Submission Protocol: Stay in Formation

Rejectomancy points deducted for FTFFD or SSD: -5 (What’s this?)

Something you will see in just about every set of submission guidelines is a request for a specific manuscript format. In my experience, many genre publishers will ask you to submit your manuscript in standard manuscript format (SMF from here on out), sometimes proper manuscript format or Shunn manuscript format. What they’re usually asking for is the format described in this fantastic and widely read and referenced post/article by author William Shunn: Proper Manuscript Format. (Many publishers will actually link to this article in their guidelines.) If you’re going to be submitting your work, you should get well acquainted with this format. Read it now. Right now. Seriously.

Although many publishers ask for SMF, many of them also ask for slight modifications to it. In most cases, when a publisher deviates from SMF, they’ll request a specific font, ask you to actually use italics for italicized words rather than underline them, or ask you to use a single space after a period. Whatever changes they want to SMF, make sure you make them.

So why do many publishers want to see manuscripts in this format? First, SMF’s fonts, margins, line spacing, and so on do improve readability. Second, these elements come together to create an unobtrusive format that is pretty much invisible to the reader. That’s why crazy fonts are always, always a bad idea. Even if a publication doesn’t ask for SMF, a weird font is going to jump right off the page in an irritating way—that’s not exactly a good introduction to your story. Another thing SMF has going for it is familiarity. From what I’ve encountered, this is the format many editors are used to seeing, which, of course, ties back into the whole being unobtrusive thing. This is not an area where you want to stand out; let your story do that. Finally, some editors still print out manuscripts and redline the hardcopy, and SMF leaves plenty of room on the page to make notes, leave proofreader’s marks, and so on.

Now, if you’re like me, you are going to get all cozy and familiar with SMF, and then you are going to encounter a publisher who asks for something else. That can throw you for a loop. For example, you might see something in the submission guidelines that asks you to format your manuscript thusly.

  • Times New Roman or Arial, 12pt
  • Double Spaced
  • ONLY one space after a period
  • Do NOT manually add a space between paragraphs

If you’re used to sending manuscripts in SMF, and you run across this, it might leave you with some questions. How do they want italics handled? Do they want my contact info and word count on the front page? Page numbers?

My advice here is to do what they ask you and then leave whatever is unspecified in SMF. In the above case, unless the guidelines ask me not to put any identifying marks on the story (and some do), I’d go ahead and follow SMF for the header, contact info, and word count. I’d also use the SMF margins and indent.  You might leave italics underlined or you might not; that one is a bit of a toss-up. My gut tells me not to underline here, since even publishers that do use SMF often request no underlining, but that’s just my opinion. In short, I don’t think an editor is going to ding you for including elements of SMF. It’s only going to make your manuscript easier to read.

You might also run across submission guidelines that handle manuscript format a bit more loosely:

We aren’t sticklers when it comes to manuscript format, but please use some common sense regarding fonts, spacing, formatting, and the like.

In this case, since they’ve given no specific instructions on how they want the manuscript formatted, I’d go ahead and send them the manuscript in SMF. It hits all their criteria. It’s easy to read, and its fonts, spacing, formatting, and the like are the pinnacle of common sense. I don’t think the editors of this magazine would mind one bit if they received a manuscript in SMF.

To sum up, get well acquainted with SMF, and don’t deviate from the guidelines when it comes to format (actually, don’t deviate from the guidelines on anything, ever). Even if a publisher is inclined to be lenient about that kind of thing, you can’t know that going in, so toe the line and follow the rules.

Do you have a thought on manuscript formatting I haven’t covered here? Tell me about it in the comments.

5 Comments on “Submission Protocol: Stay in Formation

  1. The manuscript format Shunn illustrates was the standard for several decades post-typewriter and pre-personal computer, so it is the one most familiar to writers and editors who are of a certain age. That many publishers still want to see submissions in this format owes as much to our familiarity with it as it does to its inherent readability.

    As we are replaced by writers and editors who have little (or no) experience with typewriters, SMF is being replaced by a mish-mash of manuscript formats that sometimes has us reformatting submissions after every rejection prior to submission to the next publication. This mish-mash is especially obvious as one moves down the publishing food chain from the top markets to the semi-pros and beyond.

    Even so, when in doubt, use SMF.

    • Great comment. I wonder if we’ll eventually see an updated version of the SMF that’s more in line with modern technology. For the moment, though, it certainly seems this is an “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that when in doubt, SMF.

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