05 May 2018

Manuscript Mechanics

I don't like change. I'm sure part of that's because of my age, but also it's just inconvenient. I have certain ways I like to do things, and I'm reluctant to budge from my comfort zone.

One of the things I have changed, though--because I felt I had to--is the way I format the submissions of my short stories.


First, a bit of background. When I started sending my work off to editors, back in the mid-nineties, I obeyed the following rules, for my manuscripts:

- Use Courier font
- Double space
- Underline text that needs emphasis
- Use two hyphens for a dash
- Space twice after a period

Those were the marching orders for almost everyone, with minor variations, because computers were still new enough that a lot of manuscripts were being created on typewriters, and all the above tasks could be performed without a word-processing program.


Now, I do the following:

- Use 12-point Times New Roman font
- Double space
- Italicize text that needs emphasis
- Use em-dashes
- Space once after a period


Sometimes there are exceptions. Several places to which I regularly submit manucrtipts specify in their guidelines that they still prefer underlining instead of italics. Why? I'm not certain, but I suspect they find underlined text easier to spot than italics when they prepare the manuscript for publication. Whatever the reason, if they want it, I'll do it.

Some places, believe it or not, still prefer Courier font. And when I convert a manuscript to Courier before submitting to those markets, I usually also plug in two spaces after every period. That's a personal preference: I think only one space after a period in Courier makes the words look a little too crowded together. Is that just me, or do any of you agree?

I also submit regularly to a market that prefers two hyphens for a dash (rather than the automatically substituted em dash). Their wish is my command. It's easy to go back through a manuscript and change those dashes.

That same market likes submissions single-spaced except for a double-space between paragraphs, and no indentions at the beginnings of paragraphs. Again, it's pretty easy to comply with this. I just "select all," then hit "single-space" and go back through the manuscript adding one extra space between paragraphs and removing the indentions.

Occasionally, of course, there'll be other specific things editors want you to do: put only your name and page number in the header, put only your story title and page number in the header, type three asterisks to indicate a scene break, don't use the tab key to indent paragraphs, use strange fonts, center a special symbol at the end of the story, etc. Some of these can seem a little nitpicking, and I often suspect they put such demands into their guidelines just to make sure the writer has done his/her homework and has taken the trouble to read the guidelines.

Basic training

Other things I always do, with regard to manuscripts (unless guidelines tell me not to):

- I use standard white 8 1/2-by-11 copy paper
- I use one-inch margins all around
- I put name/address/phone/email info at the top left of the first page
- I put an approximate wordcount at the top right of the first page
- I center the title in all caps about a third of the way down the first page
- I double-space once and type my byline (and center it also)
- I double-space twice after the byline and begin typing the story
- I indent all paragraphs and don't have extra spacing between paragraphs
- I suppress widow/orphan control (allowing widows/orphans)
- I turn off grammar-checking
- I put a header at the top right of every page except page one (Last name / TITLE / Page#)
- I use a centered pound sign (#) to indicate scene breaks
- I double-space three times after the final line of the story and center the words THE END

This isn't saying you have to do the above. It's just what I do.

Everything I've mentioned so far assumes a manuscript that'll be either (1) attached as a file (word.doc, usually) to an emailed cover letter, (2) attached and submitted via a market's website, or (3) printed and snailmailed to an editor. Manuscripts copied/pasted into the body of an email are formatted differently: they'll be plugged in as a .txt file, which--after conversion--is in 10-point Courier font and ignores any special characters, including italicized text. To indicate emphasis in one of these manuscripts, I always type an underscore character just before and just after whatever text I'd like them to italicize in the published version. (Example: I saw it in _The New York Times_.) Most manuscripts pasted into the body of an email should also be single-spaced, with unindented paragraphs and a double space between paragraphs.


That's all the information I can think of. How do your submissions differ from these? What are some of the weirdest formatting requirements you've seen, in writers' guidelines? Do you ever submit anything via regular mail anymore? Do you ever use anything except Courier and TNR? Do you use em-dashes or two hyphens? Do you type anything at the very end of your manuscript? How do you indicate a scene break? Do you space once or twice after a period? Main thing is, if what you're doing works, keep doing it.

In two weeks I plan to follow up with several hints and shortcuts to save time when preparing your manuscripts. Meanwhile, keep typing and keep submitting. Best to everyone!


  1. John, occasionally I find one that wants the ms "single-spaced, no tabs." That's fun. :) I saw one the other day that wants the ms sent through the regular mail (couldn't believe that!) Most unusual may be one that asked for asterisks (***) between scene changes! Phew!
    As an old friend of mine used to say, "keep on plugging away!"

  2. John, I do most of the things that you do. Though I haven’t submitted anything on paper in quite some time. I use three centered asterisks as scene breaks. At the end of the manuscript I put three number signs, centered. I do get a little crazy with some of the persnickety requirements and having to do things differently for various places, but I try to comply most of the time. The one thing you mention that made me really laugh is the two spaces after periods. I was early into writing on computers, but it still took me forever to stop putting two spaces after a period. And every once in a while I still do.

  3. Hey Jeff! I think you and I might've seen guidelines for the same market, because I too saw a requirement the other day for those three asterisks to designate a scene break. (I'm used to the pound sign, for that, probably because of all my submissions to AHMM.) And yes, several places, including (I think) Zoetrope, still want snailmailed submissions. To each his own . . .

