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How to Format Your Short Story Manuscript

After having worked with a publishing company and sorted through hundreds of submissions, I must be honest: it truly is very difficult to deal with poorly-formatted manuscripts. And I'm not even talking about when someone hasn't taken the time to use their document program's spellcheck. This is just in opening up a document and seeing uneven paragraph indents, weird font sizes, nontraditional fonts, and single-spacing that makes my eyes strain.

It's also quite possible that you also have no idea what I'm talking about in the above paragraph. You might be wondering what a paragraph indent even is. And that's okay!

That's why I'm writing this post. I am going to show you how to format your short story manuscript and how to save a template for your short stories so you won't have to format over and over again. I want to help you make your work as presentable as possible because sometimes the visual of your work can make or break your acceptance. When someone is tired after reading 50-plus stories and has to deal with yet another manuscript in a calligraphy-style font and red text scattered throughout the story, they might just reject your work without even reading it.

Now, you can also pay someone to format your stories for you. I do have that capability and offer it via my website. However, why not just save money and do it yourself? Especially when you can make a template that you can open and use over and over again.

OF NOTE: These instructions are for short stories, though this same template can be used for novels. Just be sure to enter a Page Break for each new chapter and you have the basis for a formatted novel.

So let's set aside your manuscript for now, open up a blank document in Word*, and let's get started!

*Please note that I am using Microsoft Word because it is the most common platform out there. It's also required to be used by a vast number of companies and the government in most cases. The version I have is 2010 which comes with Microsoft Office 365, but this process will work in Word 2007 or later. Unfortunately I can't help you with any Apple products or any of the novel-writing programs that exist out there as I don't use them.

The Short Story Manuscript Requirements

I think this particular article from Scribophile is the best out there for what the standard manuscript format is. This format is universal; however, be sure to check the submission guidelines to make sure your document will be correct. Yes, sometimes publishers will want something different, so it's best to just go with what they ask for. But if they say "standard manuscript format", this is what you'll use.

  • 1-inch margins all around.
  • Align paragraphs to the left side only.
  • Double-spaced.
  • No extra spaces between paragraphs.
  • Indent each new paragraph by 0.25 inches.
  • 12 pt font in either Times New Roman or Courier New. NOTE: Times New Roman is usually preferred by most publishers.
  • Use the pound sign (#) on a separate line centered on the page to separate sections of your story.
  • Center either "The End" or a pound sign (#) in a separate line at the end of your story.

First page should include:

  • A heading on the left hand side of your name, address, phone number, and email address.
  • A word count on the right hand side across from your heading.
  • Four spaces between the heading and your story title.
  • The title centered before the start of your story.

Subsequent pages should include:

  • A header in the Page Header section that indicates your last name, the first two words of your title, and the page number,
  • e.g., Poe - The Fall - 2.

The article doesn't give explicit instructions on how to actually make these changes in your document, so that's where I come in. Follow the instructions below and you'll have a template for every time you write a new short story.

Creating Your Short Story Template

What is a template? A template is a pre-formatted document that is saved in your computer that you can call up at any time to use. It has all of the necessities that you have programmed into it so you don't have to add in those necessities each time you go to work on a new manuscript.

So the first thing we have to do is set aside your manuscript for now. Don't worry, we'll come back to it; I will show you how to copy and paste it into your new template.

To make your template, open up Word and choose Blank Document to start. PLEASE NOTE: I have the paragraph marks and formatting symbols turned ON in my Word. that's why you see that funny little backwards P symbol, and it is darkened in the Paragraph portion of the toolbar. That is the symbol for a hard return, which is what editors used in the days when they had to use a red pencil to edit documents. A hard return means pressing the Return/Enter key after a paragraph or line to start a new paragraph or line.

When you have these symbols turned on in Word, you can see how many spaces you've put between words, the hard returns, where tabs are, and other important formatting issues that can be a problem when going to format a document for print. However, the editor is the one who will format all of that for you, so you don't have to worry about it.

Next, take a look at the Home tab there in your toolbar. It should already be selected, as seen in the below screenshot. You need to change your font to Times New Roman and 12 pt. Click on the drop down arrows to do this.

Now, see that cute little tiny arrow in the Paragraph portion of the toolbar? Click on that. A new window will pop up named Paragraph.

Here we make all of our paragraph changes. Your Alignment is already Left, so you're good there. Outline level is for more advanced Word work, so don't worry about it.

Under Indentation and the Special box, click the dropdown arrow to choose First line, and then type 0.25 in the By box.

Under Spacing, change After to 0 pt. Then click the dropdown arrow under Line spacing and choose Double; the number will disappear under At. Click OK to save your changes.

Now take a look at your toolbar and choose Layout. You'll see another little arrow in the Page Setup section. Click it and a new window called Page Setup will pop up.

Your margins should already be 1" all the way around. if they're not, change the Top, Bottom, Left and Right margins to 1". Click OK to save your changes.

Now you're back to your blank document. Click on the Home tab in the toolbar to get ready for the next format change.

In the upper left corner, type your name, address, phone number and email address. Then move your cursor to the end of your name. You'll see the cursor blinking after your last name. (I know, it's double-spaced. Hold on and we'll fix that!)

OF NOTE: At this point in my document, you can see little dots in the text. Those are the spaces between each word. If I had accidentally typed two spaces between "Edgar" and "Allan", there would be two dots. This is a pretty invaluable feature to Word when you're an editor and spacing makes all the difference in how many pages a book ends up being.

