Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 11 in series)

Dear Editor…: How to submit short fiction (conclusion)

Welcome back to my on-going and generally weekly series on how to market and sell short fiction. These posts are written in a very specific sequence, with each entry building on earlier ones. If you haven’t already, you can read my earlier posts here.

Last week in Part 10, I started to discuss the mechanics of submitting your story to a market, including the common methods of submission (email, snail mail, online forms, etc.) and how to write a cover letter (and how not to).

This week, I’ll continue this topic by discussing manuscript formatting. I’ll finish the topic of submitting your fiction next week when I discuss the critical things that you must never do.

Manuscript Formatting for Short Fiction

Much (too much, actually) has been written on how to properly format a short story manuscript. I am not going to add to that surfeit here. Instead, I’ll point you to two of the better sites:


Read them in the order I list them. Shunn’s site provides a sample of a properly formatted manuscript, which he uses to explain the various rules along with the reasons for those rules. Rob Sawyer’s site is a good summary as well, plus Rob includes instructions on setting the recommended formatting in Word.

These are both excellent sites, but I’ll suggest a few changes to their recommendations:

On Shunn’s list:

  • Don’t put “SFWA member” on the first page (or in your cover letter). I’m a SFWA member, but I’d never do this. No one cares, especially the editor.
  • Use exactly one inch margins (not “at least”).
  • Always use underlining to indicate text that you want in italics, even in non-proportional fonts like Times New Roman.
  • Always, always, always include some indication to denote the end of your story, either “##” (my preference) or “The End”


On Rob’s list:

  • “Disposable manuscript” is not required for snail mail submissions anymore (and obviously not for email subs). If you don’t include a large envelope for the return of the manuscript, “disposable” is assumed.
  • Using “–30–” at the end is more common for journalists, not short fiction writers.


Internal Dialog

One topic not mentioned on the above sites is how to format internal dialog–the thoughts that a character is having. My preference is to use italics (shown as underlining in your manuscript–yes, confusing, isn’t it?). For example:

“John!” came a greeting from behind him.

He turned to see Sally Turner striding towards him. Oh, crap, he thought. Just what I need right now.

The italics in the above indicate a dialog that the character is having with himself. Note that this dialog is in present tense even though the scene is written in past tense.

I could rewrite the above passage without internal dialog but still imparting the same information:

“John!” came a greeting from behind him.

He turned to see Sally Turner striding towards him. He swore to himself. The last thing he needed was to run into Sally right now.

The dialog here has been replaced by a description of the character’s thoughts, not the thoughts themselves, so the underlining is not needed. Note that the revised sentences are written in past tense, just like the rest of the scene.

Paranormal Dialog

If you write fantasy or science fiction, it’s possible you will have situations involving telepathy, which is just another form of dialog. The easiest way to handle this is to use italics again, but make it clear that the thoughts are part of a conversation between characters and not just an internal thought by one character to themselves:

“John!” came a greeting from behind them.

He and Renita turned to see Sally Turner striding towards them.

Oh, crap, he swore. She’s the last thing we need right now.

Let me handle her, Renita replied.

You can also use special formatting, like enclosing telepathy in diamond brackets (<Oh, crap!>), but just remember that this eventually has to be translated into a magazine or book. If you can make italics work, it’s the easiest for a reader to interpret.

Word Count

Traditionally, the accepted way of calculating the number of words in your manuscript was as follows:

  • Format your manuscript as described above: double-spaced, 1″ margins, non-proportional font at 12 point / 10 pitch. This formatting should produce 25 lines per printed page.
  • Assume an average of ten words per line, giving a standard of 250 words per full manuscript page.
  • Count the number of full pages (pages with 25 lines), which is usually the total pages in your story minus two, since the cover page (always) and final page (usually) will have less than twenty-five lines; (b) multiply by twenty-five; (c) add the number of lines on the first and last pages; (d) multiply that number (the total number of lines in the story) by 10 (the standard assumed average number of words per line).<br>


Example: for a properly formatted 23-page story, with eleven lines on the first page and three on the final page (not counting “The End”), the word count would be: (((23-2) x 25) + 11 + 3)) * 10 = 5,390, which you would then round up to 5,400 words (always round word counts to the nearest 100 words).

Um, okay, you say. But why not just use the word count that your word processing package gives you?

Well, first, the above method was developed before word processing packages existed and provided a quick and consistent way to estimate word count. Secondly, for print magazines, the important aspect about the length of a story isn’t its word length, but rather its physical length. That is, how much column space will this story take up in the actual magazine? And for that, line count is more accurate than word count. Consider the following exchange:

“You okay?”


Only three words, yet they still require two lines. A print magazine editor needs to know how much space the stories in an issue will take up, so that they know how much space is left over for advertising, graphics, etc.. So those three words above would be counted as twenty (two lines x 10 words).

All that being said, most markets today will accept the word count from your word processor. The advent of online magazines, where physical layout is not as much of an issue, has driven this in part, along with the preponderance of writing done on word processors.

Easier for you, right? Sure, but not as profitable. The word processor count will generally always be lower than the count from the traditional method (see my example above where three words were counted as twenty). Since you’re being paid on a per word rate, you’ll get less money using the word processor count–another reason why editors have begun to accept that word count.

Next Week

Next week, I finish this topic on how to submit short fiction when I deal with some of the no-no’s in submitting, including simultaneous submissions.

Next week: The No-No’s: What not to do when submitting

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.



I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:

Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.

He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.

We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.

As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!


Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure.


  1. How do you format for plaintext?, among others, has an in-house submission form that strips ALL text modification out. How do you indicate, then, where italics are and so on?

    1. Typically, the only formatting that you need in a short story is italics (which you show in a manuscript by underlining the text to be italicized in the actual publication). In a plain text version of a manuscript, underlining is typically shown by preceding and following the text to be italicized by an underscore character. So to underline (italicize) the word “wolf,” you would type it as _wolf_. Bolding (not typically done in fiction) is usually done by using an asterisk around the text to be bolded (e.g., *wolf*).

      Hope that helps.

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