Short Story Formatting

One simple question about formatting caught me up earlier this year while I was preparing a short story submission to a traditional publisher. I had expected a quick search to answer the question, but most of the pages in the top search results looked outdated or overly simplified.

Someone needed to throw a better result into the mix. I compiled their suggestions together, cut out what no longer applied, and had the following post checked over by full-time professional author who has maybe 100 published short stories looped into her belt.

Below are the current standards for submitting short stories to magazines, anthologies, and competitions. I shortened the list of these publishers to markets below, because I’m old-school like that.


Hand over a laptop holding a phone

Jump to… Electronic vs Paper Submissions… or Punctuation Tips

General Guidelines

  • Use black font on a white background
  • Use only one font. (For example, don’t use Arial and Time New Roman in the same manuscript.)
  • Set the font size to 10 or 12. *
  • Use a 1” margin on all sides. *
  • Left-justify. Don’t justify the text or align the right margin.
  • Indent the start of each paragraph. *
  • For scene breaks, center a hash/pound sign (“#”) in a line between the previous and following scenes.

On the first page:

  • Remove the page number.
  • Put your name and contact information at the top left corner on the first page. For this header information, don’t use double-spacing (which starts at the story’s title). *
  • Put the word count in the top right corner. Round this to the nearest hundred words (unless it’s short short fiction).
  • Center the story’s title, in all caps, on its line about one-third of the way down the page from the top margin.
  • Write “by” in lowercase before your pen name (even if it’s the same as your legal name in the header).
  • Drop one double-spaced line down, indent, and begin your story.

On all subsequent pages:

  • Double-space the entire text of the story.
  • Put a header at the top of each page showing your last name (or your pseudonym’s surname), the story’s title (or one word from a long title), and the page number).

* Unless the publisher instructs otherwise.

General Tips

Don’t provide your social security number or any government-issued identification number.

This isn’t safe! No one needs this to decide which stories to publish. The only possible exception I’m aware of is the International Flash Fiction Competition hosted by the Spanish Fundación César Egido Serrano. As I recall, providing a passport ID was optional to save time making travel plans for the winners, who attend a ceremony together. In any other competition, suspect a scam instead of a valid market.

Don’t put a copyright notice on the manuscript.

If you feel the need to remind editors not to steal your work, then you should not submit to those editors. A copyright notice in this situation says that the writer is an amateur who doesn’t trust the people at the publication. Anyway, in the United States, work is copyrighted the moment it’s created. The copyright symbol or general statement changes nothing in the actual rights.

Electronic vs Paper Submissions

Electronic Guidelines

Pay close attention to the publisher’s instructions. They often differ from the general guidelines created in the age of paper-only submissions.

When asked to copy and paste into a submissions form that strips formatting from the story, you might need to ignore all of the advice above. You won’t be allowed to indent, double-space, and all that jazz. Daily Science Fiction is an example of a market that requires “plain text” submissions.

Guidelines for Paper

These are now rare enough that I wonder why you’re looking for specific information on how to format one. Just in case, here are the last known standards for stories on paper.

Punctuation Tips

Dashes

Show an en-dash with your keyboard’s dash button. (That line between “en” and “dash” is an en-dash.) While, technically, an em-dash is three times as long, you can show an em-dash using two dashes, “–” . An alternative is to press ALT while typing “0151”. That keyboard shortcut appears as “—” when it works. Don’t use any spaces around these dashes when formatting fiction.

Ellipses

Word processors often convert the three dots in an ellipses to a special characters. That character is risky, because it can disappear when software interprets it differently than the word processor does or make seeing the ellipses harder on a paper manuscript. My recommendation is to shut off your auto-formatting setting to use the three periods (“…”). Spacing is trickier, but in general, only add spaces between each dot when using Courier font (that mono-spaced font mentioned above).

Smart Quotes and Curvy Apostrophes

Is there a standard answer for smart quotes vs. straight quotes? There doesn’t appear to be.

When the Market Doesn’t Provide Any Instructions

First, check that the market is credible. Searching for its listing on Duotrope is a good way to check. Markets that are too new to know what they’re doing won’t have a Duotrope listing, and any with a bad reputation are marked.

What about when the market looks good? A small market might not care much about formatting, and a larger one might expect you to use the old standards. Follow all the General Guidelines above. When in doubt, be consistent with how you choose to format.

A Note About Why This Matters

Remember: All this work is not for you, the writer. It’s not for the end reader after publication, either. What the reader wants to see is only your concern when you do everything yourself to self-publish. At a traditional-style publisher, someone else will tweak purchased stories for their publishing standards.

Submissions formatting that meets the publisher’s submissions standards help exhausted slush readers and editors. Those are the people you must impress to sell your story. These gatekeepers slog through hundreds of submissions at a time and, on the busiest days, they will rejoice at signs of unprofessional writing. The more they can cut out of their to-read pile at a glance, they more time they can spend deciding which of their favorite stories to publish.

Happy Formatting!


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You made it this far. Please let me know in the comments if any part of this post helps. Feel free to share your experiences!


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