resist the urge to get cute or creative here. Do not “art” up the envelope with little designs, smiley faces, space ships, swords, dragons, fairies, imagery, calligraphic writing styles, stickers, or other un-business-like affectation. This runs contra to the doctrine — preached all throughout this article — of making your submission ‘transparent’ to the editor, so that only story matters. An editor won’t care how artsy or decorative your envelope is. That envelope is just a “shell” that gets ripped off the contents — the package — the moment the manuscript is retrieved from the mail. Often, by an editorial assistant or someone else tasked with doing an editor’s grunt work for him or her. So your effort will be wasted, if not directly counterproductive.
4. Slide the “package” — your SASE on top of your cover letter on top of your manuscript — into the manila-type envelope with the top toward the open or clasped end. Be sure none of the pages get folded, corners crumpled, or anything wrinkled as it goes in. Very-thick manuscripts that are novelette or novella in size, may require an altogether sturdier package, such as a USPS cardboard priority envelope — but for most manuscripts under 12,000 words a 9 x 12 inch manila-type clasp envelope works just fine. Tap the envelope on its bottom once or twice to ensure contents are settled and you won’t bend any pages when you close the flap. Then, lick or moisten the glue on the flap — or peel off the tape to expose the sticky part — and seal and/or clasp the envelope. Rub your fingers along the flap several times and press — always on a flat surface, to ensure that you’re not warping the envelope — to be sure the seal is solid.
5. You’re not done yet. You still have to get the package to the mail box. Small manuscripts in the 2,000 to 5,000 word range might be stamped with standard stamps — presuming you can guess the weight — and dropped into an ordinary blue USPS box, or even sent directly from your home or office mail. Me, I always go to my local USPS location where I can either have the clerk weigh and stamp the mail, and give me a receipt — tax purposes — or I can use the new (wonderful!) automated USPS stations that are operational 24 hours a day and that allow me to use a credit or debit card, will weigh each envelope in turn, and give me a to-the-ounce price on my first-class postage.
SPECIAL NOTE: do not — I repeat, do not — use any mailing options that require a signature at the other end! Making your editor or one of that editor’s functionaries sign for a received manuscript is a colossal hassle and will likely earn your manuscript an automatic rejection. You don’t need to get signatures to ensure that your manuscript arrived. In 17 years I have yet to have any of my hundreds of submissions get lost en route, and the kind of trouble signatures can cause you on the receiving end… not worth it. Just use standard three-day first class delivery, no more, no less. Cheapest, quickest, easiest for all involved.
There, that’s it. You’ve done it. Start to finish. If you’ve followed the directions and used the Shunn and McIntyre examples for clarification, you shouldn’t experience any problems on account of format. Your story will speak for itself. Which is all you really want to have happen anyway.
Many new writers are under the mistaken impression that their stories are vulnerable to plagiarism once those stories go out in the mail. Two of the most common “deterrents” beginners use to ward against this, are slapping the word “copyright” followed by a © symbol somewhere in the header or footer of each page, and printing their work on dark-colored or alarmist-colored paper — one recent example I witnessed involved a writer who had produced a partial novel manuscript on traffic-cone-orange paper — to prevent someone else from photocopying and “stealing” his or her work.
This is simply not necessary. I repeat, it’s not necessary at all. According to United States federal law — as well as a great degree of international copyright law — the moment you pen something with your name on it, you possess copyright. No need to register with the Library of Congress. No need to use scary paper or scary © or ® or ™ symbology. The fact that you wrote something and you have an original copy of that something on your hard disk or even on paper at your house or office, is enough. No more is required. The work is yours. And the likelihood that some editor or other person might “steal” your work — slapping their name on it and selling it somewhere — is about that of the Hubble telescope de-orbiting tonight and crashing into your bedroom while you sleep..
So don’t deviate from the Standard Manuscript Format.
Also, many beginners begin to get paranoid that editors don’t read beginners’ stories before rejecting them. The assumption being that editors are obligated — by some unwritten law of literature? — to read each and every submission all the way through to the end. So beginners employ “tactics” to see if editors are upholding their part of the unwritten “bargain.” For example, a beginner may send a full-sized manila envelope SASE — with full postage — requesting the manuscript back in its entirety. Then that beginner may take a page somewhere in the middle of the manuscript and turn it upside down, or carefully fold the corners of two or more pages together so that these corners need to be un-folded and the pages separated in order for them to be read. Or the beginner puts tiny dots of glue onto page corner(s) to stick pages together, thus requiring separation. And so on and so forth. Again, totally not necessary and will brand you instantly as an amateur, front-loading the editor’s expectation. Any editor encountering these hoary old tricks is liable to be sadly amused if not downright angry, and your manuscript will be rejected without any further consideration.
