FREE WORKSHOP: Universal Manuscript Format and How To Push Your Manuscript to the Editor’s Desk

Cute unicorn in fairy tale cave


An editor opens her submissions queue and finds she’s received 600 unsolicited submissions this week. She looks at the middle school poster on her wall, it is of a unicorn with a pink main and tail and golden horn. She’s named the unicorn Unsolicited Submitter. She sighs then assigns the submissions to her readers. There are three of them. They are entry level staff volunteers whose jobs are to weed out the obvious declines and promote the maybes.

Reader #1: Bob

Defeat, failure, overwhelmed young manBob was just rejected by his favorite literary journal that morning after the journal kept his work for 285 days. He really wants to be head editor and hates slushing through unsolicited submissions. Each time he can demote a submission, he does so zealously, clicking the thumbs down icon with such force that the mouse sometimes flies off his desk. He giggles when this happens. Bob wants you to know that he doesn’t hold his personal rejection against you but that, truth be told, today, it feels a little bit good when he can demote a manuscript for obviously ignoring submission guidelines.

Reader #2: Jillian

Young beautiful hippie girl sitting near a houseJillian always feels bad when she has to decline a submission for improper formatting. She says a small pagan prayer each time and makes hand gestures toward the four corners and seasons and sky and earth. She hopes that the karma will balance out. She has been vegan, officially, for three months now, and she wants you to know that. She also wants you to know that after she has demoted your manuscript for bad formatting, she reads your first sentence to commemorate the manuscript, an act of mourning. She’s very sorry. Really.

Reader #3: Fancy

Mohawk Lady, 3d CGFancy just came off a punk revival cover band tour. She’s decided she wants to be a writer now. She read Less than Zero in elementary school and has carried it around with her ever since. She has a good eye and a fierce hatred of entitled writer people. She has a black T-shirt that says exactly this. Though her mohawk is three feet tall, on a good day, and is pink, her manuscripts go out to editors, always, in plain, boring universal manuscript format, unless the journal requests something different. Each time she opens a submission that obviously did not follow the journal’s guidelines, she gives it the middle finger and shakes her head sadly. She will often mutter the word “dude.”

What do Bob, Jillian and Fancy look for as they open the 600 submissions they have to review? They look for obvious signs that the guidelines were not followed and then quickly demote the submission without being read because their editors have told them to do this. Why did their editors tell them to do this? Would you want to work with a writer who can’t follow easy instructions and has so little regard for your journal that they submit improperly?

The Truth About Submissions

Literary journals receive far more submissions than can be read completely through. Readers look for submissions that first, follow guidelines (and, yes, editors do sometimes add specific expectations in their guidelines so that this is an easy tell), then they start reading until they have lost interest. If a manuscript is on its game and suits the aesthetics of the journal, a reader will make it the whole way through. At this point, the manuscript has a chance at making it to the next level.

There are obvious “demotable” signs: submissions that include fancy “happy” fonts OR a “pretty” font color OR have a picture of a unicorn OR try to stand out in any way that has nothing to do with the context and language of the narrative. BIG NO NO. We like unicorns at Eckleburg. We think everyone should like unicorns, but adding unicorns to your manuscript, when the manuscript does not contextually call for a unicorn, is a bad move.

When the readers and editors look at your narrative manuscript, the only elements that should stand out are what are created within the contexts of the narrative itself. Of course, if you are submitting poetry, intermedia, innovative, hybrid, etc., structural play might very well be an important element within the narrative itself, but even in these scenarios, professional writers will still attempt to submit the innovative work as close to the guidelines as possible.


Universal Manuscript Format

At The Eckleburg Workshops, we do follow the Universal Manuscript Format. Unless your instructor specifically requests something different, you should always follow this format:

  • MS doc or docx,
  • double space,
  • 12 pt.,
  • Times New Roman,
  • no spaces between paragraphs (the single space, extra space between paragraphs is an online format that you should NEVER use when submitting to journals and/or workshops unless specifically requested by the editor/instructor),
  • indent each paragraph (including the first paragraph),
  • use section breaks, CENTERED (*** or #), so the editor can easily see them.

The above link for Universal Manuscript Format will give you a very specific and easy to follow visual. Please make sure to view this.

