It may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play fast and loose with the space-time continuum

green anemone

Happy Memorial Day weekend, U.S.-based readers! Since one of the many, many sacrifices those of us devoted to the difficult task of self-expression routinely make is to trade what other folks might do with their long weekends for gloriously uninterrupted hours of writing — or, better yet, revising! — I thought you might appreciate a glimpse of the world outside your writing studios. Now get back to work!

Actually, I have an ulterior motive for opening with that photo: as I’m certainly not going to be the first to point out, those of us who read manuscripts for a living are noted for looking not just at the big picture — is this an interesting story? Does it grab the reader from the get-go? And the question dear to writers everywhere, is it well-written? — but also at the granular level. It also probably won’t stop the presses to point out that the notoriously close reading any given manuscript has to survive in order to be seriously considered for publication tends to come as a great, big, or even nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters. And don’t even get me started on how many literary contest entrants seem to operate on the assumption that contest judges are specifically selected for their propensity to read with a charitable eye.

Does that giant gasp I just heard indicate that some of you fine people have been laboring under one or both of those impressions, or is somebody about to go for a nice, leisurely swim? If it’s the former, you’re definitely not alone: all too often, talented writers new to the game rush their manuscripts out the door the instant after they’ve typed the last page, presumably in the fond hope that all agents, editors, and contest judges are such lovers of literature that they will judge the book by nothing but how well it’s written. And possibly, to a lesser extent, by the inherent interest of the story.

Or so Millicent the agency screener must surmise from how many of those submissions apparently have not been spell-checked. Or grammar-checked. Or even read through since the last revision, because how else could the writer not have noticed that several words seem to have dropped out of that sentence on page 33?

Oh, stop groaning. Don’t you want your future agent and acquiring editor to fall so in love with your writing that they examine it from every angle, down to the last grain of sand?

Before I take that resounding, “Heavens, no!” for an unqualified yes, let me hasten to remind you that in the long run, it truly is better for your book if the agent of your dreams (and Millicent, the stalwart soul s/he has entrusted to narrowing the thousands of queries and hundreds of submissions a good agent receives to the handful that s/he would actually have time to read without sacrificing the book-selling side of the job entirely) pays attention to the little stuff. Why? Well, let me put it this way: if Millicent’s eye may legitimately be called nit-picky, a good acquiring editor’s peepers should be regarded as microscopic.

Oh, you thought it was easy to read closely enough to catch that the narrative has used the same image on page 12 and page 315? Or that the writer fell so in love with the word verdant that it appears every time that anything vaguely green flashes by the reader’s consciousness? In a book about lawn care?

So if this series’ focus upon the little visual details has occasionally seemed a trifle, well, obsessive, congratulations — you’re gaining real insight into what professional readers are trained to do. And think about it: if Millicent and her ilk must pay such close attention to the text, how likely are they to catch any formatting glitches?

Uh-huh. Hard to miss that sea anemone lying on the sand, isn’t it?

In order to give you a Millicent’s-eye view of your manuscript, for the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones. Yes, it’s been a lengthy slog, but hands up, those of you who have never had the opportunity to see a manuscript that actually got picked up by an agent and published by a traditional house up close and personal.

See, I told you that you were not alone. Quite the forest of hands, isn’t it?

In my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly. The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Okay, so it’s not what the average would think of as a little light weekend recreational stress release. Were you under the impression that being a brilliantly incisive observer and chronicler of the human condition was ordinary?

Which is why I’m completely confident that you’re up to the challenge of thinking of your writing on several levels simultaneously. Particularly when, like the savvy submitter that you are, you are reading your ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. Lest we forget, it’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Do I sense that simmering resentment at how hard it is for a new writer to break into print beginning to bubble up to the surface? “But Anne!” I hear aspiring writers everywhere shout, and who could blame you? “I don’t have a problem with making my manuscript ship-shape on a writing level before passing it under Millicent’s critical spectacles. Granted, revision can be a trifle irritating, but what really irks me is that after I’ve done it, that lovingly worked and reworked prose could be knocked out of consideration because of some arbitrary expectations about how professional book manuscripts should look on the page. Isn’t that just an annoying additional hoop through which I’m expected to leap, and don’t I have every right to resent it?”

Well, not exactly, bubblers-up. As we’ve been discussing, the rules of standard format actually are not arbitrary; most of them have a strong practical basis that might not be readily apparent from the writer’s side of the submission desk. Let’s take, for instance, the relatively straightforward requirements that manuscripts should be entirely typed, double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

I hear some of you snickering, but Millicent regularly reads submissions that do not conform to standard format in one or even all of these respects. It’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, pages hand-numbered, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen. Or for an e-mailed query to an agency that asks to see the first few pages to be single-spaced — because that’s the norm for an e-mail, right?

Let’s take a peek at why all of those rules necessary, from a professional point of view. For continuity’s sake, let’s once again call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like — actually, since we’ve been looking at so many first pages lately, let’s live dangerously, shall we? Here are pages 1 and two.

2 cities good
2 CIties right page 2

Relatively easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to screen, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was not double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity. To render it an even better example of what makes Millicent’s optician rend his garments in despair, I’ve gone ahead and submitted a fuzzy photocopy, rather than a freshly-printed original.

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

And honestly, can you blame them?

Did I hear a few spit-takes after that last set of assertions from those of you joining us in mid-argument? “My goodness, Anne,” sputter those of you wiping coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing. Sure, it’s a little harder to read, but if it’s an e-mailed submission, Millicent could just expand the image. And it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of Charles’ dreams, couldn’t just ask him to reformat it.”

Yes on both counts, but surely you can appreciate why the Charles who submitted that last page would strike anyone accustomed to handling manuscripts as a much, much more difficult writer to work with than the Charles behind our first set of examples. The latter displays a fairly significant disregard for not only the norms of standard format, but also the optical comfort of the reader. Not to mention just shouting, “Hey, I don’t expect any feedback on this, ever!”

Oh, you didn’t spot that? Anyone who handles manuscripts for a living would. Even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, intensive line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing a similar temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Are some of you are blushing? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study the correctly formatted page 2 in our first example. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

2 Cities cheating page 2

Admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler? Yet I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt when, say, they’re trying to fit 26 pages of manuscript into a contest entry with a 25-page limit. So how likely is this little gambit to pay off for the submitter?

Exactly. Amazingly enough, people who read for a living very seldom appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. No matter how much Charles felt that last example added life to his opening — or how right he was about that — Millicent will simply notice that he tried to cheat in order to get more of his words in front of her eyeballs than writers conscientious enough to follow the rules. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: Alarmingly often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. “What’s two tenths of an inch?” they reassure themselves. “And honestly, who is going to be able to tell the difference between 12-point type at 99%, rather than 100%?”

