Look Like A Genius Without Actually Being One: Eight Formatting Tips And Tricks

Imagine watching a great TV show, and at the most dramatic, perfect moment of the lead character’s heart-wrenching soliloquy, the boom mic dangles, just barely, into the corner of the frame. No matter how good the show has been up to this point, the spell is broken—you’re painfully wrenched from the tale, immediately aware that you are not IN a story, only WATCHING a story. Bad formatting can do exactly this to your fiction. To be fair, technical errors might not ruin things, and the drunks and commoners might still be engaged, but the ones that matter—the intellectuals, the critics, the discerning readers, the ones who’ll sign your potential checks—won’t be impressed.

I’m a magazine editor, and my inbox is constantly crowded with submissions. My mag is big enough to receive articles from accomplished writers, but small enough not to scare off every Joe Blow that’s ever opened up Microsoft Word and pounded the keyboard with his fat fists. If you want even a Fudgesicle’s chance in Hell at making it in the writing world, apply some of these insider tricks to give your piece that extra something. They won’t salvage a complete mess of a story, but in our über-competitive world of writing, every little bit helps.

There are plenty of great resources on this site that discuss the “heart” of writing great prose, but this piece will discuss the “brains”—so unless you’re F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was notorious for sloppy writing), listen up.

Get With The Program

Submitting your piece written with some open-source nonsense (.rtf, .txt, .odt, .wpd, etc.) is like showing up to the prom on a two-seater bicycle: you really want to get laid, but you don’t want to spend the money to look good doing it. The solution is simple: stay home this weekend and spend the money you saved on good software. The entire Microsoft Office Suite is a little over $100, Mac Pages is only $20, and you can probably write it all off on your taxes anyway.

A Shot At The Title

File names should be clean, simple, and descriptive—that’s it. I always go with no more than the first three words of my title, and then “_Reuss” (unless their submission guidelines specify otherwise, but I’ll get to that later). Nothing annoys me more than someone sending in a file titled “article.docx” or something equally nondescript. On the other hand, “Article submission for your magazine by Johnny Dummynuts_06/25/12 _edited_final3.docx” is infuriating in its own special way, too. Keep in mind that most people in the editing business have stacks of digital files sitting around on their hard drives, and neither of those two previous file names do a damn thing for them. Granted, programs like Submittable and Hey Publisher can help organize things, but it doesn’t hurt to look like you know what you’re doing. The same care also applies to titling your stories. Spend the time, make it good, and that’ll set a positive tone and make editors more receptive to the rest of the piece. A subpar title furrows my brow, and then the author really has to do backflips to impress me. Like a faux-pas at a party, it puts the writer at an immediate disadvantage.

Invisible Monsters

The show/hide button—I love this thing. Turn it on and get used to working with it on. Right now. Seriously, you’ll thank me.

On most submissions, when I hit this button, it’s equivalent to those Dateline episodes where they use a black light to show exactly how “clean” your hotel room is—but instead of finding loads of old semen, I’m usually assaulted by hordes of extraneous “non-printing characters”: indents, soft returns, half a page of pilcrows (paragraph symbols) left over from building the piece, and plenty of other detritus. Again, these might not seem like big issues, but these otherwise innocuous symbols can screw things up if the piece is dropped into InDesign or other layout programs. One of your goals as a writer is to make the entire publication’s command chain (copy editor, designer, editing staff, publisher) happy, and a tight, clean piece will do this.

Second, cleaning up things like these demonstrates a higher level of mastery. When I open a document and find it completely clear of extraneous marks, I know the author either A) got lucky, or B) knows his shit. It’s most often the second option—and after dealing with hacks all week, I’m psyched to finally encounter a professional. As a bonus, the show/hide button is especially useful at pointing out double spacing after periods.

(Em) Dashed To Pieces

This little guy is by far my favorite form of punctuation. I’m not here to tell you how to use it, but just bear in mind that this relatively advanced grammatical tool is equivalent to the microphone in a karaoke bar—if you don’t have a high level of mastery, you’ll probably look like a jackass.

