How to Format Your Submission

I recently spoke at a writers conference, and one question during my Q&A surprised me: What’s the proper way to format a submission?

Having read thousands of submissions, I can firmly state that while poor writing is the quickest way to have your work dismissed. Poor formatting is the second quickest way and also the fastest way to irritate an editor.

I’ve rejected average submissions because of poor formatting. Yet, if the writers had properly presented their work, I’d have put forth the effort to clean up their writing, but to fix both their writing and formatting required more time than I was willing to give.

Fixing formatting problems isn’t a trivial task. Sometimes I’ve spend up to an hour reformatting a submission, just so I can edit it. Writers should avoid earning a reputation for bad formatting.

There are two main points for proper formatting: First, there are common basic criteria that almost all people agree on; second, many publishers and editors tell you what they expect. So, use the basic requirements in all your work and then tweak it as needed for specific instances.

Here are the basics:

  • Times New Roman font: 12 point, black
  • Double-spacing between lines
  • Only one space to end a sentence
  • Flush left and jagged right (that is, left justified but not right)
  • Indented paragraphs, usually a half an inch (Use the indentation setting in your word processor; don’t use a certain number of spaces or set a tab.)
  • One inch top and bottom margins
  • Equal side margins (usually either one inch or one and a half inches)
  • Don’t have a hard break (that is, a “carriage return”) at the end of each line.
  • Don’t add an extra line at the end of a paragraph (except for a scene break or transition).

If you follow these basics, few editors will object and most will consider you a pro. Here are some bonus considerations:

  • Don’t format the margins differently on odd and even pages (as you would see in a book).
  • On the first page, include your name and contact information (email, phone, and mailing address) at the top, along with the word count (and for articles, indicate the rights you are offering). Some publications will specify that you put this information in the top right and others, the top left. Some will say to put this in the header and others will specify the top of the page, so expect some variation, but the key is not to omit this critical information.
  • For all other pages, add a header with your last name, short title, and the page number. There may be some variations on this, but the main thing is to have this key information in a header (or footer), not on the page itself.

Lastly, don’t let formatting paralyze you. In almost all cases, editors will fix a minor deviation or two without complaint. They generally want you to succeed. Following conventional formatting (along with great writing) will help get your work published.

11 thoughts on “How to Format Your Submission

      • If I understand you correctly you say, don’t set a tab. However, what other way do you suggest setting a half inch indentation? Most tabs are automatically set at half inch intervals. Okay, I could set a half-inch indented paragraph in the paragraph set-up in Word. Many people do not know how to do this. Maybe people need to take a course in basic formatting in Word.

        • With some electronic submission forms, formatting is difficult. For instance, for Chicken Soup For the Soul, you must use their entry forms, which do not allow for Word formatting. I separate my paragraphs by a line in that instance.

          I work for a law firm, and all of our documents are justified. It was hard me to get used to leaving the right side ragged.

          • Yeah, I don’t like to use online submission forms, but they do produce a uniform presentation for the recipient. I think your approach of using a line between each paragraphs is the best choice.

          • I have worked with Word in a law office for 9 years. So I am familiar with Word. However, I was just upgraded to Word 2010 on Friday, along with Windows 7…and will be getting used to it this week. So thanks for the keyboard shortcut.

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