Help yourself to a gold star for the day if you immediately answered: “Someone who reads queries all day, every day. And two-tenths of an inch all around can, as Uncle Charles has just demonstrated, add up to a great deal more text on a page.”

Another common means of fudging spacing: incomplete adherence to the rules bout skipping spaces after periods and colons. Specifically, skipping two spaces (as tradition requires) in most instances, but omitting the second space when doing so would make the difference between a paragraph’s ending with a single word on the last line and being able to use that line to begin a new paragraph.

Shame on you, those who just bellowed, “Wow, that’s a great idea — over the course of an entire chapter, that might free up a page of text for my nefarious purposes!” Don’t you think inconsistent spacing is the kind of thing a reader trained to spot textual oddities might conceivably notice?

And for good reason: waffling about how often to hit the space bar can be a tell-tale sign that a writer isn’t altogether comfortable with writing in standard format. Such a writer’s work would, presumably, need to be proofread for formatting more closely than other agency clients’ work, would it not? And that in turn would mean that signing such a writer would inevitably means devoting either unanticipated staff time to double-checking his manuscripts or training in the delights of consistent rule application, right?

Those rhetorical questions would be equally applicable whether the agency in question happened to favor either the two-space or one-space convention, incidentally. Consistency is the key to proper manuscript formatting, after all, and all the more likely to be valued if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission.

Why? Well, think about it: when you first thought about querying and submitting, would it have occurred to you to check each and every agency’s website (if it has one; not all do, even at this late date) for submission guidelines? So if you were the Millicent screening manuscripts for an agent with a desperate aversion to that second space after the comma (she had a nasty run-in with a journalist on a cross-country flight , perhaps; he may have menaced her with a copy of the AP’s formatting guidelines), and your boss had been considerate enough to post a reference to that aversion on the agency’s website, on her blog, and in 47 online interviews, wouldn’t that be one of the first things you looked for in a submission?

Let’s all chant it together, shall we? If an agency or publishing house’s submission guidelines ask for something specific, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. But don’t generalize that individual preferences to the entire industry, okay? And if they don’t express a preference, stick to standard format.

Yes, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons in book manuscripts anymore. It’s simply not true that it’s generally an instant-rejection offense, on the grounds that manuscripts including the second space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format is old-fashioned, by definition. That doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. Possibly because those that feel strongly about the single-space convention tend to be up front about not being likely to fall in love with submissions featuring what they perceive to be extra spaces.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

If you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation, clap yourself heartily on the back: standard estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.) Give yourself a nice, warm hug if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. Because we all know about the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

I can sense blood pressure rising over this issue, but honestly, inconsistent application of either rule is far more likely to raise red flags with Millicent than clinging like an unusually tenacious leech to either the one- or two-space convention. Particularly if that inconsistency — or slightly off sizing — seems to allow more words per page than is usual.

My point, should you care to know it, is that a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on, so let’s work a bit more to increase your visceral sense that something is wrong. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate my next common gaffe very well.

Reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer, I seem to have grabbed Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA. Taking a page at random, let’s take a look at it properly formatted in manuscript form.

Vera correctly

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations could be. Now cast your eye over the same text with a couple of very minor formatting alterations.

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? Yet the word count is slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words. That may not seem like a big difference, but it’s enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

“But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”?

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would indeed be to allow more words per page, not less. But the scanter space between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer apparently did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we were discussing only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

Well might some jaws drop. It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. And tell them what it is, naturally, so they could do better next time.

In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation. Unless an agent or editor is asking for the writer to revise and resubmit the manuscript (in itself something of a rarity these days), why would they take the time?

Well, yes, to be nice would be a perfectly acceptable response, from a writer’s perspective. If a well-established agent received only a hundred queries per month and asked for one manuscript — not all that uncommon a ratio thirty years ago — writing personalized rejections would be both kind and not unduly time-consuming. Presuming, of course, that the rejected writer of the month did not consider a detailed rejection an invitation to argue about the manuscripts merits.

Consider for a moment, though, the agent that receives hundreds of queries per day. See why kindly advice-giving rejection letters might have become something of a rarity?

Especially if the rejection reason had to do with a formatting error. Honestly, it would eat up half of Millicent’s screening day. Why? Well, most submissions contain at least one — formatting problems, like typos, grammar gaffes, and wolves, tend to travel in packs. Even with the best of wills, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, honey.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger for VERA was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission would probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. It pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, another notorious agents’ pet peeve was lurking in the background — although in all probability, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.

Crown yourself with a laurel wreath if, while running your eyes thoughtfully over that last example, your peepers became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: an emdash (–, one long line) instead of a doubled dash with spaces on either end. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not applicable to manuscripts.

Which brings me to yet another moral for the day: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript. Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Or a professional reader wouldn’t instantly spot a trifle imported from the wonderful world of published books. Remember, Millicent scans manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a surprisingly short while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” do you not?

Spare Millie the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

My, all of those individual grains of sand are attractive, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

The rules, part IV: so that’s how a book manuscript should appear on the page!

Sorry about the unexpected hiatus between my last formatting post and this one, campers; I honestly did mean to follow up within two or three days. My blogging time has been a trifle more difficult to schedule since my car crash, however — I never know when someone is going to decide to pop me into an MRI machine. Or decide to cut my computer use in half.

I’m back on the job this evening, however, and raring to polish off our list of requirements for a professionally-formatted book manuscript. At the risk of repeating myself, allow me to underscore book manuscript: if you are planning to write anything else (say, a short story, article, or a tasty little tidbit for an academic journal), I would strongly urge you to look elsewhere. Different venues for publishing writing have different standards. So while I would always encourage even those writing books to check agency and small publishing house’s submission guidelines — like literary contests, the individuals who evaluate submissions sometimes harbor personal preferences — a writer’s best bet is always to find out how professionals submit their work to that particular venue and emulate it.

Rather than, say, do what most first-time submitters do: simply assume that presentation doesn’t matter if the writing is good. In any writing venue, adhering to its expected presentation will make your work look more professional to the pros, for the exceedingly simple reason that all professional manuscripts circulated by agencies in the United States conform to standard format.

Or, to put it another way, everything that editors at major publishing houses are used to reading, will look like the pages we saw in the first post in this series’ brief visual tour of a properly-formatted manuscript. So does our old pal, Millicent the agency screener.