Let’s talk about proper formatting on this mother. I’ve seen different permutations of it: a single hyphen with spaces on both sides, two hyphens put together, etc.; but just do the editing staff a favor by taking the time to find the hard key for it. On Macs, it’s shift+option+dash. On PCs, it’s ALT-0150. (You can also use your Word menu: Insert/Symbol/Special Characters)

If you’re too lazy to hit three keys at once, AT LEAST take the time to keep your em dash permutation consistent throughout your piece. Again, it’s not a big deal, but these little details all indicate to your prospective audience that you have a firm grasp of keyboard mechanics—not to mention a respect for your editors’ time.

Quote Me

If your first thought was that you know how to properly use quotes, you’re probably right. But what I’m interested in is smart quotes vs. dumb quotes. Respectively, these are marks that curve inward to frame the quote (“smart”) or run parallel to the quote ("dumb"). While I wouldn’t care either way, just make sure that there’s consistency throughout your piece. The same consideration applies to apostrophes too. Inconsistencies with these are a dead giveaway for cut-and-paste jobs and other editorial shenanigans.

And, yes, before you mumble “Who cares?” and take another slug of cheap whiskey, I realize that a vast majority of people wouldn’t notice stuff like this… but you can bet your ass that editors at high-level pubs have eagle eyes, ready to catch bush-league shit in a heartbeat. Remember: forewarned is forearmed.

Proper Noun Town

Take the extra few seconds to get the spelling right. Please. If you have a character in your story talking into his “iphone”, your character (and more likely you) will look like a jackass. Again, little details like these jar the reader out of the spell—instead of racing ahead to the next scene, they’ll pause to wonder why in the hell the author couldn’t spell iPhone right. Just recently, a piece I read made reference to the acne medication “Proactiv,” but spelled it with the final e—and that was enough to throw me off and I couldn’t help but wonder if the author was lazy or just dumb.

Cleanliness is next to Strunk and Whiteliness

If I had written Brave New World, these two would replace Ford. If you don’t own The Elements of Style, buy it now. Then read up. One must know all the rules before he can properly break them, so this is the first thing I hand to my writing interns. I still learn new things from this little tome, and I’ve been reading it for years. It’s conveniently pocket-sized, so carry this baby around with you and whip it out when you’re waiting for coffee, stuck in traffic, getting your prostate examined—whenever. Just do it. Like good Christians that never stop reading the Bible, good writers should never stop reading Strunk & White.

The House Always Wins

Remember: the house always wins—house style, that is. Read and memorize how the magazine or journal does things. The closer you can mimic their house style, the happier they’ll be. That applies to nearly everything: style, tone, conventions, numeral usage, serial commas, etc. This advice admittedly starts treading into commercial magazine territory, but looking into that type of work might not be a bad idea—they actually pay their writers.

Read any and all submission guidelines. Then read them again. One minor deviation from what they’re looking for, and they’ll toss your manuscript in the round file with the 40,000 others. Most mags have no lack of submissions, and after wading though the first few thousand, tired readers will do anything to lighten the load. Give your piece the best possible chance by jumping through any and all hoops designed to catch the lazy or the stupid.

Final Thoughts

There you have it: a dispassionate list of all the article-submission issues that make me roll my eyes. Please learn from my frustration, apply these tips, and give your baby a better chance out in the big, scary world of publishing. Don’t agree with something I’ve mentioned? I’d be happy to argue in the comments section below.

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Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from living outside of Albuquerque/in Minneapolis is reading Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks July 31, 2012 - 9:02am

Great advice--thanks! (argh, that em dash is made up of two hyphens, noooooo!) One thing I learned here that I had never even suspected: editors don't like .rtf files. I almost always convert my files to .rtf on the theory that no matter what version of Word the reader is using, my file will still be readable. I guess not. I've certainly learned that it's a bad thing to do on Litreactor, because then I can't append all those balloony things for a LbL, not to mention I'm unable to transfer a file from my desktop to my ipad that way. (aargh, iPad, noooooo!)

