Standard submission format is standard submission format for very specific reasons.
Largely outdated reasons.
Standard submission format has been virtually unchanged since the invention of the typewriter.
Today, however, much of what we read is published not on paper but on screen. Shouldn't Standard Manuscript Format evolve to meet the specific needs of online publishing?
I think it should.
Let's take a look at some of the specifics of standard manuscript format, why they might have once been useful, and why they might still be useful, or not so useful anymore:
1. 1" Margins and Double Spacing: Editors of old liked space on a page. They also preferred as small a bundle of pages as possible. The compromise was the 1" margin. A Margin large enough to write editing notes in, but small enough that a 300 page manuscript is only 300 pages, not 325. Same goes for double spacing. It provided a bit of space for writing in-line edits.
What other purpose does it have?
Some editors will tell you that double spaced manuscripts are easier on the eyes.
Hogwash. 90% of what we read--both in print and on the web--is single spaced. In the hard copy print industry, this is so the publisher can cram as much print on a page as possible, saving himself millions in paper and printing costs. We're accustomed to reading print in cramped quarters.
In the electronic publishing industry it's so we get as much information in one screen-shot as possible. The more information I can see on the opening screen, without having to scroll too much, the happier I am as a reader. Don't you hate those pages in which the picture takes up so much of the screen that you have to scroll down to read the description?
Today, all Flash Fiction Online submissions are electronic. Most markets utilize at least email submission. Very few still linger in the archaic days of hard-copy snail-mail submission. In the electronic age we have the ability to keep manuscript notes in handy little electronic dialogue boxes or use the footnotes feature on our word processors. There is no need for space.
I will, however, concede one caveat. It's simply annoying to read stories with insanely wide margins. Don't use 2 or 3" margins. It's ridiculous. It looks ridiculous. It's more difficult to read. It makes me a slave to my mouse's scrolling wheel, because a story that could be one page long is now three. Honestly.
2. Left-hand Aligned: Actually, leave that one alone. Don't mess with it. Again, it's what we're accustomed to reading. Books and magazines are left-aligned. It looks good. It looks right.
3. 12 Point Courier, Black Type: I can go along with 12 point type. Don't make your typeface too small. I'm not getting any younger. Right now my glasses are perched low on my nose to compensate for the creeping far-sightedness that comes with age. Near-sighted and far-sighted at the same time. I refuse, however, to consider myself old enough for bifocals, so you're just going to have to make sure your typeface is big enough to be easily read (12 point), but not so large that I have to, again, be a slave to my mouse wheel because the type-face is so large you only get 20 words on a page. Honestly. Just don't do it.
I definitely take exception to the use of Courier, however. I've blogged about it before. It's insane. Why Courier is still the industry standard is so far beyond me I can't even express my disdain.
Here's some courier for you. Ugh! It looks like I'm typing with an old Underwood.
Again, it's not what we're accustomed to reading--and we haven't been for a long time. I dare you. Grab any book or magazine off your shelf. Open it up. Is it printed in Courier? No. Why does anyone think I would want to read a thousand manuscripts in a typeface I don't read in any other venue?
As for black type: If you submit in ANY typeface color except black, you richly deserve the rejection you will undoubtedly receive. In fact, you deserve an EXTRA rejection, just to prove the point. Submit in black, because your story will be printed in black. It's what we're accustomed to. My eyes don't like to read purple or orange or green. Black only. Still a good and wise industry standard.
4. Indents and paragraph spacing: Guidelines on these types of spacing depend very much on the final product. If your story will be submitted to a print publication, then Standard Manuscript Format still very much applies. Print publications consistently use first line indents and no spaces between paragraphs.
However, online publication is a different matter entirely. Go, right now, and surf the web for a few minutes. Switch from site to site and observe how paragraphs are formatted. Very few use first line indents. Very few have no spaces between paragraphs. Exactly the opposite. NO first line indents. SPACE between paragraphs. This type of formatting works better in online publication. It's easier. We don't have to worry about the word processor formatting translating poorly into HTML.
