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A Guide for the Formattingly Perplexed

Updated: Nov 16, 2023



Since part of my job is to work on—which is to say, less euphemistically, “to fix”—formatting issues with the stories and essays I receive, you might say I’m writing this post for one reason only: to help writers get these things right before I receive their work. It would save me some time. But the following will also help writers who submit on their own.


The Basics

Let me get the most common guidelines out of the way first:

  • Most journals request 12-point, serifed (the standard is Times New Roman) font: Sorry Arial users, or those who like to use “interesting” fonts. Journals will change fonts to match their in-house style guides anyway, so TNR is, most often, the way to go.

  • Double-space your manuscript: This is also important if you plan to get your work edited, since it provides space to fit comments in the margin.

  • Use one-inch margins: Those journals that mention margins generally request one-inch.

It’s true, of course, that some journals deviate from the above standards (so, as always, check out each journal carefully), but you’re pretty safe if you follow these guidelines.


First Page

I’m not militant about the formatting of the first page. I just don’t think journals care too much about it, provided the necessary information is clearly presented. Here’s what you should include:

  • Contact Info: Most writers add this at the top of the page, left-justified.

    • Full name (or pen name)

    • Mailing address

    • Phone number (not sure why, but journals ask—I doubt a journal has called a writer in, like, millennia)

    • Email

  • Approximate word count: Often right-justified at the top of the page.

  • Title: Usually centered beneath the contact information.

  • The beginning of the piece: Don’t start the actual story/essay on the second page.

That’s it. It seems that many writers turn to William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Formatting guide. I don’t know Mr. Shunn, nor has he paid me to recommend him, but his first page looks good to me. I shan’t shun Shunn.


Headers, Footers, and Page Numbers

Headers and footers can vary to suit your tastes. Shunn calls for the writer’s last name, the title of the piece, and a page number as a right-justified header on every page after the first (formatted: Last / Title / page #). But some journals ask for the writer’s email on each page. So I always make sure to at least include an email and a page number in either the header or the footer.


Beyond that, when I format writers’ pieces, the header and footer depend on my mood (I purposely vary them so journals don’t suspect a single mad scientist behind Submitit’s hundreds of submissions). It’s not like literary journals are printing these things out, right?—for the sake of trees, please don’t tell me otherwise—so it’s all really kind of silly (I assume information on each page helped keep track of individual pages back when hard copies were submitted by snail mail).


In any case, when you format your own piece, you’ll be safe including your email and the page numbers, either in a header, footer, or split ’em up.


By the way, make sure your headers and footers are indeed headers and footers. (In a Word document, double click above or below the main text area to enter the header or footer area, respectively (and then double click to get out).) I’ve had some clients add what they thought were headers or footers, but were in fact just additions to the main text, making the piece un-editable, for both the writer and the editor, because the header/footer will move up or down if lines of text are added.


To add page numbers, after you click in the header (or footer) area, look for the Page Number command:


Paragraphs: Indent or Block?

I, personally, use indented paragraphs. This is probably because I like to read actual books (99 percent of them use indented paragraphs). I also asked Carolyn Kuebler, editor of New England Review, what she prefers, and she, too, likes indents. Enough for me.


But block paragraphs—paragraphs with no indents, like those in this post—are also okay, especially if you’re submitting to a journal that publishes (only) online (or, of course, a journal that requests block paragraphs). Just make sure the spaces between paragraphs are enough to make the separations clear, and if you add section breaks, you might add a symbol (like a centered asterisk). (This last point is one big reason why I prefer indents; I frequently use sections, and I want them to be visibly clear, without worrying about using a symbol.)


Important: If you’re indenting, do not also add spaces (line breaks, carriage returns) between paragraphs, as if they were blocks. To indent and space your paragraphs is redundant, like wearing two pairs of shoes at once, and to the practiced typographical eye, it’s a full-blown travesty. (Note: If you’re indenting your paragraphs and they’re automatically spacing against your wishes, open the Paragraph dialog box (in your Word toolbar) and change Spacing (“Before” and “After”) to “0.”)


More on Indents

Using tabs (half inch is standard) to indent paragraphs is fine. Using the auto-indent feature in Word is better (in the ruler at the top of the document, slide the top triangle—and only the top triangle—to the right one-half inch); this allows an editor (or submitter!) to quickly and easily remove all indents if a journal requests block paragraphs. What is not acceptable is using spaces for indents. Please don’t do this. This is why someone—Arthur P. Tab?—invented the tab.


First Paragraphs (Indent or Not?)

Most of my favorite publishers (and probably around 80 percent of all publishers) eschew indents at the beginnings of stories and after section breaks (see the image at the top of this post). The indents are considered superfluous (redundant). Once you get used to seeing these first paragraphs un-indented, they start to look wrong otherwise. Plus, with the indents removed, the starts of sections become clearer, especially if you’re not using section-break symbols (like an asterisk) or if a section starts at the top of a page.


Flip through a few books on your shelf and you’ll see what I mean. See also The Elements of Typographic Style by typographer extraordinaire Robert Bringhurst, p. 39.


Removing these first-paragraph indents shows that you’re familiar with best practices. And I think it “sophisticates” your piece. But 80 percent is not 100 percent (see the Shunn sample page, for example). Consider this guideline optional. (But for the record, when I edit, I typically remove the indents. I just can’t help myself.)



Adding Two Spaces between Sentences (Don’t)

This is a holdover from the typewriter days. I know it’s a habit hard to break (I, too, learned how to type on a typewriter, old fart that I am), but break it you must. Side benefit: Because it halves the number of times you hit your space bar, it will remove a lot of wear and tear on your thumb(s).


Hitting Enter at Ends of Lines (Also don’t)

Last and pretty certainly least, make sure you don’t hit enter at the ends of every line. Very few writers do this, but it happens. This is another flagrant holdover from the typewriter days, and, like adding footers or headers to the main text, it makes the piece un-editable—adding or subtracting a word from a sentence will cause obvious problems. (Needless to say, the same goes for hitting enter twice between lines to create double line spacing.)


Conclusion

If you use Submitit, I’ll take care of formatting—it’s part of all of all of our regular submission packages and a perk of using my company. If you get some—or all—of the above correct, great! It just gives me more time to focus on other more important parts of a piece. But if you’d rather not worry about it, that’s fine too. (I’m used to it.)


If you submit on your own—such as with our Journals List Only service—it’s worth getting this stuff correct. (Of course, always check the guidelines for individual journals.) While we’d like to believe that journal editors focus on the quality—and only the quality— of your story or essay, I do think the appearance of the piece, if only subconsciously, can make a difference. And in the competitive world of literary journals, you might as well give yourself the best chance you can.


Good luck!

 

Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Blood Orange Review, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and many others, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. He has a novella forthcoming from Buttonhook Press.


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