Why are these expectations important for a writer to bear in mind while preparing a submission? Well, think about it: if editors want manuscripts in standard format (they’re easier to edit that way, incidentally), a savvy agent would make sure that all of her clients’ work adhered to that norm, right? It follows as night the day, then, that taking on a writer fond of formatting his work in any other manner will necessitate training him in professional formatting.

Which — are you sitting down? — pretty much everyone in publishing circles expects a writer serious about seeing his work in print to have invested the time and energy in learning before approaching an agency or publishing house. Knowing how to format a book manuscript properly is a basic professional skill for an author, after all. And arguably, it’s never been easier to pick up that skill.

Of course, those who argue that typically don’t spend much time trawling the Internet for tips. As I’m morally certain won’t come as even a vague surprise to those of you who have discovered this post — and only this post — in the course of an web-wide search on how to format manuscripts, there’s a heck of a lot of conflicting advice out there. Not all of it is equally well-informed, and an astoundingly high proportion fails to mention — as I may have pointed out fifteen or sixteen times throughout the course of this short series — that the rules the site in question is touting should not be applied to all writing, anywhere, anytime.

Why is that supposition problematic? Shall we chant our mantra, writers who have been following this series? Standard format for book manuscripts is not proper for every form of writing known to humanity, anywhere, anytime. It’s for — wait for it — books.

No one is born knowing that, however, nor with the publishing experience to tell good advice from, well, the other kind. I think a excellent case could be made that since the rise of the Internet — and the concomitant rise of the expectation that everything someone new to the publishing world needs to know should be possible to locate in, if not a bullet-pointed list, then at least in a 500-word post appearing on the first page of a Google search of the phrase manuscript format — it’s actually become quite a bit harder for those new to the game to learn the rules.

Understandably, then, many aspiring writers’ response to the plethora of advice floating around out there has been not to seek out the most credible, or even the one that appears to be speaking to the type of books they might happen to be writing, but rather to pick and choose elements from a buffet of options. The inevitable result: Millicent’s inbox has been awash in some rather odd admixtures in recent years. Mixing and matching standard format for book manuscripts, short stories, magazine articles, etc., perhaps with the piquant addition of an element or two from a published book, has become the norm in recent years, not the exception.

Am I correct in concluding that audible intake of collective breath indicates some personal experience with this phenomenon? “But Anne,” buffet-lovers across the world protest, and who could blame them? “I tried to find out how to do it, but there were so many different sets of rules — and virtually all of them barked as orders, instead of explained nicely, as I notice you have tried to do in this series — I just assumed that there wasn’t really a single standard. I can’t be the only one who’s felt this way. If so many of us are submitting our work in ways other than standard format would dictate, why doesn’t Millicent just, you know, lighten up and not pay attention to anything but the writing?”

Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? So would the overwhelming majority of writers trying to break into print. And if the publishing industry were run to please aspiring writers, Millicent might embrace your suggestion with vigor. Ditto if there were not hundreds of thousands of talented writers competing for the limited publication slots in any given book category in any given year.

Which is to say — and you might want to sit down for this one — it’s very helpful to Millicent that so many submissions arrive on her desk incorrectly formatted. Trust me, if she works for a well-established agent, she already receives a few hundred well-written, perfectly-formatted submissions for every opening her boss has for a new client. So if other manuscripts’ formatting allow her to draw the conclusion that their writers would be more time-consuming to represent than those who have made the effort to learn the ropes, well, can you really blame her for regarding them as less professional writing?

I sense some of you grumbling, and with some reason. “What about individual expression?” nonconformists everywhere cry, bless their ornery hearts. “How my writing appears on the page is part of my vision for my book. Why shouldn’t my manuscript reflect that?”

A fine question, and one that richly deserves a direct answer: because non-standard presentation will distract Millicent. In publishing circles, formatting matters like font size, margin width, and whether a new chapter begins on a fresh page are not matters of individual preference; standard format is just that, standard. That means, in practice, that when anything else appears on a submission’s pages, a professional reader’s eye is going to zoom right to it.

So I ask you: which would you rather have Millicent focus upon, your unique formatting vision — or your writing?

Remember, too, that neither Millicent, her boss, the agent of your dreams, nor your future lucky acquiring editor will expect your manuscript to resemble a published book. Standard format differs in many significant respects, from being double-spaced and printed on only one side of the page to how a dash appears on the page.

That comes as a surprise to many aspiring writers: all too often, they assume that deviating from standard format in order to, say, place the first letter of a chapter in a larger font size, or to remove the indentation from its first paragraph, will make sense to Millicent, because it’s sometimes done in published books. The way the manuscript is formatted for submission, they reason, will be their best chance to show their future acquiring editors how they would like to see their books appear in print.

How that reasoning plays out on the page will send a different message to Millicent, unfortunately. To her, as to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living, all such a page conveys is that the writer is not very familiar with the book publishing process. Specifically, the part in which the publishing house, not the author, gets to make the decisions about what the book looks like.

Does that glum silence mean that I’ve convinced you, or merely depressed you into a stupor? Both are quite normal reactions for writers hearing about all of this for the first time, or even the second or third. (Hey, there’s a reason I go over this every year.)

While you’re absorbing it all, let’s go over the rules we’ve discussed so far:

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on only one side of the page and unbound in any way. For submission to US-based agencies, publishing houses, and contests, the pages in question should be US-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

(3) The text should be left-justified, not block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should not resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

(5) The entire manuscript should be in the same font and size — no switching typefaces for any reason. Industry standard is 12-point.

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered — except the title page. The first page of text is page 1, not the title page.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page. The chapter title should appear on the first line of the page, not on the line immediately above where the text begins.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, not on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

(12) The beginning of every paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break

(14) Nothing in a book manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

Before we move on, allow me to revisit #14, as it’s one that’s often misinterpreted. There are in fact forms of writing in which it is still quite proper to underline certain words under certain conditions. In a book manuscript (or a book proposal, as it happens), however, this is not acceptable.

No, no matter how much you want to emphasize a word or phrase; italics should be used for that. Ditto for any phrases you might choose to import from a foreign language — you wouldn’t want the agent of your dreams to think you had misspelled a word in English, would you? — and titles of books, songs, newspapers, and magazines. If you should desire to refer to an article, a poem, or a short story, however, those titles should appear within quotation marks.

You’ll find list of the rules for italics use in my last post, but as I’m a great fan of visual examples, here are those principles in action.

Minette waved the paper at him. “Honestly, Patrice, it’s all here in The Anytown, U.S.A. Gazette.”

He shrugged. “Chacun ? son go?t. I prefer to get my news from the moon, the stars, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and ‘The Road Not Taken,” my sweet.”

