How to format a fiction submission in 2011

It must be the season, but this subject has once again reared its head in a number of my writers groups. At the same time, I’ve been editing ASIM 53, and noticed some insidious formatting annoyances that can easily be avoided.

So here is a quick and dirty guide on how to format your submission.

The first step to formatting is the Standard Manuscript Format (SMF). However, the document that describes it is old by real-life standards, and positively prehistoric by digital standards. It assumes all submissions are on paper. Remember paper?

The best way to submit a manuscript is a fluid concept. It changes over time and changes with the target publication.

Recent developments include:

Most submissions are now electronic. The SMF guidelines do not cover digital submissions.

Many magazines publish digitally. For on-screen formatting, some of the SMF requirements do not matter half as much as they do in paper form, and some are plain annoying.

Some people (mostly agents) seem to have developed an irrational hatred for the Courier font.

Most important:

Before you submit, check publishers’ guidelines. If the publisher doesn’t stipulate something, assume ‘sensible’ format is sufficient. No matter how antiquated, SMF will always satisfy those requirements.

That said, here are some footnotes:

Contact info:
Put your full name, address, telephone number and email address at the very top of the document.
Yes, no one uses addresses anymore, but the author’s address is useful for a few things, even if only for backup in case the email refuses to work (and you’d be surprised how often that happens). Also, some magazines want to keep tabs on where their submissions come from.

SMF says courier. This dates back to the time of hard copy submissions and OCR software. Courier is a fixed-width font that’s very easy on OCR software. It’s also very inefficient with space and piss-ugly. For a paper submission of a story of around 10,000 words to be posted to the US, I can save myself $6.60 in postage by printing in Times New Roman instead of Courier. This saves 20% of space. If Courier is not explicitly stipulated, why not use a more modern font? Honestly, no one is going to kill you.
But: stick with a sensible font. A sensible font is one that every computer will have. No, not everyone uses Windows. Not everyone uses a PC. Not everyone uses Word. If editors choose to use OpenOffice for Linux on a Mac, the onus is on you to make sure they can read your submission. Choose a font their computer will have (in practice, this means Courier, Times New Roman or Arial/Helvetica). No, that’s not Georgia. Or Papyrus. Yes, it looks boring. Tough.

Italics or underline:
SMF says underline. Some publications say italics. Meh. It doesn’t matter. Both get lost when you have to copy and paste your submission into a web form, so I use underscores on both sides of words I want in italics, _like this_. Sometimes I even submit my manuscripts like this, especially when submitted into web forms.
No matter how you format, the layout editor will have to manually change your intended italics into real italics in the end version. I tend to think that either underlines or underscores are easier to pick up for someone looking over a text. Otherwise: meh. Seriously, if the guidelines say nothing about it, pick one method and be consistent.

Paragraphs and spacing:
SMF says to double-space your lines. I know this is antiquated because no one prints their submissions anymore, but please do. When a slushreader opens a file, he or she does not like to be hit in the face with a myopism-inducing slab of text that invites the immediate engagement of the reject button (rest assured, slushreaders’ computers come with such a thing; there is a secret place where we buy them).
Do double-space (or 1.5 if double spacing really pisses you off) your manuscripts. It’s easier on the eye.
It’s probably not a good idea, however, to format your text in any other way. Many publications are electronic and digital publishing requires that the text can flow freely across whatever line width required by the end-user.
Do not—ever, on the pain of a slow and painful death—use hard returns at the end of your lines, unless you really want to start a new paragraph.

Indents or empty lines:
SMF says to indent the first line of each paragraph. Some publications want you to insert an empty line instead.
Do whatever, as long as you don’t do both or none of the above, and you are consistent.
Again, no one’s going to kill you.
If you want to look like a pro, however, do not use the tab key for indents (or worse: spaces!). Use the Paragraph>>Indents and Pacing>>Indentation>>Special setting in Word.
Do not use ‘space after’ or ‘space before’ as substitute for an extra empty line. This won’t work across all platforms, and in the worst case will insert weird formatting shit into your document.

Scene breaks:
SMF says to use a hash sign # to indicate a scene break. For the reason that empty lines sometimes get eaten by programs, this is an excellent idea. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a hash or an asterisk or twirly-whirlies or a plus-sign, and neither does it matter if they’re centred or not, as long as you put something in between scenes.

Page headers:
SMF says to have page numbers, and include story title and/or author name at the top.
This was so that if the slushreader drops the manuscript, no one has to spend much effort putting the pages back in order. Old-fashioned, huh? Who prints manuscripts anyway?
That said, if you’re like me, and have ten documents open at any one time, it could be handy to know which one you’re in. It’s probably a good thing to do, unless the publication tells you not to.

File format:
Most publications stipulate RTF or DOC. Note of extreme importance: this is not DOCX (the native format for Word 2003 and Word 2010)!!! While this will probably change in the not-too-distant future, there are many people who can’t read DOCX files and some DTP programs don’t handle them well.
Be aware that if you use OpenOffice, it can have some serious issues with the production of RTF files on some computers. Issues I’m aware of are: random deletion of spaces, changing your text to allcaps, and deleting random words. Check this. Email the file to a friend to check how it comes out.

File name:
SMF says nothing about this, but use something that resembles the title of your story, or your name, or both.

Checklist for if you really love the editor:

Follow the venue’s guidelines to the letter
Get rid of all style formatting (this is what the layout person does, not the author)
If in doubt, or if funny formatting remains, ‘nuke’ the submission by importing into Notepad, saving it, and re-opening in Word
Get rid of all your double spaces (yes, including those after full stops) prior to submitting
Get rid of all your tabs
Make italics clearly visible
Make sure you insert scene dividers.
Make sure your address, email contact and word count is on the submission

In short:
While it’s ancient, and unless the guidelines specifically state that authors who use Courier will be drawn and quartered, you can’t go wrong with SMF.
Simpler and plainer is always better.
For a very good and detailed guide on how to prepare documents for electronic display, see the Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Croker. This document concentrates, naturally, on self-publishing, but much of what is covered is common sense and applies to electronic documents across the board, It explains how Word works and how it sometimes stuffs up documents. It is free and also covers how-tos in Word which I can’t explain in this post.