The Sins of Short Story Submissions

By Dan Hope

The time has come, the editor said, to talk of many things: of spaces, docs, and bad old tabs, of attachments, and code strings.

There seems to be too much confusion about the proper way to format and submit documents for publication. Depending on how bad you flub the formatting, you can send the HTML fairies into complete disarray. And the fairies like everything to be in order. You don’t want to see them when they’re mad. They’ll make you fly, all right, straight out a window.

So we’re pulling out the teaching stick and doling out a few healthy swings of wisdom. Even if you memorized proper formatting techniques in the past, read on. Things have changed a little bit since the digital revolution, and many offenders are just well intentioned writers using outdated rules.

There’s one resource that is most often cited for short story formatting. Most publications have mentioned it at one point or another, and many link to it in their submission guidelines. It is William Shunn’s masterpiece, Proper Manuscript Format: Short Story Format. The name isn’t that exciting, but the contents are invaluable for any writer. It’s short, informative, comprehensive, and even a little funny. If you go in for instructional humor.

Now, Shunn’s guide will get you 95 percent of the way to proper formatting, but there are a few things that require updating if you plan to submit your story electronically. If you’re submitting a paper copy via snail mail, stop reading here, and let Shunn be your guide.

For everyone else, pay attention. The HTML Fairy Defenestration Squad is real, really serious, and seriously just around the corner waiting for you to mess up.

Here are some additional guidelines for submitting digitally.

Attachments Are the Devil’s Spawn

I know we’re starting off strong, but it’s true. It doesn’t matter what kind of word processor you wrote your story in; it doesn’t matter what manner of conversion or exporting process you put it through. We want plain text pasted into the body of an email. There is a fresh set of fingernail marks in my desk for every email that contains an unsolicited attachment.

I know there are a few publications out there that request an attachment (usually the ones that have a dedicated external submission service), but almost all the rest prefer your first contact to contain exactly zero attachments. If you aren’t familiar with the dangers of attachments, they include transmitting viruses, corrupted documents, obscure and useless file formats, and complete and utter loss of sanity.

We don’t want your cyber-chlamydia, so keep the document files to yourself unless we request them specifically.

Unusual Page Layout or Symbols Are Hard to Do and Pretentious

I know you want to go all e e cummings on us and show the world how clever you are with paragraph design and/or crazy punctuation, but keep in mind that the modern browser still doesn’t handle this stuff easily.

The browser is like your old cranky grandpa who doesn’t want to take his pills. You can make it happen, but it involves elaborate deceptions, and even then he still might throw a fit. Getting text to show reliably on every browser usually means that you have to stick to traditional paragraphs. Getting fancy is possible, but it can turn into a headache quickly. Also keep in mind that symbols such as <, >, %, and & can actually make the HTML fairies think that you’re writing code, not prose. This can lead to a lot of confusion and a late night for an online editor. Like I said, there are ways to trick the HTML fairies, but we’d just rather not.

Tabbed or Spaced Paragraph Indents Were Invented by the Nazis

This isn’t exactly true, but since we jumped right in with the Devil’s Spawn thing, I figured more hyperbole couldn’t hurt. But really, stop using the space bar or Tab key to make paragraph indents. We at Fiction Vortex cry ourselves to sleep at night over the injustice of this one. And that’s really not as hyperbolic as you think.

This is a holdover from the old typewriter days (and seems to have a particularly long half-life among the Word Perfect crowd, you silly ninnies). Back then, the Tab key was the only way to make a good paragraph indent. Nowadays, errant tabs create problems for our system. Instead, use the Paragraph formatting menu (or the little slider arrow on the ruler above the doc) to set a “First Line” indent. Half an inch is still pretty standard.

Two Spaces Between Sentences, a.k.a. Giving the Middle Finger to Editors

This one is clearly outlawed in the Geneva Convention, and still people are committing first-degree offenses in this area.

Stop it. Just stop it.

I know, I know, you’ve got any number of stylistic and historical reasons for giving that spacebar a double-tap after every period. I’m here to tell you that you’re not a bad person. You’re just wrong. First of all, there’s a surprisingly long and sordid history of the debate between single- and double-spacing. So your arguments might not be that concrete, anyway.

Here on the Internet, we single space. That’s it. Case closed. Whine all you want in your own writer’s lair, but so help me, the next person who puts two spaces between sentences will hear from the HTML FDS. I know I said they were more concerned about coding symbols and layout, but we can convince them to start policing this one, too. They’ll do anything for an apple fritter.

Withholding Vital Information from Allied Forces Is a Punishable Offense

This one isn’t exactly specific to digital or print formats, but it’s worth saying again. Every publication wants you to tell them certain things. If you neglect to include these details, editors are annoyed when they start reading the story; that’s not the mood you want them in when they read your story.

The most common information is the type of story and how long it is. If you don’t know what type of story you wrote, don’t bother submitting. The length is expressed in the number of words rounded to the nearest hundred. Don’t tell us how many pages it is. Don’t tell us how many minutes it takes to read. Tell us the number of words. We want to know what we’re getting into here. Also, and this should be obvious but people still do this: Don’t put this information after the story. Put it at the top, before the title. Please.

Minor Infractions and Other Things to Consider

There are myriad other things to consider when submitting a document. Font, for instance. Don’t fret about this one too much, it should be really simple since you’re pasting your story into the body of an email. Just use the natural email font.

If you’re particular about the type of font, make sure it’s something commonly supported, and easily readable. You’re not making your story cute or whimsical by making the font Comic Sans. And Papyrus does not make your fantasy look more authentic. Just stick to the default, or use Times New Roman.

Other people worry about whether they should double-space paragraphs (as in double spaces between lines, not between sentences). It usually doesn’t matter in the body of an email. Just make sure that it’s easy to distinguish between paragraphs.

Read the Guidelines, You Insufferable Non-Conformist/Pompous Windbag

By far the most reliable way to avoid enraging an editor is to carefully and thoroughly read the submission guidelines. If a publication has weird rules, follow them. Ignore anything that anyone has ever told you in favor of following the guidelines to the letter. If tabbed indents and Comic Sans make particular editors giggle with glee, then give them what they want.

Every publication has submission guidelines, and every editor expects you to conform to them. Without exception. For many publications, not following the guidelines means an automatic rejection. They don’t even bother to read the story, no matter how good it might be. We both know you don’t want that.

The most fundamental reason, though, to read and follow the guidelines is that it’s a sign you respect the publication and editors enough to accommodate their wishes. It’s a sign that you really want to be published there.

So show us you want it.

2 replies
  1. Beth
    Beth says:

    This gave me the giggles. “Read the guidelines you insufferable non-conformist pompous windbag.” That super tickled my funny bone. “You’re not a bad person, you’re just wrong.”

  2. Lynne
    Lynne says:


    To a technologically challenged writer with more ideas than manuscripts, this article was wonderfully informative and humourous to boot. I see the words “Bogged Down” just above this comment box and that is what I have been for the last two days. I’m attempting to enter a short story contest with no clue how to format the piece–have been at wit’s end! Your article is the first that has given me a modicum of hope.

    Thanks so much,

    P.S. Keep writing–there’s a lot of talent here!


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