Next, tab over about eight or nine times and type in the amount of words your manuscript is. Don't let the word count fall onto the next line. Just delete a tab to make sure it fits.

Need a word count? Check out the bottom right hand corner of Word in your manuscript. It will tell you how many words your story is. (Be sure to subtract any words such as your header and title from your total count.)

OF NOTE: Those little arrows indicate how many times I pressed the tab button. It was nine in this instance.

After your email address, hit Enter five times to put four lines between your heading and the title of your work. Click the little picture of the lines that are centered in the Paragraph section of the Home tab (red circle). This will center your title on the page. Hit Enter twice after the title, then choose the little picture of the lines that are aligned to the left in the Paragraph section (blue circle). This is where you'll start typing your story.

OF NOTE: Now you can see the hard returns where I've put in spaces. This also tells me where my lines are centered or left aligned.

To change the spacing in your heading, highlight those first four lines. Right click and choose Paragraph.

When the Paragraph window pops up, choose Single under Line spacing in the Spacing section. Click OK to save your changes.

I promise, we're almost done!

Now we're going to create your header starting on your second page, which will indicate your last name, a couple of words from your title, and the page number.

Choose the Insert tab on your toolbar, then click Header in the Header & Footer section. A dropdown menu will pop up. Choose Blank (Three Columns).

Your toolbar will change to the Design Header & Footer Tools toolbar. You'll see that the font is not what is required for a manuscript. Highlight the text, then right click and choose Times New Roman and 12 pt. Now you can delete the left [Type here] and center [Type here] text so your header looks like this:

Click the [Type here] text on the far right and put your last name, a space and a dash, the first couple of words of your title, and another space and dash. Then choose Page Number on the Design tab, then Current Position on the dropdown menu. Click the first choice, Plain Number.

To finalize your header, click the box next to Different First Page in the Options section of the Design tab. Your header will disappear; DON'T PANIC! All it did was disappear on the first page, where you don't want it. And you'll see that the word "Header" underneath the header has now changed to "First Page Header". I promise you'll see your new header once your manuscript has been imported into your template.

Saving Your Template

This is the point where we save your document as a template. You will be able to call it up at any time you need to start working on your next story, and you can import your other manuscripts into this template and save them as newly formatted stories, ready for submission.

Choose File, then Save As, then choose Browse. What should pop up is a Save As popup box that shows This PC and Documents as the location for your new document. Click on Custom Office Templates to highlight it. Change the name of your document to something you will remember, such as your last name Short Story Template. Then, choose Word Template in the dropdown menu for Save As Type.

NOTE: If Custom Office Templates does not come up, use the Search bar to search for that folder. It should be on your PC somewhere.

When you click on Word Template, the Save box will change to be blank. That's okay because you probably don't have any of your own custom templates saved. So click Save to save the template.

Now exit completely out of Word so I can show you how to open your template. Go ahead, close the whole thing.

Reopen Word and take a look at the screen that pops up. Your template may show up as the first document on the left hand side since you just worked on it. If it doesn't, choose PERSONAL, next to FEATURED under the Search for online templates box.

Once you click on PERSONAL, your template should show up. Just click on it and you can get started!

Using Your Template

Now, let's move your manuscript over to this new template, and I can show you how to save it.

Since I'm using "The Fall of the House of Usher" as my example, I'm not going to copy the entire manuscript. I am just going to use a portion of it to show you how this works.

Open your old manuscript. Under the Home tab, choose Select under the Editing section, then choose Select All in the dropdown menu. This will highlight your entire manuscript. You can then right click and choose Copy, or click CTRL + C to copy the text. If you don't want to copy your entire text, just highlight the portions you want. That's what I did for this manuscript since I don't want to put the title and author's name in the text a second time.

Now open your template. Put your cursor where the story should begin, which is two hard returns after the title. Right click and you will see a popup menu with the word Paste Options on it. See that cute little clipboard with the large A on it?

That's the choice you want to make. It's the Keep Text Only option. It pastes only the text without any formatting attached to it whatsoever. Then the text will pick up the new formatting you've given it in your template. Here's the view when you hover over that option.

Click that little clipboard and your entire text will be pasted directly into your template, completely formatted. Still, be sure to still look through your manuscript and make sure there are no extra spaces between paragraphs, that the indents in your paragraphs don't have an extra tab attached to them so the indent is too large, etc.

And remember the header? Check it out:

The template automatically populated your header for you. If you need to change the author or title in your header, simply double click on either word, make the change, then double click on the main text of the document to exit out of the header.

Now to save your manuscript. Choose File then Save As. You will want to make sure you save this as a document, not as a template. So choose Browse to find the folder you want to save your document in. Make sure that before you save your document you have changed the name to the title and author and that Word Document is selected in the Save as type box.

If you want, you can save your file as a Read-Only document. This is some extra protection in case someone reading your manuscript accidentally deletes text or makes some other mistake. They would not be able to save it as the file it is; rather, they would have to save it as an entirely new document.

To do this, when in the Save As popup window, choose Tools, and then General Options, as shown above. Under there, click the box next to Read-only recommended, then click OK to save your changes.

Well, that's it! WHEW! You've successfully created a template for your short stories. From here on out, you can be confident that you can turn in a professional looking manuscript. It is easier on us publishers' and editors' eyes, and we're more apt to give your manuscript a solid reading for consideration for acceptance.