These guidelines are in place, market wide, for valid and time-tested reasons. Though some editors and agents have their particular unique preferences, universal standards are usually preferred because: (1) Times New Roman 12 pt. is one of the more easily read fonts, which saves editors’ eyesight over time; (2) Asking an editor or instructor to reformat your manuscript when the expectations were already clearly made gives the impression that you do not follow guidelines, did not read the guidelines and/or consider yourself entitled and above the professional standard considerations; this doesn’t give the impression of professional writer with whom an editor would want to work; (3) Double-spacing makes it easier to read the text and make comments if the editor prints the text out; even if not printed out, the double-spacing is how most editors are accustomed to reading manuscripts and it’s not our jobs as writers to question the reading preferences of editors and agents; (4) Proper headings assure the editor and instructor can contact you and that the submission, whether printed out or read digitally, will always be in tact whether or not pages were dropped to the floor.

Remember, the submitted manuscript format has nothing to do with the writer’s preferences. While the writer is writing his or her work, it is certainly natural and suggested that the manuscript be formatted to suit the writer; however, before submitting, the manuscript should be formatted exactly to the editor’s/instructor’s preferences down to every detail. Do not start off by giving the editor/instructor a bad impression of your thoroughness as a writer and potential contributor. Always pay close attention to each step of the submissions process.

Unsolicited submissions do not have “rights” from editors past confidentiality. The editors can read or not read based on their own preference. No contract has been made. For this reason, and more, we expect all writers at The Eckleburg Workshops to follow and practice Universal Manuscript Formatting so that the good habit is formed and so that our instructors, who are reading many manuscripts over a week’s time, do not need to reformat and so on. This is one of the easiest and most effective submissions lessons we can teach you.

The best reason for writers to follow guidelines for each individual editor, agent, instructor, journal, etc., is to give your manuscript the best first impression you can. If your reader must reformat your manuscript before even reading, your work already has a strike against it and/or it will be thrown out or declined without being read at all. Always follow guidelines in workshop, journal, publisher and agent submission practices. It’s in your best interest and in your work’s best interest.

Read more tips from editors, writers and instructors at the FREE WORKSHOP: “The Importance of Following Submission Guidelines.”

Rae Bryant II

RAE BRYANT’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online at  The Paris ReviewThe Missouri ReviewStoryQuarterlyMcSweeney’sNew World WritingGargoyle Magazine,and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/HemingwayPen Emerging Writers&NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. She has a Bachelors in Humanities from Penn State with a concentration in Eduction and English Literature and minors in Art, History and Philosophy. In addition to her Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins, she completed graduate coursework in Curriculum and Administration at Penn State. She has been teaching and lecturing for over twenty years in campus classrooms. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, CLMP and NBCC.

INTERVIEW | Arianne Zwartjes

Arianne Zwartjes photo284Arianne Zwartjes brings the body into her writing. In Detailing Trauma, she looks at our anatomy and the intricate interactions between our organs, blood, muscles, tissues—all of it, really—in order to discover something about trauma and healing. Here, Zwartjes speaks further about hybridity and stretching the boundaries of genre, as well as a multitude of ways in which writing enriches our world and our experience of it.




Chelsey Clammer: Your most recent book, Detailing Trauma, is subtitled “A Poetic Anatomy.” Can you explain a little bit as to what this phrase means and how it interacts with your lyric essays?

Arianne Zwartjes: Well, the subtitle here plays a couple of roles. First, I think, the role of going beyond what is a fairly concise, definitive title to question and complicate the latter’s scientific tone. Second, on a more straight-forward level, I suppose you could say it’s a point-blank indication to readers that this book is written in lyric form, it’s not your “normal” linear, concrete researched non-fiction. Finally—and this desire occurred at the editorial and marketing levels—it plays the role of indicating to potentially-leery readers who may feel they’ve read one too many memoirs about lifetimes of personal traumas that the word trauma in the title refers to the physical, medical meaning of that word.


CC: An interesting facet of nonfiction is that many writers and scholars discuss it in terms of gender—how gender is a fluid thing, an identity that can always change. Genre, they argue, can/is just as fluid as our varying gender expressions that stretch way beyond the dichotomy of male/female. Thinking of this, what are the ways in which you work within and rebel against established genres? How does this help and/or hinder your work?