A less-than-convincing argument from a man whose idea of a first date flick had been Gore on Parade and whose most-quoted rhyme was “There Once Was a Man From Nantucket.” “Oh, look, honey. The article’s even called ‘Stuff Patrice McStubbornhead Habitually Gets Wrong.’ I think it might conceivably speak to you.”

He reached for his guitar. When she was in a mood like this, nothing soothed her so fast as a quick rendition of Greensleeves.

God, how I hate that song,” she muttered.

Everyone happy with that, at least provisionally? If not, this would be a dandy time to post questions in the comments. Please don’t be shy: believe me, if you have been wondering about any aspect of italics use, so have a quarter of a million of your fellow aspiring writers too shy to speak up.

Do ‘em a favor: ask. While you’re formulating your questions, let’s move on.

(15) Numbers over 100 and those containing decimal points (like currency) or colons (like specific times) should be written as numerals. Numbers under 100 should be written out in word form. Thus, twenty-five is correct; so are 1,473, 2:47 p.m., and $15.90. Page numbers, of course, should appear as numerals.

The instinct to correct this particular set of mistakes when they appear on the submission page is universal in professional readers. That’s potentially problematic for a submission. Why? Well, from that impulse to rejection is often a fairly short journey, because once the notion gee, this writer hasn’t taken the time to how book writing should be presented has occurred to a professional reader, it’s hard to unthink. After that, anything from a major clich? to a minor typo would just seem like corroboration of this uncharitable — and in some cases unfair — conclusion.

Translation: not presenting your numbers correctly will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This one makes our teeth grind.

It also ties in with the publishing industry’s always-strong sense of its own history. Like pointing out foreign-language words with special formatting, this formatting rule was originally for the benefit of the manual typesetters. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

And honestly, what could a manuscript possibly gain artistically by violating this particular rule? If Millicent will be happier to read text like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/82

The sandwich cost $3.76.

On November 11, 1492, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took 157 rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

Rather than (stop it, teeth!) like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/Eighty-two

The sandwich cost three dollars and seventy-six cents, cash American.

On November eleventh, fourteen hundred and ninety-two, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took a hundred and fifty-seven rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

Why not humor her? She puts in a long day at a hard job; she doesn’t have time for extra trips to the dentist.

Do I spot some hands waving in the air? “But Anne,” inveterate readers of newspapers protest, “I’m accustomed to seeing numbers like 11, 53, 18, and 72 written as numerals. Does that mean that when I read, say, a magazine article with numbers under 100 depicted this way, that some industrious editor manually changed all of those numbers after the manuscript was submitted?”

No, it doesn’t — although I must say, the mental picture of that poor, unfortunate soul assigned to years of searching tirelessly for those numbers and making such a nit-picky change saddens me. (Hang in there, brother!)

What we have here is yet another difference between book manuscript format and, well, every other kind of formatting out there: in journalism, they write out only numbers under 10. Yet — stop me when the song begins to sound familiar — there are many, many sources out there insisting that the over-10 rule should be applied to all forms of writing, anywhere, anytime. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but in a book manuscript, it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this issue? More than once? And within the last year?

AP style differs from standard format in several important respects, not the least being that in standard format (as in other formal presentations in the English language), the first letter of the first word after a colon should not be capitalized, since technically, it’s not the beginning of a new sentence. I don’t know who introduced the convention of post-colon capitalization, but believe me, I’m not the only one who read the submissions of aspiring book writers for a living that’s mentally consigned that language subversive to a pit of hell that would make even Dante avert his eyes in horror.

That’s the way we nit-pickers roll. We like our formatting and grammatical boundaries firm.

Heck, compared to most professional readers, my feelings on the subject are downright non-confrontational. I’ve been in more than one contest judging conference where tables were actually banged, modern societies deplored, and the rise of the personal computer berated to the skies.

Again, I ask you: do you really want your contest entry to be the one that engenders this reaction?

So let’s all shout it together, shall we? The formatting and grammatical choices you see in newspapers will not necessarily work in manuscripts or literary contest entries.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, newspaper enthusiasts? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk in a book manuscript.

And no, there is no court of appeal for such decisions; proper format, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. So if you were planning to cry out, “But that’s the way The New Moreford Journal-Sentinel does it!” save your breath.

Although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to know that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well. The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasons are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

And that, in case any of you lovely people had been wondering, is why I revisit the topic of standard format so darned often. How can the talented mend their ways if they don’t know how — or even if — their ways are broken?

(16) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash, as my blogging program forces me to do — with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces at either end, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, yes, I know: you’ve probably heard that this rule is obsolete, too, gone the way of underlining, large advances for novelists, and the dodo. The usual argument for the doubled dash’s demise: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy, so many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned. But you’re starting to get used to that, right?

Your word-processing program probably changes a double dash to an emdash automatically, but CHANGE IT BACK. If only as a time-saver: any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

Don’t stand there and tell me that you’ve seen the long dash in countless published books, or that those self-same volumes have not placed a space between the dashes in question and the words on either side. None of that is relevant. Standard format is invariable upon this point: a doubled dash with a space on either end is correct; anything else is not.

And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of doing it properly only when you think about it, or not doing a search for it before you submit your manuscript. It may seem like a minor, easily-fixable phenomenon from the writer’s side of the submission envelope, but believe me, inconsistency drives people trained to spot minor errors nuts. Seriously, the pros bemoan how often they see manuscripts in which this rule is applied inconsistently: two-thirds of the dashes doubled, perhaps, sometimes with a space at either end and sometimes not, with the odd emdash and single dash dotting the text as well.

Remember, consistency is not only a hallmark of a well-developed authorial voice; it’s a sign of professionalism in formatting, too. Or did you expect your future agent to invest the time in cleaning up your formatting and/or punctuation before submitting your work to editors? Even in the unlikely event that he would be willing to do it — good agents are very busy people — wouldn’t that expectation mean that he could never send out any of your writing without proofreading it?

As opposed to, say, a writer who had already gotten into the professional habits of consistent dash formatting and proofreading?

I’m going to leave the consistency-haters among you — oh, I know you’re out there — to ponder that one while the rest of us move on. Those who have spent the last few paragraphs resenting the necessity of going over your manuscript in this detail prior to submission will be pleased to hear that the next rule is one that will eat up very little of your time.

(17) Turn off the widow/orphan control in your Word program; leaving it on can result in pages containing varying numbers of lines.

Told you so: this is something that can be accomplished by highlighting your entire text (the shortcut for that in Word is COMMAND + A), then pulling down the FORMAT menu. Select PARAGRAPH…, then LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. Un-check the Widow/Orphan control box.

