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THE PERFECT PAGE: NO-FRET FORMATTING
Column by Aeryn Rudel
December 10, 2020
One thing you’re going to see in virtually every set of submission guidelines is how the publisher wants the story to appear on the page. Formatting guidelines can be ultra-specific or general and broadly defined, but they generally fall into three categories. Let’s talk about them.
Fun With Shunn
By far the most common format for short stories, William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Format, sometimes referred to simply as Shunn or standard manuscript format, is widely used throughout the publishing industry. Markets that use Shunn generally say something like this in their guidelines:
In terms of how your story should look, we recommend you read William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Format.
. . . try to stick to standard manuscript format as much as possible.
Notice the links? They both take you to William Shunn’s website where his manuscript format will be explained at length. Nearly all publishers who use Shunn will include a link to the website. If you’re new to submitting your work, you should head out to the site and get intimately familiar with the format. You’re going to run into it a lot.
What does Shunn look like? Well, his website explains it far, far better than I could or have space for, but here are some of the highlights.
- 12-point, easily readable font, like Courier or Times New Roman
- Double-line spacing
- Left-aligned text
- Indent the first line of each paragraph one half-inch
- Header with name, title, and page number
- Contact information at the top left of the first page
- Approximate word count at the top right of the first page
William Shunn has updated his manuscript format to reflect the digital age, and there’s a modern and classic version now. The modern version no longer calls for mono-spaced fonts like Courier New and things like underlining for italics is no longer a must. Which should you use? Unless the publisher specifically requests something like the Courier New font, you’re probably fine with either. Personally, I can’t give up Courier New unless the submission guidelines instruct me to. Years of Courier manuscripts have made every other font just look weird to me now.
Doing Our Own Thing
Not surprisingly, there are publishers that, well, shun Shunn. (Hah!). You’re going to run into markets with specific guidelines on story formatting that differ from standard manuscript. Most of the time, when a publisher requests something different, all it amounts to is taking your Shunn template and changing the font, spacing, title page, or header. Sometimes, however, you do have to start from scratch. I know at least one market with pages of unique manuscript formatting guidelines.
But why would a market break from the tried and true? Well, most of the time, it’s because the editor doesn’t like some aspect of Shunn or the format actually interferes with how the publisher processes new stories. For example, some editors loathe the Courier font, others don’t like headers, and still others might not want their first readers to know who wrote a story, so they don’t want any author contact information in the manuscript. Also, editors might request a different format because of the particular medium in which they publish. I see digital-only publishers with guidelines specifically designed to emulate how the story will appear on their website, making less work when they transfer it over.
Regardless of how different the formatting guidelines might be, read them carefully and completely, then follow them to the letter.
Just Make It Readable
The final category of publisher formatting are those that simply don’t have any guidelines at all (or very few). The vast majority of these will be publishers who either ask you to paste your story into the body of an email (which is becoming rarer these days) or to paste your story into an online form. The former usually does this because of security issues with attachments and are willing to do some work on their end to avoid the potential danger of a computer virus. The latter doesn’t care about formatting because their online form removes it all anyway, so there’s not much point in asking authors to meticulously format their manuscripts.
In both cases above, you might ask what if I need to set off a word with italics? Generally, if the publisher accepts your story, they’ll let you make those kinds of edits to the piece after the fact. Others will allow you to put asterisks around a word (or something similar) to indicate italics.
Sometimes a publisher just doesn’t have many preferences about manuscript formatting other than it being readable. For example, I just submitted a story to a publisher whose only formatting guidelines were a strong preference on font choice. That’s it. In these cases, I recommend you send the publisher a manuscript with Shunn formatting (with the requested font change in the example case). It’s clean, professional, and most editors will be familiar with it even if they don’t require it. In other words, this is not the time to indulge your love of Comic Sans (weirdo).
I’ll wrap up this article by answering a question I’ve seen asked of editors on social media a fair bit. Will a publisher reject a story that doesn’t follow the formatting guidelines one-hundred percent? The answer is yes and no.
Yes, a publisher will absolutely reject your story if it appears you have willfully ignored their formatting guidelines (or simply didn’t read them). So, you know, don’t do that.
No, a publisher is not likely to reject your story because you made one small mistake. If it looks like an honest oversight and the manuscript conforms in all other ways to the guidelines, most editors are going to give you a pass. So don’t sweat it too much if you discover you’ve made a small formatting error after you’ve submitted the story.
Check back next month for more advice on how and where to submit your work or head over to my blog Rejectomancy for oodles of overly analytical articles about the various and sundry parts of writing, submitting, and every author’s favorite subject, rejection.