 AZ: I think it’s absolutely true that both genre and gender often get defined in terms of little boxes, but are so much more fluid and complicated than that. Jenny Boully articulates this really clearly in her essay “On the EOE Genre Sheet,” which she read on a panel at AWP in 2010, where she writes, “It seems to me that the inability to accept a mixed piece of writing is akin to literary racism.  I think of the EOE data sheets.  Choose the genre that you feel most accurately describes you.” I don’t know if you’ve seen the interview I recently did for Fourth Genre, with Barrie Jean Borich, but I talked a lot about this—the fact that I am very invested in questions of hybridity, margins, borders, both personally and literarily: in the hybridity of both social identity and of artistic form. These questions play out artistically in the debate around genre-boundaries and multi-media work, and socially they play out around multiracial identities, queerness, immigrants, and everyone else whose identity busts out of all those neat, organized little boxes.

AZ quote 1But when I sit down to write, I’m not thinking about “rebelling” or how what I write is going to break some boundary or evoke questions about its form. I’m writing what I like to read (or at least, I’m trying to do so): work that is multi-layered, thinky, linguistically beautiful, critical and questioning. I like work that brings together lots of different ideas, and looks at the sparks they create when they collide, and so that’s the way my writing process often occurs, also—putting very disparate things side by side, and seeing if they create chemistry. I like, also, to play with the tension between a given language set, often something technical like medicine, and my subject matter, which is often much more personal.

And as far as “hindering”—working in this hybrid space, the barriers I come up against show up when I try to interact with structures and systems outside of myself—i.e. the publishing world—which needs me to identify and label where my work fits (and often sticks it in the “Poetry” category when they can’t figure out what else to do with it). Back to Boully again: “To be told to choose is to be told that you disrupt the neat notion of where things belong, that you don’t belong…. Just as my identity is often displaced, so too are my poetics and literary inclinations.” But I have to also say that I’ve been blessed to find editors and publishers—notably Joe Parsons, formerly at U of Iowa Press, and Ander Monson of DIAGRAM/New Michigan—who have embraced my work and haven’t tried to squish it into a box that doesn’t fit it, for which I’m really grateful.


CC: The majority of our society believes that we are in control of, well, basically everything, even every bit of ourselves and those we love and know. In this bootstrap-pulling-up land of the “brave,” phrases such as “you’re the master of self-control” predominate the socially-constructed view of how we relate to (read: dominate) the world. So. One concept you poetically approach in Detailing Trauma is the fallacy of control, especially in terms of our helplessness when faced with loss. You also touch on the idea that “living is an act of faith.”  Where do you think faith and control intersect, if they even do? What part do our bodies play in this interaction between loss and hope?

AZ quote 2AZ: You know I think there’s a real dualism present in US society, because on the one hand we have this incredible, arrogant rhetoric about being “world leaders” and having all this influence and control around the world—and financially and militarily, unfortunately, we do—and all this capitalist advertisement-based rhetoric about becoming perfect: perfectly happy, perfectly beautiful, perfectly safe. But at the same time we’re very aware, on a gut level, that we are very much not in control, that our bodies get older and break down, that we can’t even predict, let alone control, what will happen to us in the next 24 hours. In fact, I think most of the rhetoric of the former probably has to do with our denial of the latter—or at least, to do with both that and with power.  I’ve had a very serious meditation practice for a long time now, and really the most central tenet of mindfulness practice or Buddhist study or what-have-you is the idea of impermanence, of us not being in control, and all the shifts in mindset that have to follow once you admit to that very basic principle.

As far as faith, well, my relationship to that word is a bit complicated because we so often associate it with some sort of blind faith in religious doctrine. But I think part of the process of writing this book was of grappling with the question of what faith & hope mean to me. And ultimately what I’ve come to, at least in part, is a sort of faith/hope in my ability to remain kind—to both myself and to others—which I think is way, way underrated in our society.


CC: Personally, and I know I’m not alone on this, I consider the body to be another page on which we write, that our bodies tell a story that is much different from what our writing can relate. As you worked on Detailing Trauma, were there any surprises in regards to how you used or thought about your body while writing?