Voil? ! Every full page of text will have the same number of lines!

Oh, those of you new to the term would like to know why you did that, would you? Fair enough: as some of you clever souls may have already surmised, the widow/orphan control dictates how many lines appear on any given page. The default setting prevents the first line of a new paragraph from being left alone on a page if the rest of the paragraph is on the next (a line so left behind is called an orphan) or the last line of a paragraph begun on a previous page from appearing at the top of the next page all by itself (and that’s called a widow). Thus, if the widow/orphan control is left on, lines will be stolen from one page and added to the ones before and after.

Result: some of your pages will have more lines of text on them than others. Why might that be problematic? Well, unless your pages are standardized, you can’t justify estimating your word count (at # of pages x 250 in Times New Roman). Since word counts for book-length projects are expected to be estimated (you’ll need to use the actual count for short stories or articles), and actual count can be as much as 20% higher than estimated, it’s certainly in the best interest of anyone who tends to run a little long to estimate.

And even if your manuscript isn’t over 400 pages (100,000 words, estimated) — the time-honored dividing line for Millicent to cry, “Oh, too bad; it’s too long for a first novel in this book category. Next!” — she’s going to dislike seeing an extra inch of white space on the bottom of some of your pages. Not necessarily enough to shout, “Next!” all by itself, but need I ask you again if this is the response you want your writing to evoke?

I thought not. Let’s tackle the last rule.

(18) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, not what it being done on the moment in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet.

In other words, “But I’ve seen other writers violate that rule!” is not going to fly here. Assume that Millicent graduated with honors from the best undergraduate English department in the country (or at least the fifteenth-best), taught by the grumpiest, meanest, least tolerant stickler for grammar that ever snarled at a student unfortunate enough to have made a typo, and you’ll be you’ll have set the level of proofreading concern just about right.

Why? Well, if you can bear yet another rhetorical question, do you really want to encourage Millicent to wonder whether you broke a rule on purpose — or if you simply were not aware of it?

Grammar aside, there’s been a tendency in recent years for submissions to ape the trend of paper-saving publishers across writing types to leave only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period or colon. The rationale runs thus: printed books often do this now: the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it. Since we’ve all seen it done in recently-released books, some argue — and vehemently — it would be ludicrous to format a manuscript any other way.

Indeed, some insist that the single-space convention is the ONLY way to format a manuscript. A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of, if not the present, then at least the future. They aver that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look old-fashioned. Some even claim that retaining the second space is a universal instant-rejection offense.

At the risk of sounding like the harsh grammar-mongers of my youth, poppycock. Agents, very good ones, routinely submit manuscripts with doubled spaces to editors, also very good ones, all the time. Successfully. That might be due to the fact that most editors who deal with manuscripts in hard copy actively prefer it.

Truth compels me to point out, though, that there are also agents, good ones, who have embraced the single-space convention, and quite adamantly. It’s become a less common preference over the last few years, but those who feel strongly about it tend to — you can see it coming, right? — feel strongly about it. In practice, the doubled space is still the norm — except amongst the minority who insist that it is not. In either case, though, it’s not a common rejection criterion.

Clear as pea soup, right?

So which convention should you embrace? The answer, as it so often is, involves doing your homework about the specific agent or publisher you are planning to approach, rather than treating submissions, as so many aspiring writers do, as generic. It’s always a good idea to check each and every agency’s submission guidelines before tossing that manuscript in the mail, anyway .

Fortunately for aspiring writers everywhere, agents with a strong preference for the single space tend not to keep mum about it. If they actually do tell their Millicents to regard a second space as a sign of creeping obsolescence, chances are very, very good that they’ll mention that fact on their websites. If you happen to be submitting to folks who specifically asks for single spaces, by all means, bow to their expressed preferences.

Sensing a pattern here?

Spoiler alert: once you get in the habit of doing that research, I suspect those of you who have heard horror stories about how everybody now positively hates the second space convention will be astonished to see how few agencies even mention it in their submission guidelines. If they don’t, it’s usually safe to assume that they adhere to the older convention — or don’t care.

Why should that be the default option, since proponents of eliminating the second space tend to be so very vocal? Those who cling to the older tradition tend to be, if anything, a shade more vehement.

Why, you ask? Editing experience, usually. Preserving that extra space after each sentence in a manuscript makes for greater ease of reading, and thus of editing. As anyone who has ever edited a long piece of writing can tell you, the white space on the page is where the comments — grammatical changes, pointing out flow problems, asking, “Does Ambrose the Bold really need to die so peacefully?” — go.

Less white space equals less room to comment. It honestly is that simple.

And just between us, it drives traditional-minded grammar-hounds nuts to hear that time-honored standards must necessarily be jettisoned in the name of progress. “What sane human being,” they ask through gritted teeth (I wasn’t kidding about those trips to the dentist), “seriously believes that replacing tonight with tonite, or all right with alright constitutes betterment of the human condition? Does any literate person genuinely believe that a colon means a new sentence has begun? Dropping those letters and spaces doesn’t even save significant page space!”

They have a point, you must admit. Yet as rule-seeking web-crawlers have no doubt discovered, traditionalists tend not to be nearly so well-represented online — nor so vitriolic in their condemnations — as advocates of the new. I don’t think that’s merely because proper grammar and spelling do not really require defense; to literate people, they just look right. I suspect that it’s for the same reason that agents and editors don’t habitually go online to check out what people are logging into any particular writers’ forum to suggest is the current rage in formatting: if you already know the rules, why would you be looking online for them?

Then, too, there’s a practical reason: until everyone in the industry makes the transition to editing in soft copy — which many of us find significantly harder and less efficient than scanning a printed page — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change universally. Just ask a new agent immediately after the first time she’s submitted to an old-school senior editor: if she lets her clients deviate from the norms, she’s likely to be lectured for fifteen minutes on the great beauty of the English language and the imperative to protect its graceful strictures from the invading Goths, Visigoths, and journalists.

I sense that some of you are beginning to wring your hands and rend your garments in frustration. “I just can’t win here! Most want it one way, a few another. I’m so confused about what’s required that I keep switching back and forth between two spaces and one while I’m typing.”

Again, you might want to sit down for this one: inconsistent formatting is likely to annoy both sides of the aisle. Whichever choice you embrace, be consistent about it throughout your manuscript; don’t kid yourself that an experienced professional reader isn’t going to notice if you sometimes use one format, sometimes the other.

He will. So will a veteran contest judge. Pick a convention and stick with it.

But I wouldn’t fret over it too much. This honestly isn’t as burning a debate amongst agents and editors as many aspiring writers seem to think — and definitely nowhere near the snarling division so many online sources were claiming it was ten yeas ago. But as always: check before you submit.

And be open to the possibility — remember, I already advised you to sit down — that you may need to submit your manuscript formatted one way for a single agent on your list, and another for the other nineteen. That needn’t worry you at the querying stage, of course, but it might affect the order in which you will want to submit your work if, say, four of them ask to see your manuscript.

Hey, you’re busy, too, right? And it’s not as though what I’ve been suggesting throughout this series isn’t going to require setting aside some time to tinker with your manuscript. I realize that if you already have a full manuscript formatted in any other way, the very notion of applying all of these rules may seem intimidating.

Which is, if you will excuse my saying so, an awfully good reason to get into the laudable habit of writing your manuscripts in standard format from the get-go — in the long run, it will save you time to be consistent about applying the rules. It’s a very sensible long-term investment in your writing career, after all. Literally every page you will be showing to your future agent or editor will need to look like this; why not use the opportunity to practice the rules until they are imbedded into your very bones?

That, too, I shall leave you to ponder; I recognize that it’s a commitment. But doesn’t your good writing deserve the best possible presentation you can give it? Keep up the good work!

The rules, part III: the bare necessities

restrooms & cemeteries

The wee tourist trap where I took this is stuffed to the gills with practical people, evidently. If you look closely in the background, you’ll see that there’s also a liquor-and-sundries store. In retrospect, I wish I’d documented what the locals considered sundry, as opposed to requisite.

Beginning to sense a theme here? Excellent. Today, I would like us to focus our collective minds firmly on the practical while we continue our chat about how to present a book manuscript in a professional manner.

I would hate, after all, for any of you lovely people to fall into the oh-so-common pre-submission trap of believing that because implementing one or more of these rules will take some time (and thus slow the egress of your manuscript from your writing digs), any of them may be treated as optional. Oh, our old pal Millicent the agency screener isn’t going to burst into your studio, wrest the keyboard from your trembling hands, and forcibly insert indentation into your paragraphs. She’s not going to take a ruler to your margins, either, in all probability, or call you on the phone to yell at you because Chapter 2 began on the same page as the end of Chapter 1, any more than she’s likely to tell everyone in the literary world that for some reason best known to yourself, you’ve evidently decided that Microsoft’s defaults have come to dictate formatting in the entirely unrelated publishing industry.

She simply doesn’t have the time to do any of that. She’s got hundreds of submissions to read.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a screener or contest judge might not get the urge to indulge in a little educational mayhem. Like anyone else in a position to read an average day’s complement of submissions, our Millicent sees an incredible amount of good writing presented as though presentation couldn’t possibly matter.

As I’m hoping today’s grim opening image will remind you, that’s just not true. Inevitably, the cosmetic aspects of a submission affect how someone who works with professionally-formatted manuscripts will respond to what’s on the page.

Don’t believe me? Perhaps you missed our recent brief visual tour of a properly-formatted manuscript. If so, slip your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins and compare what you would have expected a page 1 to look like:

With the following page 1, riddled with fairly common deviations from standard format. If you’re having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Visibly different from across the room, isn’t it? As we’ve been discussing, since U.S.-based agencies send out their clients’ manuscripts in a specific format, a submission presented in any other manner just doesn’t look right to those of us who read for a living. Once you know how a page is supposed to look, even minor deviations distract the eye.

Since that generally comes as a big, ugly surprise to writers who have never had the opportunity to see a professionally-formatted manuscript, the temptation to fudge is quite understandable. Especially in a contest entry, in order to fit desired text into a limited number of pages, something that has occurred to so many entrants for so many years that many literary contests simply disqualify any entry that doesn’t follow its formatting rules.

Sadly, the writers pulling off this sort of trick often believe they’re being subtle — or don’t know that fudging in order to include more words per page than other entrants is a knock-you-out-of-finalist-consideration offense. But how could it not be, when the results are so obviously different from a manuscript adhering to standard format? Compare this page 2:

With this:

Really no chance of Millicent’s missing the spacing tricks here, is there? See what I mean about those familiar with standard format’s enjoying a distinct advantage at submission time?

While I’m horrifying you, guess what she’s trained to do with a partial manuscript in which the writer has messed with the margins, font size, or new chapter formatting in order to have a favorite scene fall within the requested page limit? Or, even more commonly, to prevent the break at the bottom of page 50 (or whatever is the last of the requested pages) from occurring in mid-scene, if not mid-sentence?

Uh-huh: “Next!”

Don’t see why? Well, in the first place, it never fails to astonish, amuse, and/or perplex those of us who read for a living that any aspiring writer, no matter how inexperienced, would presume that an agent or editor would ask for a set number of pages, expecting a scene, section, chapter, or even sentence to end precisely at the bottom of it. That virtually never happens naturally.

You’d never know that, though, from how often an agency’s request for the first 50 pages yields either the type of compressed text we saw above or this type of chapter break:

I’d show you a counterexample of a chapter break correctly formatted, but you’ve already seen it, in essence: the opening of Chapter Two should begin on a fresh page — and look precisely like the first page of Chapter One.

Hard to get more practical than that, eh?

Whether you are being surprised and stunned by the rigors of standard format for the first time or working your way though this series as a veteran, it is very much to your advantage to learn these rules, then apply them consistently throughout your manuscript. While it is undoubtedly time-consuming, investing a few days in formatting your manuscript properly will in the long term save you a whole heck of a lot of time.

It’s true, honest. While the applying these rules to a manuscript already in progress may seem like a pain, practice makes habit. After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature for working writers. The manuscript came into the world correct — which, in turn, saves the writer revision time. On a deadline, those conserved minutes and hours can save the writer’s backside as well.

Oh, you may laugh, but the more successful you are as a writer, the more likely the day will come when you’re not going to have the half an hour it would take to reformat a inconsistent manuscript before your editor calls to demand why you didn’t e-mail those revisions yesterday. Writing a requested new chapter (yes, it happens) in standard format may make the difference between getting it under your agent’s nose before she leaves for the day/weekend/her honeymoon/to deliver that baby and missing the boat. And hands up, every contest entrant who has dashed panting into a post office 32 seconds before it closed, to get that entry postmarked on the last possible day.

Seriously, committing to formatting your pages correctly from the get-go will render you a better professional writer — and definitely a better agency client. Think about it: if you were Millicent’s boss, the agent of your dreams, would you rather be drumming your fingers on her desk for the extra hour it will take your client who prefers to write in some other format to whip the new version of Chapter 7 that editor interested in acquiring the book requested, or would you prefer to receive it as soon as the writer polishes it off?

