A long time ago, when dinosaurs rules the world, authors used a device known as the ‘typewriter,’ a sort of primitive computer with no video games and a broken backspace key. In those halcyon days, if you wanted something to look a certain way, you pretty much had to type it out that way yourself. You couldn’t just select the body of your work and click a button to change it. Editors had certain ways they liked to see submissions, and everyone in the industry pretty much knew what they were.
Then along came the computer, and then the internet, and things began to change. The ready availability of the average person to type whatever they wanted on their computers and post that up online began to shift the way people thought about what ‘looks right.’
For example, take this blog. It is probably typical of most blogs you are familiar with, and indeed much of online writing (I speak of actual legible writing. 1337-speak and SMS msgs 4 u are outside of the scope of this discussion). The paragraphs are marked by a space between then, and there are no indentations. There are a number of reasons for this particular format, mostly having to do with the W3C standards on the behavior of the ‘Tab’ key in web pages. However, it does mean that we are only a hair’s breadth away from the dreaded Wall-O-Text.
If you have spent any time at all reading fiction online, you have almost certainly seen the Wall-O-Text: that massive block of text with no spacing between sentences or paragraphs, and sometimes even less punctuation than your average SMS conversation between 11 year olds. It is nearly impossible, and certainly unpleasant, to read.
Most people, however, do know to put spaces between their paragraphs. So you go online and you write on your blog and you create a brilliant piece of fiction. Now you want to sell it to Asimov or the Saturday Evening Post or whatever periodical you prefer. So you edit your post, copy/paste the entire thing into a word program, hit ‘save’ and send it out.
And are surprised when not only is your work rejected, but chances are pretty good they never even bothered to read it. Why is that?
It is because editors still have preferred formatting styles for manuscript submissions, and those styles are not the same as online, blogging styles. They have reasons for why they want things the way they are (mostly involving the ability to write notes in margins and other things involving the use of pens with red ink), and they tend to be sticklers about this formatting thing.
Thankfully, there are only a few ‘standard’ versions. Also thankfully, William Shunn has provided a nice, visual example of the most common preferred formatting style for submissions on his blog.
Please note, as William himself comments, that you should read the submission guidelines of whatever venue you are trying to sell your work to. They may have slightly different opinions about this, and their own in-house rules should be followed.
So go ahead, copy/paste your brilliant story into a word processor program… and then spend a few minutes formatting it correctly for your target editor. And don’t worry that it doesn’t look pretty, that’s the layout technician’s job, not yours. Your job is just to create, and then make sure that the submissions editor will actually read your work enough to notice that it is a brilliant gem, rather than being annoyed that you didn’t follow instructions.