How To Format Your Short Story For Publications: A Step By Step Guide

If there's one thing more important for an author than the quality of your story, it's that the story is actually read by people. While we often say we write for ourselves, it's nice to get some recognition and appreciation from others. One way of doing that is to publish amazing short stories in prestigious journals, magazines, and competitions.

Let's assume you've written a mini-masterpiece, the best you've ever produced. Then comes the rejection letter, and the sinking feeling in your stomach all of us are all too familiar with. You can't figure out why something so brilliant would be turned away.

Don't worry, it may not be your writing that's the problem but something much simpler and more pedantic: your name. I don't mean the editors were discriminating because of who you might be named after, rather you might have just put it in the wrong place. Yes that can happen, which is why it's always imperative to follow specific guidelines on story submission formatting.

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The smallest details can make or break your chances. Image credit: Pexels

Submission guidelines aren't guidelines at all. They're rules never to be broken, lest your hard work be tragically left on the cutting room floor before anyone's even met your protagonist.

A lot of publications have subtle differences in how they want you to format your submission but there many practices that are basically universal. This article will give you a step-by-step guide on what you need to know and what you need to do in order to give your story a fighting chance of being accepted for publication.

Step 1 : The Cover Letter

For you, this will probably be the last step but it's the first thing the editor will see so we'll cover it first.

When submitting fiction you should always provide a cover letter to display some brief information about yourself and your story. The cover letter needs to be polite and very concise in which you should include:




  • The title of your submission.
  • The length of your submission (in words).
  • Any previous publications you've achieved and relevant qualifications.
  • A short 30-50 word author's biography.
  • Your contact details.
  • You may also include 1-2 sentences explaining why you submitted your story to that particular publication.

The cover letter holds the general purpose of giving the editor some background information and an overview of your submission. It's also important for the editor to have if they decide to publish your work. so they can give readers an insight into you and offer any links to your other work or websites.

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Step 2: The First Page

The first page of your document will include: your contact details, the word count, your story's title, your by-line, and the beginning of your story proper. Here are some essentials for effective layout:

  • Always use white A4 paper and black coloured font. It may seem like a no brainer but using other colours will be distracting and make the text harder to read.
  • Make sure your margins are at least the standard 1" (2.54cm) on all sides but 3cm is also acceptable in most cases.
  • For best practice, use Times New Roman font at 12-point size.
  • Double space all your lines to allow space for editor's notes.
  • Place your contact details at the top left of the page. Include your name, address, telephone number, and email. If you are a member of a professional writing organisation you can also mention that here.
  • On the top right corner of the page type the approximate word count of your story, rounded to the nearest hundred.
  • Place your title one-third to halfway down the page and centre it. You can type it all in caps if you wish but it isn't strictly necessary.
  • Drop down one double-spaced line and put 'by' your name. If your author name is a pseudonym, place your real name on the next line down.
  • Drop down two double-spaced lines, indent the paragraph and begin your story.
  • Do not number the first page of your document.

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Step 3: The Complete Document

Most of the rules applied for the first page will remain the same. Keep the margins, font and spacing the consistent with the title page. The extra spacing and large margins will increase the amount of pages but don't worry about this. The editor needs that room to make comments and corrections. There are some differences in what you should do for the bulk of your story as opposed to the first page.

  • Every page should include should include a header at the top right which includes your name and  the title or a key word of the title of your story. This is because you should not staple your pages, rather leave them loose, and if any get misplaced it's easy for the editor to identify where they belong.
  • The page number should be placed after the header. Even though you don't number the title page, the next page should always be numbered '2'.
  • Always remember to print on one-side of the paper only.
  • You have the option of closing the story with "THE END" but it is entirely up to you.

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Step 4: Paragraph Structure

Correct paragraph formatting is essential to getting your manuscript read and enjoyed. A messy, convoluted, or overlong paragraph is going to be a chore, rather than a pleasure to read. You want the editor to be relaxed and doing as little work as possible when they are reading your story.

