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How to Properly Format Your Prose Submission

Submitting your work to literary magazines can be fraught with uncertainty about everything from what to put in the cover letter (lucky for you, we’ve already answered that here) to how you should format your submission. As a former reader at The Masters Review and for Carve’s 2017 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, I read more than 600 submissions last year, and it’s clear that many writers aren’t sure how to format their prose submissions.

Proper formatting will not only make your work look more professional, but it will also make it easier to read for editors and readers who are reviewing your work. Keep in mind that readers and editors are often reading a dozen or more submissions in one sitting. Poor formatting can be an intensely irritating distraction that will often shorten the amount of time a reader will spend on a piece before moving on to the next.

Double-space your work

Please, please, please, for the love of all that is holy, double-space your work. It makes your submission so much easier to read, especially when you’re our tenth or fifteenth read of the evening. 

“Submissions less than double-spaced place a burden on the reader that's difficult for the work to overcome,” says Carve Senior Fiction Editor Rita Juster. “Same with distracting fonts and text edits. Do yourself a favor and follow the rules where it matters. Let your work be what pushes the envelope, not something mundane that only makes an editor's job more difficult and, in that sense, places your work in jeopardy of rejection for reasons entirely avoidable.”

Ensure you’ve removed all track changes/comments

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve opened a submission that still has track changes and/or comments in it from the author’s writing group or readers. If I see this, I automatically thumbs down the submission. It’s unprofessional, demonstrates a lack of attention to detail, and is clearly not “submission-ready.” Always copy and paste your work into a new document if you’re working from a version that has utilized track changes before submitting it.

Don’t get fancy with formatting

In addition to double-spacing, don’t get fancy with your font type or margins. As Rita mentions above, it’s your writing that should stand out, not your page formatting. Pick a basic, easy-to-read font like Arial or Times New Roman in 12-point. Otherwise you are making your work an eyesore for the reader or editor. Same goes for margins—use normal page settings. For reasons I don’t quite understand, some people send their submissions in a two-column format. Please. Don’t. Do. This. 
    
Not quite sure how to handle the title page? Here are some tips from Carve’s Executive Editor Matthew Limpede: “Do not bold, underline or italicize the title, nor make it bigger or a different font. Just place it centered on the (double-spaced) line above the story text. Start the first page halfway down (old-school but looks good!).”

Follow instructions regarding your personal information

As a standard rule of thumb, it’s good to include your personal information on the first page of your submission—first and last name, phone number and email address—unless the publication specifically asks that you not include any personal information. This is usually a requirement for contests where the submissions are read blind. Carve’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest is an example of such a contest, and yet I still opened a handful of submissions in which the writer ignored the rule and included their personal information anyway. Also, if the journal asks for a word count or you want to include one, round up to the nearest 100.

Do not include a copyright line

There is a certain group of writers out there who have decided that their work is so good, a literary journal may steal it without giving them credit, and therefore they need to include a copyright line in their work. To be honest, this reminds me of those annoying chain messages on Facebook; you know, the whole “copy and paste this paragraph and post it on your page if you don’t want the federal government using your photos for a secret intel database.” Including a line like this not only makes you look pompous, but it’s also insulting to the journals you’re sending your work to, who devote their time, energy, and livelihood to finding and publishing brilliant authors. If your work is that good, we’ll publish it, not steal it. 

Have someone proofread your work before you submit

I see a number of submissions with multiple typos throughout, often starting on the first page. These typos are not always things you can catch with spelling/grammar check either. Sometimes the writer meant “than” but wrote “that." I often see apostrophes missing from possessive nouns like “Jamies." Also common is dialogue missing one of the quotation marks or ending with a period instead of a comma. And I get it, it’s hard to catch these things when you’ve been looking at a piece for so long. That’s why it’s best to have someone you trust (and who preferably hasn’t seen the piece before) do a quick proofread before you submit. Reading your piece out loud can also help you catch mistakes you may not catch just reading in your head.

So what exactly does a properly formatted submission look like?

If you want to see an example of what proper formatting looks like, here’s a great resource we use at The Writers Studio Tucson: https://www.shunn.net/format/story.html. As we all know, submitting work to journals is hard enough; we don’t need to make it harder than necessary on ourselves (or those reviewing our work). Following these formatting suggestions for your next round of submissions will help ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward.