Hello fiction writers! Today I’m covering a question I get asked a lot: How do you properly format a fiction manuscript for submission? With small press publishers, literary magazine editors, and literary agents under an increasing amount of stress, formatting your manuscript correctly is more important than ever.
As a professional fiction editor and a reader for a top literary journal, I can attest that proper formatting does make a difference. Agents, magazines, literary journals, and small press publishers are inundated with submissions. Failing to follow proper formatting guidelines won’t necessarily get your submission immediately disqualified (although sometimes it will!), but it will make you look unprofessional, which can have an impact on whether or not your short story or novel is accepted.
So let’s get started, shall we? First things first:
Always check each publisher or agent’s formatting guidelines to make sure you are following their rules.
If they don’t specify something, or if they ask for “standard format,” then refer to this guide.
Get a free printable Manuscript Format Checklist, plus two Submission Templates, in my Free Resource Library.
1. Use Times New Roman, 12 Point, black
Rarely, publishers will request Courier or another font, so always double-check their guidelines. If they don’t say anything, Times New Roman is the default.
2. Use 8.5×11 page size, with 1-inch margins on all sides
This is the default for a new document in Word, but it never hurts to double-check.
3. Double-space your text
This is REALLY important. Double-spacing makes your manuscript easier to read. But most importantly it shows you are a professional who knows that double-spacing is the standard.
The only exception to this could be if a publisher asks for your submission to be pasted directly into an email. Since some email programs don’t support formatting, you may need to go with single-space in that scenario.
4. Align text left
You want your text aligned flush with the left margin, with a ragged right edge. Don’t justify the text, which would align the text flush on both left and right margins. If you want to see what this looks like, check out the Submission Templates in my Free Resource Library.
5. Use ONE space between sentences
That’s right: ONE space. If you learned on typewriters, you’ll have to re-train yourself. If your manuscript already has two spaces between sentences, use Find and Replace. Type two spaces into “Find” and one space into “Replace.” Then hit “Replace All.” Ta-da!
6. Indent paragraphs by 1/2 inch, and don’t put an extra space between paragraphs
There is some debate about whether the first paragraph of a chapter or section needs to be indented. I’ve seen both ways suggested by equally credible sources. I’d say if your publisher or agent doesn’t specify, don’t worry about it too much. Use whichever feels right. As long as the rest of your paragraphs are indented, it isn’t a huge deal whether the first line of each section has an indent.
An exception to this could be if a publisher asks for your submission to be pasted directly into an email. In that case, using a space between paragraphs instead of an indent might become necessary.
7. Indicate scene breaks with a centered # sign.
If you want to see what this looks like, download the Submission Templates in my Free Resource Library.
8. Check publisher guidelines for the header, page numbering, and word count display requirements.
Some publishers are picky about these. If no guidelines are listed, use the defaults shown in the Submission Templates in my Free Resource Library.
9. Pay extra attention to the formatting requirements for contests and publications that read blind.
Most contests read blind, and a few publications do, too. They will have strict rules about if or where you put your name on the manuscript, and violating the rule can get you immediately disqualified.
10. Always check (and double-check!) the publisher or agent’s formatting guidelines.
Yes, this is so important that I’m saying it twice! If they fail to list a guideline, the Submission Templates in my Free Resource Library are a safe default. But if they do specify a guideline—any guideline—follow it.
Do they want your page numbering on the bottom left? Do it. Top right? Do that. Do they want your manuscript in Courier 10? (I’ve seen this, usually for SFWA publications.) Do it. A separate cover letter? Give it them. They definitely don’t want your name anywhere on the manuscript? Check and double-check to make sure your name is nowhere to be found.
11. Be patient.
Formatting submissions, especially if you have to make changes for each place you submit, can be a huge pain in the ass. It’s frustrating when you think you have everything right, only to double-check the publication’s guidelines and realize you need to change it again.
But over time you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll get faster and faster until finally you’re on autopilot, and this stuff won’t take up so much space in your brain. I promise!
12. If you get something wrong, don’t lose sleep over it.
You submit a story or novel, thinking you have it formatted perfectly… only to wake up in the night in a cold sweat because Holy shit you forgot to send a cover letter. (Yes, this will happen. And yes, we’ve all been there.)
Ultimately, just do the best you can do, and give yourself a break if you don’t get it perfect every time.
Hope this helps!