Which reminds me, the only acceptable way to attach pages together, is with a paperclip. Standard office type, nothing too colorful or too cute.
Staples? Forget it. Never, ever use staples on any manuscript. I’ll blare that in all caps for emphasis. NEVER EVER USE STAPLES ON A MANUSCRIPT!!!! Having spoken directly to editors about this, staples are death. Most editors have scars from having had fingers — and other body parts — sliced open by staples. So if you have to keep the manuscript bundled — and I never do this when I send out short work, as there is no real need that I can see — please, use a paperclip. Staples… probably a straight rejection. And if you’ve managed to injure an editor with your stapling…
Which brings us to the natural fear all beginners have that if an editor doesn’t like a story, that editor will put that writer on a “black list” of writers the editor doesn’t like. This is just not true. Most editors can barely remember the stories of who they buy, much less the countless thousands and thousands of stories from the people they reject. Once a story is rejected — especially from an aspirant — it is forgotten. Never thought about again. It’s off the radar and the editor could care less. There is no reason to let fear of a “black list” stand in the way of sending a story to market. No reason at all.
Oh, to be sure, black lists exist. Piss an editor off by being a jerk at a conference? Argue with them on a blog? Engage in too many amateurish formatting or “don’t steal my work” pranks, and an editor might begin to remember. Especially if you’re a recidivist in this regard, and either ignore an editor’s admonition to follow proper formatting, or put yourself out socially in such a way as to make yourself seem unprofessional, annoying, dangerous, or crazy. The black list exists for these many good reasons. But it does NOT exist because of rejected stories. That is an alarmist fable and the sooner you get over this fear, the better.
Having said that, many markets do track submission titles in a database of one form or another. A beginner who has been rejected — and suspects the manuscript was never even looked at — might be tempted to just re-package the thing and send it right back to the editor in question. Wrong. Once a story has passed through the hands of an editor at a market, unless that editor rejects with a request for a re-write, or some suggestion that he or she might want to see the story again in a modified form, simply re-sending the same old story to the same market over and over, is another excellent way to brand yourself as an amateur who can’t operate at the professional level. So unless you do make significant changes to that story, best to just move it along to the next market on your list, and work on something new.
BUT WHAT ABOUT ELECTRONIC SUBMISSIONS?
Currently, no Standard Manuscript Format exists for electronic submissions. Each market — be it print or electronic in nature — has guidelines. When submitting to a market that requires electronic submissions, look at the guidelines on the web page or wherever, and follow those guidelines. Many — but not all — electronic markets are perfectly fine taking a .doc or .rtf version of a story that is formatted in Standard Manuscript Format, so I keep all my finished short work stored in Standard Manuscript Format for this very reason. Easier to print out when I send to standard slush piles, and easier to submit when I go through the e-slush. Again, follow the guidelines and use the directions, especially if the e-market in question has a slush “engine” of some sort that automatically does a lot of the grunt work paper editors normally do by hand.
BUT WHAT ABOUT CONTESTS LIKE WRITERS OF THE FUTURE?
Sometimes a contest — Writers of the Future being the best example — requires minor but specific deviation from Standard Manuscript Format. Usually this is to make the submission “anonymous” by removing the author’s name and/or contact info from the page number line as well as the first page. As with e-markets, always read the guidelines and pay attention to what the contest wants. For Writers of the Future specifically, there is a comment thread dedicated to formatting. (click here to view the thread.) It’s very straightforward, if you’re already familiar with Standard Manuscript Format, and in no way deviates significantly from any of the major aspects of same.
I said starting out that the objective of manuscript formatting and mode of submission was to make the format/mode ‘invisible’ to the editor, so that only the story mattered. And I stand by that assertion. Formatting is like two plain slices of bread. The slices themselves matter, but no matter how much you dress up or mess with those slices, it’s the contents between the slices — your story — that will matter most to an editor. The more ubiquitous and common you can make your ‘bread,’ the better an editor is able to “chomp” into the story — evaluating the sandwich on the taste of the meats, cheeses, sauces and other ingredients. Make your bread unusual or strange or otherwise off-putting, and the editor might not even want to take a bite. He or she will reject your “sandwich” out of hand.