Every new paragraph needs the first line to be indented, with the remaining lines ruler straight down the left margin. The right margin should be left ragged rather than justified. We'll talk more about this shortly.

You don't need a line break to begin new paragraphs, as is the practice in blogs like this one. The new line and indent will be message enough that it is a new paragraph.

If you do need to use a line break for a change of scene or time jump etc. always use # on line by itself. This is so your desired line break doesn't disappear when the publication goes through their own formatting processes. This needs to be done for every line break, not just at the bottom or tops of pages.

In the past it was regularly deemed appropriate to double space for each new sentence but these days it's fine to just hit the spacebar once after a full-stop or other punctuation marks.

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White Space

White space is a term more commonly used by graphic designers but it also applies to writers. White space is exactly how it sounds, the empty space that surrounds your text and/or illustrations.

Achieving the right balance of white space goes a long way towards giving your story a better sense of readability and sophistication. Lots of words crammed into a small space is kryptonite for a reader, their brain won't be motivated to do a lot of work to decipher a huge bulk of text, it will be a big enough following the story as it is.

White space allows you to thoughtfully arrange the information you're providing to the reader. This goes back to the right hand margin. Leaving the text ragged, as you see here, allows for the natural formation of white space, whereas if you justified the lines, the text would look overwhelmingly dense and crowded, making it harder for the reader to concentrate.

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Creating white space by using alternating sentence lengths and new paragraphs gives the reader a welcoming atmosphere to enter into. It won't seem like you're labouring or rambling in your writing, on the contrary, it will allow you to appear confident and unhurried.

Don't go overboard though, too much white space is just as damaging as not enough, and will make your story look childish and sporadic. The reader won't be able to settle into a rhythm. As with every story there will be times when you use more and less. Often it's a personal stylistic choice, however, it's an extremely important one.

Step 5: Formatting Dialogue

There's no greater challenge than writing great dialogue. Assuring the reader knows who's speaking and when. Correctly formatting dialogue is integral to the clarity of your story, but thankfully it's rather easy to master. Here are the rules:

  • Always enclose spoken words in "double quotation marks" with any punctuation marks also inside the marks.
  • Attributing words to speakers such as 'he', 'she', 'Bill' should be formatted as follows:

"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" she asked.

"Yes, it is," replied Bill.

Note that lower case letters should be used after a question mark or exclamation mark. A new line is used for each new speaker so the reader can keep track of who's speaking. This also allows you to do away with using 'he said', 'she said' all the time.

  • Action happens quite often around dialogue and there are intricacies in how to punctuate and format these instances. Note these two very similar sentences.

Sharon screamed. "Oh my goodness!"

Sharon screamed, "Oh my goodness!"

In one instance Sharon screamed and then spoke. In the other, she screamed the words. It's important to know the subtle differences so you are sure you are saying exactly want you want to convey. Another example to mention is when action interrupts dialogue.

"If you knew who she was," he said quietly, rolling up his sleeves, "why didn't you tell me?"

A lower case is used to continue the dialogue because he hadn't finished his sentence.

  • If you need to quote while someone is speaking, use single quotation marks. For example:

"When that woman said to you 'shut up' I thought you were going to explode!"

The best way of learning these rules of dialogue is to practice, and it will become second nature in no time.

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Step 6: Reclaiming Your Work

Most of the time you're going to want your work back so you can read any feedback or comments. If you're submitting via email, no problem. The editor will probably shoot it back to you. However, if you're posting submissions be sure to include a self-addressed and pre-stamped envelope with your submission. Of course it can't always be relied upon that you'll get your submission back, so it's often a good idea to send a copy of your work rather than the original manuscript.

It may seem like an exhaustive process to format your submission to such a degree, especially after the hard work of actually writing your story. Know that it can be difference between your work being accepted or rejected. Once you've done it a few times, it'll become a natural habit that you'll rarely have to seek advice on in the future. Happy writing!

One Response

  1. Edward Greene

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