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this July 31, 2012 - 9:08am

This is a great piece. Thanks for this. I had no idea how to do an em-dash on a Mac with that key combination! Will save me so much time...

Oh, and, jeez Arun, try reading the post before rushing to the comments section to call out the author on a mistake he didn't make. 


Megan Kerr's picture
Megan Kerr July 31, 2012 - 9:16am

I'd add a ninth rule: learn the difference between paragraphs and sections, and how to lay them out, then use them.  Otherwise the editor has to decide for you whether you have any section breaks.  It's like failing to use chapters in a novel, because you didn't know they existed...  Sections have white space above and start flush with the margin; paragraphs (including lines of dialogue) have no white space above and start indented.  Sections are typically used to separate scenes.



Dave Reuss's picture
Dave Reuss from Bozeman is reading Now is the Hour July 31, 2012 - 10:01am

@Jane and Rob- thanks. glad my first column helped at least two people.

@Arun- Aw, you changed it! I was excited to see someone call me out on an error (even if, as Rob pointed out, I didn't actually make it).

@Megan- good call. I've seen unindented with line breaks, and indented without. It'd be hard to make a ruling on that one.

Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics July 31, 2012 - 10:12am

If that bit about sections is true, then it should definitely be added. I've never heard that the start of sections should never be indented, but then again I've never taken formal writing classes. Leanr something new every year.

CamLewis's picture
CamLewis from Whitehall, NY July 31, 2012 - 1:40pm

A correction, if you'll forgive me: On PCs, ALT-0151 is the em dash. ALT-0150 is the en dash. You can verify this using the Character Map utility that comes with Windows. :)

Charlie Levenson's picture
Charlie Levenson from United States is reading Pattern Recognition, Doctor Sleep, Freakonomics July 31, 2012 - 3:03pm

Dave: In the absence of specific submission guidelines, how do you feel about Adobe Acrobat as a submission format?

11502527@facebook's picture
11502527@facebook July 31, 2012 - 3:17pm

Definitely a great article! I wish everyone who writes could read this! Though I feel I must point out that the medicine Proactiv IS actually spelled without an e. Assuming the author knows that brand names and other copywritten names must be capitalized and spelled correctly (i.e., as written), they were correct. I would say it's important to actually look up the name of the brand before assuming they're lazy or stupid. In this case, it was overlooked (which is unfortunate for that particular author). 

Dave Reuss's picture
Dave Reuss from Bozeman is reading Now is the Hour July 31, 2012 - 3:23pm

@Cam- you might be right. I haven't been on a PC in a while. Nice catch.

@Charlie- text editing in Adobe is much bigger pain in the ass compared to Word, the files take longer to load, and dropping them into InDesign can be tricky.

@String of numbers- I agree that Proactiv is spelled without an "e", but

a piece I read made reference to the acne medication “Proactiv,” but spelled it with the final e

and was therefore wrong. Constant vigilance!

anon's picture
anon July 31, 2012 - 3:43pm

"Submitting your piece written with some open-source nonsense (.rtf, .txt, .odt, .wpd, etc.)"

wow I'm not even sure what to say about this terrible terrible advice, not only is open source not nonsense but your assumption that sending a document in a format that is proprietary (.doc .docx) is just garaunteeing that once the new .docy or .docz or whatever they decide to institute to generate more revenue, won't be compatible with your original format

terrible advice

please stop

-Richard Stallman

11502527@facebook's picture
11502527@facebook July 31, 2012 - 3:44pm

Ohmygoodness, my eyes completely read that as spelled "without" instead of the way it's written ("with")! With that clarified, I can now say this article is pure gold. Love it :) (I am also unsure as to why Facebook isn't connecting with my actual name and instead assigning me a random string of numbers, but whatever!)

