Challenge,  On Writing

Formatting Meets Craft

Something So Basic…

A little bit back I mentioned a bunch of workshops Kris and I were thinking of offering, and almost everyone said they would like to try “Advanced Pacing.”

Now, that would be really fun for me to try to explain. I knew that, but then I got a bunch of stories in that I needed to read for a workshop. And half of them didn’t know basic fiction manuscript format, even though the rules said the stories had to be sent to me in that form. All of the problem ones had put extra lines between paragraphs, making it just damn near impossible for someone like me (jaded old editor) to read.

An extra space between paragraphs is fine for this blog, and for some nonfiction articles and things. But in fiction a space between a paragraph is a time jump or scene jump. Oh, oh…

Now, in advanced pacing, one of the most important things a writer must learn to control is how a reader goes through the story. And some of that control comes from things like paragraphing in various ways.

Big block paragraphs, extra lines between paragraphs, all paragraphs the same size like you were taught in school shows me you don’t even have basic fiction pacing down yet.

And before even trying to move to the next levels of pacing, start thinking of every detail in your story as part of a whole. Line length, paragraphing, look of the manuscript, everything. And every detail must follow the content of the story, the emotions of the character, the form of action.

You can not do this from critical voice. You must learn it by reading and typing in openings of top bestsellers (stage four writers) and pay attention to what they are doing. Then you just trust your creative voice to add what it has learned into your stories over time.

But first things first. Basic, just basic. Learn manuscript formatting for fiction. William Shunn a while back did a great web site with pictures for those who can’t follow word instructions.

BOOKMARK THIS SITE…. And when I say I want a story in manuscript format, this is how it should look. And it should look like this going to any editor for any project. And maybe then you can start getting to basic pacing and keep learning toward more advanced at some point. But this is the foundation you must know.



  • Philip

    When I took newswriting in college, the professor introduced me to shorter and vared paragraph lengths. Before, I followed grade school 5-7 sentences every paragprah or else! Later, I became an editor of my college newspaper and I could look at a manuscript without reading it and knew if it was good or not just based on how the characters and white spacing was mixed in.

    Side note: I just took your Master Plot Formula lecture last night and what a game-changer! I had heard of Lester Dent, and you’d mentioned the formula elsewhere, but hearing you lectures really made it click for me and it’s going to be a huge help in my 2021 short story challenge. I highly recommend it to people lurking here.

    Also, it caused me to download some original Doc Savages book and boy are they fun reads. Always loved the pulp greats and always will. Pure entertianment and no BS!

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, I took Dent’s language at one point and transferred it to modern speak and that was a stunner as well.

  • Amy

    I’ve been dutifully using Shunn but have been wondering why it includes some things that will cause work if the story is accepted and needs to be formatted for publication – such as double-hypens for em-dashes, indenting paras at the beginnings of scenes, underlining instead of italicising.

    Is all that a hangover from pre-computer-layout days? If so, why don’t editors ask for something that will make their lives easier? Or is there some programme that automatically reformats it?

    • dwsmith

      It’s all automatically reformatted. Basically Bills template is “classic” formate. Note at the top he has modern, which at first glance looks identical but has small changes like you suggest. The point it so be clear for the craft side. To make your story work, not make it simpler for some formatter somewhere.

  • Cora

    You’re going soft, Dean. You used to just insist that we look it up. Haha. The truth is that if you simply google ‘standard manuscript format’, that link is the first thing that pops up (after an ad). It took me a while to keep it all sorted, but it becomes automatic fairly quickly once you’ve done a few submissions.

    I believe that knowing this certainly helped me get the personal responses that I’ve gotten in the past from my short story submission. Looking professional doesn’t take that much effort.

    • dwsmith

      And then it helps your story from the craft side as well, and that helps the response as well. When a fiction writer starts using more of their craft tools, readers respond.

  • Carolyn Ivy Stein

    I was frustrated and puzzled when you pointed it out to me because I hadn’t done it on purpose. My word processor did it by default.

    Two things that helped me with the problem and might be useful for others:

    1) To prevent Word from automatically adding spaces between paragraphs I went to Format –> Paragraph and then ticked the box for “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style.”

    2) On the Shunn site there is a link to templates in tiny text at the top. I brought the Word template into my copy of Word. That template takes care of the problem as well. Here is the direct link to that page:

  • Kate Pavelle

    Most people probably know this, but it took me a while to identify the source of the unwanted spaces in my documents. In the Word, Format, Paragraph menu, there is a box about two-thirds down the list of options. If you leave it unclicked, Word will automatically insert an empty line after each hard return. So click the box.
    I think I didn’t see it at first because the rest of the options I always use are well above it.

    Thanks for the MS format link, Dean. Good stuff, I learned 2 new things.

  • Sheila

    Manuscript format is easy enough to look up (though it’s nice you provided a link). It seems people just won’t do it. I see this on most of the writing forums/groups I visit, where no one will research the simplest things, they just want someone to tell them.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    Hi, Dean,

    Wanted to add this because it was a lesson in always looking if an editor provides a link to manuscript submission in the guidelines. After a call for an anthology ended, the editor noted that not one person submitting looked at the link. I’m pretty much autopilot on manuscript formatting (I have a template I reuse), but this told me I need to look every time and just make sure there isn’t something different in what that editor wants.

    • dwsmith

      A very good idea. Got a hunch the one person who actually looked at the link had an upper hand in getting bought.

  • David Anthony Brown

    I made a template in Apple Pages that I use every time I start a new story or chapter. Both Pages and MS Word automatically do stupid formating things, so just easier to have something set up without remaking the wheel on each story.

    I’ve been working at publishing old novels on my hard drive from 10+ years ago, never before published, from when I was first starting to learn fiction writing. Just got the trade paper copy of my first completed novel the other day, and I’m amazed at how good the pages look with paragraphs of varied length. Did not see that in the original Word doc file, it was such a formating mess. Goes to show how proper formating can make or break a story.

  • Michèle Laframboise

    So happy Mr. Shunn added the Modern Manuscript Format to his classic format! I had visited that page for years, waiting for it to happen. The monospaces courier font was not my cup of tea but I did on editorial request.

    A point to consider: some magazine editors ask for anonymous subs, so in those case, I would keep the title and page number on the upper page. AND… you have to go under the document’s properties to find all hidden ID traces and erase them. (The road is bumpy in Word: view/ sharepoint properties/ inspect document/ check Document property and all information)

    I confess I did send some online workshop ms in bigger Times Roman 14 points (because of your eyesight) but I still managed the spaces between lines to make a total of about 250-300 words per page.

    A big thanks for pointing this out, Dean!