Basics of Standard Manuscript Format

This chapter will only be of interest if you're planning to submit your manuscript to someone else for publication, either a short fiction outlet of some kind or a traditional novel publisher. If you're exclusively self-pub, move along; nothing to see here.

Before you go, though, have you considered the advantages of submitting to short story magazines and anthologies? Short stories are a good way to build and practice your skills, and publication in magazines and anthologies brings some of the recognition and validation of trad-pub without the rights-grabbiness. (Rights typically revert within a period ranging from "immediately on publication" up to a couple of years.) The payments aren't huge, and as I suggested in the previous chapter, the market's not easy to break into, but depending on your goals for your writing it can be well worth making the attempt. Here's a blog post of mine which goes into more depth.

There are a surprisingly large number of outlets to submit to, as well, especially if you write speculative fiction, which I do. Here are some figures, taken from The Submission Grinder, a website which lists short fiction markets and enables you to track your submissions (Duotrope and Ralan are similar sites):

Genre Pro Semi-Pro
Action/Adventure 6 10
Erotica 3 9
Fantasy 37 62
Horror 14 48
Mystery/Crime 11 16
Romance 2 9
Science Fiction 42 60
Suspense/Thriller 7 11
Western 0 5

(Includes all markets, regardless of story length. Some markets appear in more than one category. Some pay semi-professional rates for some lengths and professional for other lengths, and I've counted these as pro markets. Correct as at 22 April 2015.)

The distinction between "professional" and "semi-professional" markets is based on payment. Pro markets pay at least 5c (or 6c, depending who you ask) per word, semi-pro at least 1c but less than pro rates. That's not a fortune, certainly, and it hasn't kept pace with inflation since the heyday of the pulps in the 1930s, when a cent a word was common (worth about 14c today). Still, it can be a handy amount of money.

Incidentally, I personally don't submit to any market that pays less than semi-professional rates, unless it's a project that I believe in for some other reason (helping out a friend, proceeds go to charity, fun project that means I get to work with great people). Any market that can't afford to pay you doesn't have enough of an audience to give you much "exposure" either.

In any case, if you want to submit to these markets, or to traditional novel publishers, you will need to know the basics of Standard Manuscript Format.

The definitive article on Standard Manuscript Format is William Shunn's, and it's worth reading. But here's a summary, the least you need to know.

1. Put your name (the name of the person who will be paid--so, your real name) and your contact details in the top left corner of the first page. Include your physical address, phone number and email address, even though practically everything is done by email these days.

Exception: the guidelines may say that the publication has a "blind" submission process and ask you to leave off any identifying information from your manuscript itself. The guidelines are always the thing to follow, any time they contradict what is usually done.

2. Below (or opposite) the contact details, put the number of words, rounded to the nearest hundred. Almost any word processing tool (except, unfortunately, the tablet version of Google Docs) will provide this number, usually under the Tools menu, in an option named "Word Count".

Editors use this not only to calculate payments, but to figure out what will fit in their publication. Don't leave it out unless, for some strange reason, the guidelines tell you to do so.

3. Add three blank lines and type your title, centred on the page.

4. On the next line, also centred, type your byline: the word "by" and then the name you want the piece to be published under.

5. Add a couple more blank lines and start the story itself, set left (that is, not "justified" but with a ragged right margin). If you don't know what this means or how to do it in your word processor, Google is your friend.

6. The whole thing should be in an easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Courier New, at a readable size like 12 point. Times New Roman 12 point is the safe option if the guidelines don't specify a font.

7. The first line of each paragraph should be slightly indented from the left. Don't use a tab or spaces to do this. Find out how your word-processing program sets a first-line indent, and do that.

8. The manuscript should have double line spacing throughout. Not single, not one and a half.

9. Unless the guidelines say otherwise, create a header which gives your surname and the title (possibly abbreviated if it's long) on the left, and the page number on the right. If your word processor enables you to do so, suppress the header on the first page, otherwise don't worry about it.

10. One-inch margins all the way around.

Check the guidelines for any variations from this format or any additional requirements.

Also check what file formats the publication accepts. I always use RTF (Rich Text Format) if it's an option, since it's easy to generate from any program, including Google Docs, which is where I work on my short stories.

A few publications will tell you not to attach the file, but to paste it into the body of the email. Do whatever the submission guidelines say.

Check if they want a specific format for the email subject line. A lot of publications use this to filter out spam. If they don't specify, I always use the word "Submission:" followed by the title and the word count in parentheses, since this is the most common format, and by following it you show that you're familiar with the conventions of the field.

Check if they want a cover letter. Most publications don't, and you shouldn't include one unless they say they want one. If they ask for one, though, supply one, and make sure you include everything they specify and nothing they tell you not to include. If they don't specify, include any previous publications, a brief bio like you'd put in the back of a book, and any relevant qualifications (relevant to the story you're submitting or to writing, that is), workshops you've attended, and the like. Don't just write these off the cuff when you submit something. Have them prepared, so that you can work on phrasing them as well as possible (workshopping with fellow writers helps), and copy them into the cover letter.

Make sure your cover letter, if any, is professional, brief, and relevant to what you are submitting.

Double and triple check that you have followed all the guidelines, including the ones about the kind of stories they do and don't publish. Remember, some of the guidelines are there to filter out people who can't follow instructions, and the rest are to make the editor's life easier. If you don't follow the guidelines, your chances of publication drop to somewhere around zero, regardless of how good your story may be.

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