Formatting a Fiction Manuscript: Creativity versus Rules and Submission Guidelines

by Mia Martins, Blogger & Drama Co-editor for jaBlog!


When writing fiction, I always try to get in the mood that I want my story to reflect. To do this, I attempt to recreate the atmosphere of my story by changing elements of my writing environment. For example, I change the font I’m writing my story in—switching it up to an old-timey font for one story or a modern font for another. This helps me view the words on the page, and the story as a whole, in the same mood that I want the words themselves to evoke.

Just the other night, I was writing a story set in the dark with a scary element to it, so I turned off the lights in my room and changed the screen color to black and the font color to white. All together, these changes created a certain ambience that helped me visualize the setting of my story better and ultimately helped me write better.

However, I am very careful when I make changes like this to the format of my writing document (which is technically called a “manuscript”). At the end of my writing process when I’m finished with my story, I always revert the document back to the standard format. This is especially important if you plan on submitting your piece to any contest.

If a judge or an editor receives a document with a black background and a font that’s difficult to read, they will most likely reject it outright. Most contests and calls for submissions have strict guidelines on how your writing must be formatted in order for it to be considered and judged. In the case that a contest doesn’t have specific rules listed, it is standard to format your document in Times New Roman, 12 point font, double spaced.

Like most other organizations taking contest entries from writers, Laura Thomas Communication has rules for how a document should be formatted when submitted. Looking at the statistics from the 2015 Short Story Contest, the percentage of writers disqualified for not following the rules is in the mid-to-low thirties for every single age category. Solely because the rules were not followed, these entries were immediately disqualified from being judged. This is quite an unfortunate situation to be in. Luckily, this is a very easy problem to solve: simply read the contest rules and make sure to follow them!

To shed more light on the importance of following format rules, Laura Thomas answered a few questions about it:

Q: Why do these rules exist in the first place?

A: Reading is extremely time consuming, energy-draining work, and there are only so many hours in the work day. Any means of cutting down the workload is a boon for busy editors and contest administrators. So, to start the culling process, it makes sense NOT to read submissions that do not comply with contest rules or submission guidelines.

Q: What does it say to you when you receive a submission that has clearly not followed the rules?

A: When I look at a submission that has not followed the submission guidelines, these are the subliminal messages I receive:
“I can ignore the rules because my writing is so awesome.”
“Someone made me enter this contest, and I really don’t care.”
“I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I’m too afraid to ask.”

Q: How do you recommend young writers ensure they’re following all the rules before they submit their writing for judging?

A: If you care about writing, read the rules, don’t just skim them and make assumptions about what is required. If you have a question ask. Double check your work before you submit it. On the other hand, if you don’t care about writing or the contest, the most respectful action would be to not participate.

Following the rules is also the only way to allow your writing to be judged solely on the content, rather than being disqualified immediately based on format. Though changing the font and color of your manuscript can be a fun and helpful way to get your creative juices flowing, it’s important to observe contest rules for submissions. So next time, before you submit your fiction manuscript to a contest (or publisher), make sure you’ve followed all the rules and submission guidelines.



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