AZ: I’m going to reference another writer again here, this time Lynn Kilpatrick whose piece entitled “Your Body is An Essay” appeared on Essay Daily last March. She writes, “language is a body and the essay is a map. A way not only out but in. Around.” And, “The way I understand the essay is the way I understand feminism which is the way I understand the world: through my body.” I think as I was writing Detailing Trauma I was very aware of my body and its fragility, but maybe in a way that I almost always am. As a medical person and a very physical person—for many years I’ve led thirty-day backpacking trips in the mountains of Wyoming, for example—my experience of the world and of self feels very much rooted in physical embodiment. Or maybe I was hyper-aware during the writing period, but if anything that hyper-awareness came from that singular experience—have you ever felt this?—of being so in love with someone that you suddenly feel their physical vulnerability, and yours, immensely, acutely, constantly. So not from the book project directly. Though the book’s starting point was a sort of outgrowth of that feeling.


CC: What role do you think writing plays in the context of navigating and healing from trauma?

AZ quote 3AZ: I think the question of role is very personal, different for every individual. Obviously it’s critically important to find the voices of others out there in the world who have experienced, and found their way through the tangled labyrinth of healing from, a similar trauma to yours, whatever it may be. So the role of writers working through, publically and honestly and vulnerably and transformatively, their own struggles is critically important in the sense of offering succor, a sort of light forward. On the flip side, though, the question of how one navigates one’s way through via writing is very individual. For myself, I think writing is how I ask the questions that matter to me, and then try to write my way into some sort of deeper understanding, if not (and usually not) an answer.


CC: What are you working on now?

AZ: I’m working loosely on a project investigating the human tendency and drive toward both connection and violence. I can’t say much more about it than that—I don’t tend to sit down and frame out a whole project outline, complete with beginning and ending locations—that takes the discovery out of it. So, I’m writing my way into the project, whatever it ends up wanting to be. But I can say that I spent time in Turkey and in Cyprus this summer, and being in such geographic proximity to what is going on in both Syria and Gaza felt very impactful to me, on a sort of physical level. And I teach at a school with students from both Syria and Palestine, as well as so many other regions of the world where violence is an everyday reality. So that’s all a part of the writing I’m doing right now.


After receiving her MFA in Poetry at the University of Arizona and teaching English and creative writing there for six years, Arianne Zwartjes is now in northern New Mexico serving as the director of the wilderness program at the United World College. The University of Iowa Press published her lyric nonfiction project, Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, in the fall of 2012; a selection from Detailing Trauma won the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction, and was named a Best American Essays Notable Essay in 2013.  Her poetry and prose can be found in Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, Essay Daily, No Tell Motel, Cue, and elsewhere; her previous works include Disem(body), The Surfacing of Excess, and (Stitched) A Surface Opens: Essays.


Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago, and is currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. She has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. Her essay “A Striking Resemblance” received an Honorary Mention for Water~Stone Review’s 2014 Judith Kitchen Award in Nonfiction. Clammer is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a workshop instructor for the journal. Her first collection of essays, There Is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub in 2015.  Her second collection, BodyHome, will be published in Spring 2015 by Hopewell Publications. You can read more of her writing at:


Cripple Creek Writing Retreat

The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review’sown Managing Editor, Nonfiction Editor, and workshop instructor, Chelsey Clammer, won this year’s Owl of Minerva Award from the women’s literary journal Minerva Rising. With the scholarship, Clammer brought four young women to the mountains of Cripple Creek, Colorado for a weekend writing retreat. The women, who are part of a transitional living residency program in Denver for homeless youth with substance abuse and mental illness issues, wrote about wilderness and identity. The women learned different writing techniques and editing skills and gave feedback on each other’s work. The group also went into town in order to watch the donkey races at Cripple Creek’s Annual Donkey Derby Days (Where the fun will be reDONKulous, the advertisements promised)! Upon their return to Denver, Clammer continues to work with the youth twice a week on their writing.


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Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago, and is currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. Her essay “A Striking Resemblance” received an Honorary Mention for Water~Stone Review’s 2014 Judith Kitchen Award in Nonfiction. She has won many awards, most recently the Owl of Minerva Award 2014 from the women’s literary journal Minerva Rising. Clammer is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a columnist and workshop instructor for the journal. Her first collection of essays, There is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub in 2015. You can read more of her writing at: