Last weekend, I was a panelist at the Pocono Writers' Conference in Stroudsburg, PA. The attendees were largely beginning writers. At one point we were discussing the process of submitting, processes and pitfalls, etc. I mentioned Standard Manuscript Format, and found myself looking out at blank stares.
"Who here knows what Standard Manuscript Format is?" I asked.
A handful of hands raised. (How's that for a badly constructed statement?)
"How many people have no idea what I'm talking about?"
A surprisingly large number.
But really, it shouldn't be surprising. If I look back at myself when I was at their stage, I'd never heard of SMF either.
SMF was standardized at a time when one's story was manually typed onto paper, using a typewriter (often with carbon paper), and the paper was thin to allow for better carbon copies and to reduce the cost of postage. Edits were done in red pencil directly on the page, and eventually (hopefully) the typesetting was done by a person reading that page, placing little bits of lead onto a printing plate. The rules were to give the editor plenty of space to write in, and to make things as uniform as possible to allow for easy reading and easy typesetting.
Many of the reasons for SMF have become obsolete (the typesetting requirements, for example). This is all done with software now, so there's no longer someone staring at a marked up sheet of carbon-copied manuscript trying to sort out if this is a comma or a period, of if that is italicized or not. Technology has rendered much of this moot, but at the same time has created infinite flexibility for writers to do stupid things.
Where before writers might feel compelled to stand out by sending in their manuscript typed on ornate stationary, liberally doused in perfume, now a writer might use a flowery, cursive script (switching fonts to a comic sans for the intentionally funny bits), and litter their manuscript with animated gifs.
Don't. Please. Please don't.
Standard Manuscript Format exists to keep editors sane (for some value of "sane"). When we're sitting down to read submissions, we're we're typically reading batches of stories, and the last thing you want to do is annoy the editor by having them have to reformat your work so that it's readable. The idea is that if the formatting is all the same, it becomes easier for us to consider the story based solely on the content.
So, what is SMF? This is probably the best guide out there:http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html
It is, however, still geared toward the idea of people putting sheets of paper in an envelope, rather than attaching a file to an email.
So, some key differences for electronic submissions:
- Use headers for your headers. DON'T manually add the header information at the top of each page - there's a good chance that the person receiving your story will be using a different word processor, or even a different version of the same word processor, or is reading on a tablet, and there is no guarantee that the story will be rendered exactly the same on every platform. If you use the header function, it won't matter how many lines my Mac NeoOffice renders your Windows Word 2007, the header will always be on the top of the page. (If you are unsure of how to do this, it's typically an option under an "Insert" tab - you'll be able to find instructions for your specific software online.)
- It's pretty standard nowadays to use italics for italics, rather than underlines.
- Unless the guidelines for the market specify a required font, "some reasonable font" is usually adequate. Reasonable includes most commonly Courier or Times New Roman, but can really be any common font that doesn't distract from the editor's reading of the work. In the days of paper manuscripts, Courier was necessary so that the editors could easily estimate word count and layout. Now our software will give us the word count, so it's not as important to use a monospaced font. Remember that the further you stray from the standards (Courier, Times, Arial), the more likely that the font will not be supported in the editor's software, and the display will be unpredictable. My preference is for serif fonts - I find them easier to read. This will vary from person to person, so always read the guidelines.
- File type - the guidelines will typically tell you what file type the editor wants. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. Typically, .doc and .rtf are safe bets. DON'T use proprietary file types. Don't use .docx unless it is specifically requested. .docx files in particular display strange behavior when being opened in non-Microsoft environments. If you use MS Word, it may be saving your files in .docx format by default. Consider changing your default so that you send out manuscripts that can be read by anyone, no matter what kind of computer or software they are using.
In case it hasn't been stressed enough yet: ALWAYS FOLLOW THE SPECIFIC GUIDELINES FOR YOUR INTENDED MARKET. Every editor works differently, and every market has its own processes and procedures. If some editor wants things single spaced in 9 pt verdana font, double-spaced between paragraphs with no paragraph indent, give them that. But for the vast majority of markets, some reasonable facsimile of Standard Manuscript Format will do you well.