by Eilis O’Neal
“The Practical Editor” is my series on the practical questions that can arise as we’re writing and sending out our work. The first post covered cover letters (accidental play on words there, but I like it and I’m not deleting it), and this post is going to focus on the format of your manuscript. I’ll discuss short fiction/creative nonfiction and poetry.
Short Fiction/Creative Nonfiction
For a standard submission, short fiction and creative nonfiction should be double-spaced in an easy-to-read, 12-point font such as Times New Roman. Paragraphs should be indented, with no extra space between them unless you are indicating a section break. Your name and full contact information should appear at the top of the first page, as well as the title, and your name and title should appear on every subsequent page. Pages should be numbered. For mailed submissions, pages should be printed on only one side of plain white paper.
You might be thinking, Why these particular rules? The answer is simple: they make for the easiest reading experience for the editor and they make sure your manuscript can be put back together if, for instance, it gets dropped on the floor and the pages scattered. Single spacing, strange fonts, and double-sided paper are harder for our eyes to read easily—and you want the editor’s reading experience to be as easy and pleasant as possible.
Of course, you may be playing with style in a particular piece: using single spacing in some sections, rejecting paragraph indentations, etc. That’s fine—if you have a legitimate artistic reason for it and if it is consistent within the piece. If there’s not a story-driven reason for you to play with the layout of your piece, however, your default formatting should be as outlined above.
Poetry has fewer formatting rules than prose, because the layout of a poem often has an impact on how we read and understand it. If you aren’t using special spacing or layout, however, poems should be single-spaced, aligned to the left, in an easy-to-read, 12-point font such as Times New Roman. As with fiction, your name and full contact information should appear on each poem, with your name and the title also appearing on each page of any poems longer than a single page.
Even though there aren’t as many hard and fast rules for formatting poems, I would like to offer a few tips to consider as you lay out your poems—from an editor’s perspective. These are considerations that we run into time and again at Nimrod as we’re putting our issues together, and while they may not change the way you lay out your work, they are something to think about as you do so.
In the U.S., you are almost certainly going to be writing and thus printing your poems on 8.5 x 11 inch paper. (Standard paper size can vary in other parts of the world, but the following comments still hold.) Print magazines and journals, however, vary in size. Nimrod, for instance, is printed as a 6 x 9 inch journal, as are many other literary magazines. But not all: The Missouri Review, for instance, is 6.75 x 10, while a recent New Orleans Review is 5.75 x 6.75.
The point is: There are very few instances in which, once accepted, your work will be printed on an 8.5 x 11 page. If your lines are very long, extending to the end of the usable space on your page as you type, they may not fully fit onto the printed page of a journal. Of course, there are standard ways to indicate that a line actually extends through a line break, but those will affect how your poem looks on the page, and perhaps how the reader reads it. This may not bother you, but on the other hand, it might. It’s simply a choice that you’ll make for each poem, but it’s an issue that I think many poets don’t consider until an editor writes to them and says, “Your poem is going to look different than you intended when we print it.”
The Shape of the Poem
Similarly, your poem might have a particular shape on the page. This can be a literal shape poem—one that forms an arc, a triangle, a circle, etc.—or just specific use of placement and space of the words to evoke a certain meaning and feeling. And, again, this might make your poem look different if the page it is printed on is smaller than the page you wrote it on, or if the journal uses a different font than the one you used.
Say that you’re incorporating a lot of white space into your poem to give it airy feel or perhaps a feeling of distance and separation. If you wrote it on a page that is 8.5 inches wide, but it’s printed on a page that is only 6 inches wide, the white space will often have to be tightened or shrunk, making some words/lines closer together than they looked when you printed it at home.
Likewise, the font that you use is probably not going to be the font that the journal uses. (Times New Roman is great for manuscripts and easy reading, but many journals have signature fonts. Nimrod’s, for instance, is Cochin.) So if your poem has a distinct shape, it may be difficult for the journal to replicate it exactly. They can probably get pretty close, using various layout tricks, but it may not be an exact replica.
As with the line lengths, I don’t bring this up to say, Never write a huge, airy poem or a shape poem. I merely want to call attention to it, to let you think about your own preferences as you write.
As you can see, formatting your work at the most basic level is pretty easy, and you can make a template of it for all of your manuscripts. But there is a caveat, and that is that each journal or magazine may have its own particular formatting instructions. If it does, make sure that you follow those instructions.
So that’s manuscript formatting for journal submissions. Happy writing, and if there are topics that you would like to see covered in future posts on “The Practical Editor,” leave a comment below or email us at email@example.com.
Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod‘s Editor-in-Chief. She is also a writer of fantasy and the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess.