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Does Formatting Matter?

After all the thinking and writing and care with one's words, does the format of a manuscript really matter?

In the era of electronic submissions, the range and breadth of the shape of a submission is notable, and worth thinking about.

We get a lot of manuscripts with no name on them. We get manuscripts without page numbers, without the author's name at the top of the page, and sometimes without even a title. The "standard" manuscript format becomes less common, from what I see, and I'll make a case for its value.

Examples of fiction and nonfiction format can be found here and here. For poetry, the format is nearly the same.

Why does it matter?

- A properly formatted manuscript has all the information we need, where we need to find it. When we prepare author's agreements, having the information on the page includes a mailing address (to send author copies), and relevant contact information. The word count helps us immediately know how many pages we may need to allot. Older format also included a declaration of copyright, and therefore ownership. Older format also usually included proposed rights ("First serial rights," which means you're offering the magazine one-time publication with rights reverting back to the author from then on).

- We print out a lot of pieces to circulate among staff. When a manuscript is handed around without the author's name on it, or page numbers (why does this seem more common with our poetry submissions?), you're making it that much easier to put the work aside, or for us to lose or reshuffle pages.

- I suggest putting your name at the top of every page. Remind us whose work we're reading as we're reading it.

- Poets, if your lines extend across the full line of a manuscript page, we know we won't be able to fit it in our magazine. This happens more commonly than one might expect. If your poem goes to the bottom of the manuscript page, we know it will need to be broken over two pages in the magazine - which can work, but sometimes doesn't, depending on layout.

- Excessively long titles can be a tricky prospect. Remember that a title across the entire manuscript page is harder to work on the printed page.

- Fonts outside of the standards (Times Roman, Courier, and those like) and size (12 point) don't help, in my opinion. Make the writing matter without the distraction of an odd typeface. We set the magazine in Garamond for the same reason.

- Don't forget that the name at the top left of the first page is the legal name and that you should also have a byline under the title that is the name you choose to go by as author. So if you write under the name "Bill Shakespeare" but want the check made out to "William J. Shakespeare," that's where you differentiate.

In the end, the value of a properly formatted manuscript is simple, though: It suggests professionalism. It suggests a writer who is beyond a beginner, and one who understands how format addresses the needs of the publications to which the author is submitting.

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