Dave Reuss's picture
Dave Reuss from Bozeman is reading Now is the Hour July 31, 2012 - 4:06pm

@string of numbers- thank you!


jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like July 31, 2012 - 4:11pm

I use *an open-source word processor* and you can just punch two hyphens and it will turn into an em-dash automatically -- pretty sweet, except when you run around double-hyphening all over internet forums.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like July 31, 2012 - 4:14pm

Is the "Genius" bit in the title a reference to the Mac Genius stuff?  I'm sure Apple products are great and all, but their ads have always bugged me.  Computers are cool; brands are not.

Siena Aguayo's picture
Siena Aguayo July 31, 2012 - 4:42pm

What is up with this misplaced comma!!

If you have a character in your story talking into his “iphone”,

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong July 31, 2012 - 7:10pm

I'm a professional editor, working on a B2B mag in the construction industry. Open-source file extensions aren't an issue for me; however, we invest in our software to ensure we can do our job adequately. It isn't a terrible idea to adopt MS Office if your chosen profession and main source of financial stability may rely on it. At the end of the day, Word on my end opens most files just fine, but there's always the chance some characters could get messed up, and then I have to follow up with the writer, which is a huge PITA, especially when dealing with writers who are mostly eligible for retirement and aren't responsive to email. Most people are fine with open source word processing, but if you make a living as a writer or an editor, you're really only prolonging the inevitable by refusing to pick up Office.

File names aren't a huge issue for me because I rename every file to a standard anyway.

I can't really comment on invisibles because I can't say they've ever been an issue in my job. However, they can be helpful in finding your double spaces. By the way, I know there are some steadfast and tenacious writers out there who still cling to their double spaces, but we don't use them in the publishing industry. It's fine if you want to write with them, but before you send in your story, use the find and replace function to rip those bad boys out. I'll still do it at least a handful of times before your story goes to the printer, but at least you're doing your part. And I'll think more highly of you, to be honest, because, like it or not, it's the standard.

Em dashes—I hate them. It's totally opinion, but I think a lot of writers like to use them to show a kind of flare; however, in most instances you might use an em dash, there's usually another punctuation mark specifically designed for that purpose. In my mag, if a writer uses an em dash, I rip it out and use the punctuation that more specifically serves the purpose the writer is going for. The best thing to do here (if you want to appeal to the editor) is look at past issues and just see what the style is. If you see em dashes, go for it (assuming you know how to use them). If you don't see em dashes, stick to your parenthesis, colons, semicolons, etc.

Whoa. I just intended to comment on the Word/open source thing. Sorry about that!

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong July 31, 2012 - 7:16pm

@J.Y. Hopkins

I use *an open-source word processor* and you can just punch two hyphens and it will turn into an em-dash automatically -- pretty sweet, except when you run around double-hyphening all over internet forums.

That's an en dash. To make an em dash, I believe it's three hyphens. En dashes and em dashes are not the same. Using this method is usually OK, but check your dashes. It can be finicky, and if autofill doesn't work correctly to insert the character, a string of hyphens means nothing.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like July 31, 2012 - 7:25pm

Thanks for the heads-up. So what's the difference between en and em?

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like July 31, 2012 - 7:32pm

Read a bit on it.  I've been doing - and -- instead of -- and --- this whole time


Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Naked Lunch July 31, 2012 - 10:15pm

Thank you for saying that grammar matters, because too many people keep trying to make it into a trivial, elitist issue that is an encumbrance to writers who just want to get their content out there without having to comb through stupid issues like apostrophes. This is a naive perspective coming from those who have no idea how many manuscripts the publishers and agents receive (not to mention that they have categories as slush pile and priority pile). (I mean, now I did mention it)

Good article! 

razorsharp's picture
razorsharp from Ohio is reading Atlas Shrugged August 1, 2012 - 5:21am

Submitting your piece written with some open-source nonsense (.rtf, .txt, .odt, .wpd, etc.)

Here's some advice, Dave: Know what you're talking about before you publish. It appears that you don't know what open-source means.


People shouldn't use .rtf/.txt because they lack formatting options. They shouldn't use .wpd because no one uses Word Perfect. .odt is the format of the future (and is the only open-source format you mentioned). However, it doesn't matter what format the file was originally written in because if you're going to share it it makes sense to save it as a PDF.

I get what you're saying: Use Microsoft Office. But even that is pretty bad advice. Anything a writer does will work fine in the latest version of LibreOffice, including opening/saving Word documents (.doc/.docx). This attitude that MS Office is necessary is antiquated concerning simple word processing (of course, Microsoft thanks you for perpetuating the misconception that every writer owes them money).

If you work for a business that uses Excel heavily then the Microsoft tax still applies—but in that case the Mac version of MS Office doesn't provide the proper functionality anyway (VB scripts) so you'd be SOL if my boss wanted to hire you. The only clear cut advantage I see in the Mac version of MS Office over LibreOffice is that the comment system is a lot cleaner in MS Office. Whether it's worth paying for is a matter of preference, not necessity.

Paying to do simple word processing is like paying for e-mail. You can, but you're probably not paying for anything that Gmail doesn't do just as well or better for free.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong August 1, 2012 - 7:06am


By the time you've finished that explanation, any editor or publisher I've met will look at your file extension and wonder why Word is having trouble opening or why there are crazy characters in your document from converting. That's assuming you have a contract or agreement. If you don't and you're trying to secure work, they'll probably just pass on it entirely. Either way, you're making their job harder and limiting your opportunities.

I, personally, hope you're right that open source programs are the way of the future, but what Dave is telling you (and what I can corroborate) is that, in the current state of publishing, Word is still the standard, and not having it may actually cost you.

Dave isn't telling you to use Word because it's the best. He's telling you to use Word because most people in the pubishing world use Word, and they often expect a .doc or .docx file delivered with no technical glitches. He's talking to writers whose best chance at making money are people who aren't typically technically inclined and, regardless, don't want to deal with glitches simply because (as they see it) the writer didn't want to pony up $100 for their chosen profession.

If he were talking to editors and publishers, he might urge them to be more open and supportive to open source formats, and he might advise they invest some time into learning how to deal with technical glitches efficiently. It's a two-way street, but as a writer, you don't ask your editor or publisher to be more accomodating because it's pretty easy to replace you with someone who's just as good and would probably even work for less money. The only reason you haven't been replaced by that person is you haven't pissed the editor or publisher off enough to look for someone else because they have better things to do with their time.

At least on my end of it and in my experience, that's the harsh reality. It could be different elsewhere.

Dave Reuss's picture
Dave Reuss from Bozeman is reading Now is the Hour August 1, 2012 - 8:25am

@Tim- thank you. Jesus, what a show. Microsoft goons didn't pay me off to recommend Word. There is no conspiracy to force you into buying Microsoft products. Just steal it off the internet if you really want to stick it to the man.

Heidi Ash's picture
Heidi Ash from Dallas/Fort Worth area is reading 1Q84, Bloodfire Quest, Anathem August 1, 2012 - 12:46pm

Great article! I learned a lot of things that I did not know before and appreciate the help! I actually used this opportunity to find out that the shortcut for an em dash in Word is Ctrl+Alt+Num-. Anything that can help me send out more professional work is always appreciated!

addiemon's picture
addiemon from California is reading The Way of Shadows August 2, 2012 - 5:32am

If you don't have MS Office and don't want to buy it, use Google Docs. It's free, you can save files in to .DOC, .PPT, .PDF, etc. And you have access to it on anything that has Internet access. Done!

Robert.B's picture
Robert.B from Northern Ireland is reading The Last of the Savages By Jay McInerney August 3, 2012 - 10:53am

Thanks for this, I learned a lot from this article, the formatting of a piece was something I knew very little about.

Pushpaw's picture
Pushpaw from Canada is reading Building Stories by Chris Ware August 10, 2012 - 7:54pm

One must know all the rules before he can properly break them"

Like the way the author breaks the pronoun style guideline in this sentence. On purpose, of course.