And if you were lucky enough to be the writer in this situation — hey, acquiring editors don’t ask for changes in manuscripts they don’t like — would you be happier performing that lighthearted little revision changing the protagonist’s sister Wendy into her brother Ted if you did not also have to make the time to alter the formatting, or if you did? You’re going to have enough on your plate, rushing to work those revisions into the plot: s/he is no longer a corporate lawyer, but a longshoreman, and Uncle George dies not of a heart attack, but of 12,000 pounds of under-ripe bananas falling on him from a great height when he goes to the docks to tell Ted that Great-Aunt Mandy is now Great-Uncle Armand. (If only Ted had kept a better eye on that load-bearing winch!)

Stop looking so smug, nonfiction writers: you’re even more likely to end up wanting those saved minutes. Nonfiction contracts often specify delivering the finished manuscript rather quickly, and it’s far from unusual for the acquiring editor to ask for a different running order, or even different chapters, than a proposal laid out. Trust me, at that junctures, the last thing you’ll want to have to worry about is whether your margins are consistent.

And all of that’s the good news, what happens if everything goes right. The more successful you are as a writer — any kind of writer — the more often you will be churning out pages in a hurry. Just ask any author whose agent is breathing down her neck after a deadline has passed. Especially if the writer didn’t know about the deadline until it had already come and gone.

Oh, how I wish I were kidding about that. And don’t even get me started on the phenomenon of one’s agent calling the day after Thanksgiving to announce, “I told the editor that you could have the last third of the book completely reworked by Christmas — that’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

Think you’re going to want to be worrying about your formatting then? Believe me, you’re going to be kissing yourself in retrospect for learning how to handle the rote matters right the first time, so you can concentrate on the hard stuff. (What would many tons of bananas dropped from that height look like in transit, anyway?)

Fortunately, standard format sinks into one’s very bones with use; in practical terms, it honestly is easier than what many aspiring writers are already doing to their pages. I’m constantly encountering writers who tinker endlessly with the settings on their Word programs because they heard somewhere (in the finest tradition of rumor, they are often unsure precisely where) that the default setting for double-spacing is not the precise size agents really want, or hand-constructing quotation marks out of pixels so they will look like the ones in a favorite published book, or painstakingly typing the slug line onto the top of each and every page of a word-processed document, rather than typing the darned thing into the header once and being done with it.

All of these are bits of writerly obsession I’ve seen in person, by the way. I wasn’t kidding about these rules saving you time in the long run.

Still don’t believe that it’s worth your time to learn the rules — and to apply them consistently every single time you sit down to write any prose that might conceivably end up in a book manuscript? Okay, here’s an even stronger motivation: virtually always, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to an improperly-formatted manuscript is not to take the writing it contains very seriously.

Why should they? Obviously, this writer is still learning how to play the game; if she’s truly talented and determined, the logic runs, she’ll respond to the bone-crushing depressive effect of rejection by realizing she needs to learn the rules. In the long run, that will make her a better, more productive professional writer. And if by some mysterious chance she does not respond to being told her book isn’t agency-ready by giving up on it, or if she does not possess the psychic skills to derive you should find out what professional manuscripts look like from a form letter blandly stating, this manuscript does not meet our needs at this time, well, Millicent sees too many perfectly-formatted submissions in any given week of screening to fill her boss’ new client spots several times over.

I know: trying. Yet as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, I do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules. Sorry. No matter how much I would like to absolve you from some of them, it is outside my power. Take it up with the fairy godmother who neglected to endow me with that gift at birth, okay?

Until you have successfully made your case with her, I’m going to stick to wielding the skills that she did grant me, acquired through a childhood surrounded by professional writers and editors who made me learn to format pages the right way the first time. Oh, you may chuckle, but my fifth-grade history paper was in standard format; I can still hear my mother blithely dismissing my poor, befuddled teacher’s protests that none of the other kids in the class were typing their papers with, “Well, honestly, if Annie doesn’t get into the habit of including slug lines now, where will she be in twenty years?”

Where, indeed? The strictures of standard format are hardly something that she would have wanted me to pick up on the street, after all.

So let’s start inculcating some lifetime habits, shall we? To recap the rules we’ve studied so far:

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on only one side of the page and unbound in any way. For submission to US-based agencies, publishing houses, and contests, the pages in question should be US-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

(3) The text should be left-justified, not block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should not resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

(5) The entire manuscript should be in the same font and size — no switching typefaces for any reason. Industry standard is 12-point.

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered — except the title page. The first page of text is page 1, not the title page.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page. The chapter title should appear on the first line of the page, not on the line immediately above where the text begins.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, not on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

Everyone ready to devote the rest of his or her long, productive creative life doing all of that? If not, this would be a dandy time to pipe up with questions, concerns, and fruitless protests. While you’re formulating ‘em, let’s move on.

(12) The beginning of every paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.

Right off the bat, here is a way to save some of you conscientious rule-followers some time. Most word-processing programs (Including Word, if left to its own devices) automatically indent .5 inch (12.7 mm, if my junior high school conversion formula is still correct), but as you’ve probably noticed in practice, that’s more than five spaces.

Such is the way of the world. If you set your tabs to .5 inch, you’ll be set.

Why is the number of spaces relevant here? Well, the usual way this rule is expressed is indent every paragraph 5 spaces, a quaint hangover from the days when typewriters reigned supreme. As you may have heard somewhere, however, MS Word, the standard word processing program of the U.S. publishing industry, automatically sets its default first tab at .5 inch. Yet unless you happen to be using an unusually large typeface like Courier, you’ve probably noticed that hitting the space bar five times will not take you to .5 inches away from the left margin; in Times New Roman, it’s more like 8 spaces.

Does this mean all of us should be whipping out our measuring tapes, painstakingly hand-crafting a specialized tab that’s the exact equivalent of five actual characters, down to the last micron? Of course not — but would you be surprised to hear how many aspiring writers do just that?

Their confusion is understandable: this is genuinely one of those things that actually has changed in theory, if not visibly on the page, since the advent of the personal computer. To set the nervous at ease, let’s take a moment to talk about why is standard indentation at .5 inch now, rather than at five characters.

History, my dears, history: back in the days when return bars roamed the earth instead of ENTER keys, there were only two typefaces commonly found on typewriters, Pica and Elite. They yielded different sizes of type (Pica roughly the equivalent of Courier, Elite more or less the size of Times New Roman), but as long as writers set a tab five spaces in, and just kept hitting the tab key, manuscripts were at least internally consistent.