Here's an example from a web page that tells you that you should always use first line indents and no spaces between paragraphs: How to Format a Short Story
Here's another example from a short story site: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
And here: And Then, One Day, the Air Was Full of Voices
I MUCH prefer submission with a HARD RETURN (Please NO formatted double spaces between paragraphs--they disappear in html.) between paragraphs and NO first line indents. This means NO use of the Tab key and NO first line indent formatting.
However, this brings up another problem. Authors absolutely MUST indicate scene breaks with some kind of symbol. A # or an * are ideal. Very simple. Small. But absolutely necessary. This should be done this way:
5. Header Format: In the paper age we were told to dutifully put our last name, our title (or part of our title), and the page number in the top, right-hand corner of our manuscript. This was because if, by some unhappy chance, an editorial intern happened to be walking down the hall with your manuscript and just happened to trip and fall, and if, by chance, your manuscript happened to be in his arms with a half dozen other manuscripts and he just happened to drop those manuscripts and scatter pages all over the floor, he would then be able to pick those manuscripts up and sort all those hundreds of pages in the right order and by the right author and story.
But I don't print your story. I almost always read your story on my computer. I can actually download your story to my Kindle, or read your story on my phone while I'm riding in the car to visit my sister. There is almost no chance that the story will be messed up and put out of order by anyone but you when you submit it to me. And if, by chance, something odd happens, I can always send you a quick email, asking you to resubmit. It takes minutes of our mutual time.
There is no need for headers. No need for page numbers. My word processor or my submission software tells me what page I'm on and how many pages I have left to read.
In addition, some markets--including mine--ask you to remove all author identifying information from your story manuscript, so stories can be read 'blind.' I like that process. It allows for completely unbiased judgment of your story based solely on the story. It eliminates the creepy and elitist practice of favoritism, and gives new, untried authors equal footing with the pros.
6. The End: Yeah. Keep that. Why? We found out recently that our submission software sometimes clips off the last line or so of stories submitted in certain word processing software formats. So, for example, documents that were written with Open Office or Libre Office would lose that last, final, climactic sentence.
By simply typing a HARD RETURN, then THE END at the end of your manuscript, you reassure yourself that you won't get clipped, and you reassure ME that you did successfully download your story correctly.
Of course, sometimes that can backfire.
If I get to the last line and it's followed by THE END, but I'm not ready for the story to end...
Just make sure you write a good, solid ending.
7. Italics: When you italicize words, the italics will NOT translate to HTML. In the old-school formatting guidelines, we're asked to underline words that should be italicized when using Courier. Actually, it's probably best option for HTML usage. However, neither underlining or italics are likely to translate over well. Underlining, however, is a bit easier to see and pick out of a manuscript for later italicization when publishing.
So what do you do when something should be underlined?
None of the irregular manuscript formatting options--italics, underline, bold, etc.--are likely to translate over to HTML.
And, as far as I know there are currently no good solutions. Just do the best you can.
8. Author Information: Standard Manuscript Format says to left align these at the top of the first page. That's actually still a good idea, but not really needed. Again, it's a guideline needed for the paper manuscript. The editor has your contact information in TWO places--your cover letter and your manuscript. This lessens the odds of that information becoming lost.
But with electronic submission, the cover letter (your direct email) and your manuscript (the attachment) are inextricably linked together. The greater danger is having your submission (cover letter and manuscript both) being accidentally deleted. But that's almost always recoverable.
It's not needed, but it's not an inconvenience for our purposes as online publishers.
9. Word Count: This is also still a good idea. That word count might tell a publisher, editor, or editorial assistant how to sort your story. Maybe they have different departments for different length stories.
For some markets, such as ours, that word count is crucial. I actually LOVE it when submitters type the EXACT word count somewhere at the top of the first page. (For most markets, a word count rounded to the nearest hundred for longer stories, or the nearest fifty for shorter stories is adequate.) I don't care if it's top left, top right, or under the title. Having it there makes my job easier.
I have done it. I have committed publishing blasphemy.
Burn me at the stake.