Imagine that you are a journal editor and you look at hundreds of papers each week.
Have you ever been on a committee and had to review a bunch of written applications of any kind? Or maybe assignments from your students? What did you think of the one submission that didn’t conform to your formatting guidelines? What was your impression of the person who wrote it?
First, formatting matters because it simply makes it easier for the editors to read. If their eyes are accustomed to seeing a certain format, any slight deviation sticks out like a sore thumb (and implicit bias will tell their brains that it is a worse manuscript than the others that are formatted correctly).
Second, it shows the editors you care about their journal. If the guidelines ask for Times New Roman, you’d better not be submitting it in Calibri or Arial! You know what that looks like to the editors? That you submitted it somewhere else first, got rejected, and sent it straight over to them without changing a thing. No one wants sloppy seconds.
Even though some estimates are as high as 14 hours, reformatting an entire paper probably takes me personally between 2 and 3 hours. I believe it’s because I’ve figured out what to look for and the tools to use (shoutout to Word’s styles tool!), and all the tips I could extract from my brain are below for you. However long it takes you, if you choose to do it yourself, consider the time you’re saving, not to mention the pain of rejection, by not having to resubmit to a bunch of different journals if you do it right the first time.
Rule #1: Read every. Single. Word. of the submission guidelines and author info before submitting and make sure you have followed them to a T. It’s better to do this before you even start writing so that you can integrate formatting while you write. It saves a ton of time.
Sometimes, journals have templates that you can download and input your manuscript into. USE THEM. Do not be afraid to learn how to use the styles tool in Word. I was forced to invest about three hours of my life into learning styles and templates when I wrote my dissertation, and it has since paid off.
There are some other things that I think could matter heavily that may not be spelled out in the submission guidelines. I inherited this perspective from my mentor, and I have evidence in the form of publications that whatever she’s doing is working. For all of the following tips, you have to look at examples of publications from the current issue of the journal you’re targeting.
If you can't get enough of this stuff, here are some more!
I am aware that there are reasons why your paper might be rejected that have nothing to do with formatting. Excellent formatting does not cover up not-so-great research, and it doesn’t override a paper that doesn’t fit into a journal’s scope. For the latter, you have to make sure you’re submitting to the right journal.
I would love to hear from some other scientists if I’m being neurotic about this. I have always wondered.