  4. Paul, I wrote my reply to Jeff before I saw your comment. The publisher of my books also prefers those three centered asterisks. (My only problem with that is that if you mistakenly hit "enter" after three or more asterisks, Word does funky things with line breaks and it's hard to recover . . . but that's another matter.)

    And yep, I still find myself putting two spaces after a period, if I'm not careful. It's been a little surprising to me, how many editors want that one space after a period--so I try to do it.'

    Sometimes it seems there's no such thing as standardization. Though a lot of guidelines still include a link to Shunn's Guide for manuscript formatting.

  5. John, same here all around only I add my web site under my name/address/phone/email at the top left of the first page.

  6. Hey, John -- Have you seen the article about a new study "proving" that two spaces after a period are better than one?

    Here it is!

  7. Good thought, O'Neil. I've not done that, but it makes sense. Thanks!

    Art, I've not seen the study, but I'm on my way to your link now--thanks for sending it. I find myself reverting to two spaces after a period in all my email correspondence, and almost everything else except my manuscripts. Again, I've been a little surprised to see how often it's mentioned in submission guidelines--editors these days really seem to prefer the one-space-after-a-period approach.

    I'm off to read the study . . .

  8. I learned, as a journalism student during my first attempt at college, to end every ms. with


    centered at the end of the last page (see: -30-). It's a habit that stuck, and, alas, those much younger than me, and those with no journalism training have no clue what it means. Yet, I persist in using it.

    The study Art references about double spaces after periods is flawed because it only tested a single typeface. So, the conclusion, whether right or wrong, is questionable.

    Because I never took formal typing courses, and because I later trained as a typographer, I never learned to put two spaces after periods. Thus, I never had to break the habit.

    Additionally, the typesetting systems I used back then automatically truncated multiple spaces to a single space, so no matter how many I typed, the system only put in one. They systems also ignored spaces inserted at the beginnings of paragraphs. To indent a paragraph required using a specific typesetting code.

    Alas, desktop publishing systems, apparently created by people with no actual typesetting background, ignored the conventions of the trade, allowing the casual, untrained user, to do all sorts of things that make a trained typographer's skin crawl.

  9. Michael, I've seen a lot of manuscripts in my classes that end with -30-, and others that end with from one to three centered pound-signs (###). I still type THE END, as if it's an old movie from the thirties or forties. And I suppose the argument over one space or two after a period will always be with us. Main thing is, I guess, do whatever the guidelines tell you to, for that particular market.

    Your history as a typographer is interesting!!

  10. I'll submit it however the publisher wants. However, with regard to the double-spacing after a period, I do it unless absolutely required not to. You can't teach an old typist new thumbs. Besides, I have science to back me: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2018/05/04/one-space-between-each-sentence-they-said-science-just-proved-them-wrong-2/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7106920327a1

  11. Eve, I once mentioned to a beginning writer that I doubt any editor/publisher/agent would reject a good manuscript based on how many spaces the writer put after a period--and I think that's still true. But, as you said, it's best to try to do whatever the guidelines specify.

    I've heard this one-space thing is just part of the evolution of publishing, like using TNR instead of Courier and italicizing instead of underlining. So much of this is personal preference, and I guess the only time it really matters is when the editor feels strongly about it.

  12. I'm pulling on my grouchy old man pants and setting out my "Get off my lawn!" signs, so be prepared.

    Using one or two spaces, underling or italicizing, isn't—or shouldn't be—personal preference, because that reveals the degradation of standards.

    Once upon a time, the collective we established standards for how a typed manuscript should be prepared: double spaces after periods, underlining for italicizing, double hyphens to represent em-dashes, etc.

    We also established standards for typography: single (though variable-width when used in justified text) spaces after periods, true italics, actual em-dashes, etc.

    The formatting of a typed manuscript informed typesetters how to do their job. We knew underlined text should be set in italics. We knew that two hyphens together should be set as an em-dash. And so on.

    Desktop publishing put the tools of typography in the hands of the untrained and unskilled, who, having no knowledge of typography but having been trained as typists, tried to apply the rules of typing to the tools of typography.

    Too many documents now follow neither the standards of typing nor the standards of typography.

    Thus, where we once had standards we now have chaos.

  13. Michael, I couldn't agree more. But it is and will always be a buyer's market, and if the editor of Pay Authors More Magazine wants stories in 14-point Helvetica font, I'll type it that way. I do prefer the older, time-proven way of formatting manuscripts, though, and it warms my heart when the guidelines advise writers to follow the Shunn rules.

  14. >Using one or two spaces, underling or italicizing, isn't

    Hey, Michael. Who you calling "underling?"

  15. Underlings are people who don't italicize. Right, Michael?

  16. I also have trained as a typesetter, on both an old Mergenthaler phototypesetting machine & the math geek's favorite, TeX, pronounced "tech". TeX has a bit of a learning curve, but it can be done on any computer & produces absolutely beautiful results.

    I despise Times Roman & prefer Dark Courier, which is better for my old eyes, to regular Courier. Folks that learned how to type a long time ago, also needed to break themselves of the habit of typing lowercase "l" for "1" one.

  17. Sounds like you got good training for this crazy stuff, Liz.

    I like Dark Courier too--but I confess to using Times New Roman unless instructed not to.

  18. Yes, John and Robert, underlings are people who don't italicize.

  19. Mebbe we're doing spacing all wrong.

  20. Thanks, WJM! Maybe we are . . .


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