With the advent of the home computer, however, word-processed manuscripts became the norm. The array of possible typefaces exploded. Rather than simply accepting that every font would yield slightly different indentation sizes, the publishing industry (and the manufacturers of Word) simply came to expect that writers everywhere would keep hitting the tab key, rather than hand-spacing five times at the beginning of each paragraph. The result: the amount of space from the left margin became standardized, so that every manuscript, regardless of font choice, would be indented the same amount.

So why pick .5 inch as the standard indentation? Well, Elite was roughly the size of Times New Roman, 12 characters per inch. Pica was about the size of Courier, 10 characters per inch. The automatic tab at .5 inch, therefore, is as close as even the most historical-minded editor could desire to five spaces from the left margin in Pica.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in this instance, at least, Word’s default settings are the writer’s friend. Keep on hitting that tab key.

Again, no exceptions. If I had my way, no aspiring writer would ever send so much as a Christmas card in block-style business format to anyone working in the publishing industry. It’s fine in an e-mail (and thus an e-mailed query, although not in any pages an agency’s submission guidelines might permit a querier to include in the body of the e-mail), but on the page, it just looks as though the sender is unfamiliar with how words appear in print in American English. Take a gander, if you can bear it:

Wildly different from standard format, isn’t it? And, to those who work with manuscripts and/or published books, it does not look particularly literate.

Why should a savvy writer care about that perception, so long as the writing is good? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large — picture me weeping copiously — the people who have devoted themselves to bringing excellent writing to publication still tend to take it awfully darned seriously. To folks like your humble correspondent, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence, not high literature or even stylish letter-writing.

Think of it this way: do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder whether you’ve ever read a published book?

I thought not. And which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page, no skipped line between paragraphs)?

Uh-huh. And don’t you wish that someone had told you that before you sent out your first query letter?

That clattering sound you just heard was the more nervous type of aspiring writer reaching frantically for his mouse, to open up all of his writing files and change them instantly. And frankly, he should: despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena has been known to use block format from time to time (blogs are set up to use nothing else, right?), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose.

Period. That being the case, what do you think Millicent’s first reaction to a non-indented page 1 like our last example is likely to be? Given how many submissions she needs to get through before she can break for lunch, how tempted do you think she would be not to read it at all?

Trust me on this one: indent your paragraphs in any document that’s ever going to pass under the nose of anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry. Make my fairy godmother happy.

Not a good enough reason? Okay, here’s another: adhering to rule #12 carries a fringe benefit — it renders running afoul of rule #13 much less likely, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s not necessary to keep your paragraphs from running together. Let’s make it official:

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

That makes sense, right? Since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. Which is, in case you were not aware of it, what a skipped line between paragraph means in a single-spaced or non-indented document.

That couldn’t possibly apply to a book manuscript, by definition. There’s a practical reason for that: it’s a comparative pain to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on a computer screen. The eye skips between lines too easily, and in hard copy, there’s nowhere to scrawl comments like Mr. Dickens, was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could hardly have been both!

That being the case, why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise? My guess would be for one of two reasons: either they think business format is proper English formatting (which it isn’t) or they’re used to seeing skipped lines in print. Magazine articles, mostly. Or blogs. (The blogging program makes me do it, Millicent, I swear.)

Just don’t do it. Reserve the skipped line for section breaks.

A few hands have been waving urgently in the air since I started this section. “But Anne!” those of you who have seen conflicting advice point out, “I’ve always heard that there are specific markers for section breaks! Shouldn’t I, you know, use them?”

You mean the * * * or # to indicate a section break, right? That’s a throwback to the age of typewriters. Their original purpose was to alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional, the author honestly did mean for the chapter to end there, and the narrative ceased because the story was over, not because the writer had passed out from the effort of banging for years on a keyboard that required considerable force to operate.

These days, though, it’s customary to presume that not only will an agent or editor be swift enough on the uptake to understand that the end of the text means the end of the manuscript, but also that the end of one section and the beginning of another is comprehensible without the addition of hieroglyphics. For book manuscripts and proposals, at least; remember, the rules for short stories are different.

If you are writing a book-length work, unless you’re entering a contest that specifically calls for them, or the agency to which you’re planning to submit mentions a preference for them in its submission requirements, don’t distract Millicent by including these extras. Do check contest rules carefully, though; you’d be amazed at how seldom some long-running literary contests update their rules.

And while we’re speaking of rules that have undergone some transformation over time…

(14) Nothing in a book manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications mentioned in the text, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized. Titles of poems, however, belong within quotation marks.

That’s fairly straightforward, right? Italics are one of the few concessions manuscript format has made to the computer age — again, for practical reasons: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper in than underlining.

So if a character feels really strongly that “The Raven” is a much better example of Edgar Allan Poe’s sensibilities than his first published book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, all Millicent can say is, “Mon ami, I cannot say I agree. Back then, the poor man was still singing Aura Lee with the other cadets.”

In which, of course, she would not be entirely correct. Oh, the formatting’s right — Aura Lee‘s a Civil War song, and Poe left West Point long before that.

Fair warning, though: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline some or all of the words and phrases mentioned above. As will anyone who learned how to format a manuscript before the home computer became common, for the exceedingly simple reason that the average typewriter doesn’t feature italic keys as well as regular type; underlining used to be the only option. Although I remain fond of typewriters — growing up in a house filled with writers, the sound used to lull me to sleep as a child — the fact is, the publishing industry now assumes that all manuscripts are produced on computers. In Word, even.

I suspect outdated manuals are not the only reason Millicent and her ilk so often receive manuscripts containing underlining, though: as I may have mentioned a few (or a few hundred) times on this site, different fields have different standards. There are some areas of writing endeavor in which underlining is still de rigueur. Unfortunately, it’s really, really common for writing guidelines from all over the place to be posted online as though they are applicable to all writing, anytime, anywhere.

If you are writing a book manuscript or proposal, the only formatting guidelines that should concern you are those specifically applicable to books. Don’t even consider importing rules from, say, short story format; your manuscript will merely come across as confused.

And no wonder, with so much misinformation about italics use floating around the web. To minimize the possibility of any member of the Author! Author! community’s falling prey to this misguided miasma, let’s swiftly review the proper use of italics in a book manuscript.

(a) For foreign-language words appearing in an English-language manuscript, unless the words in question are proper names: people, places. The logic behind this part of the rule is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(b) To emphasize particular words or phrases, as a speaker might do out loud. Since we’ve all seen a million times in print, I shan’t belabor the logic, except to say that typewriter-bound authors used to use underlining for this. So did hand-writers.

(c) Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, but there is no hard-and-fast rule on this. Remember, though, if thought is italicized in a text, the narrative must be consistent about it. This would be logically redundant such a manuscript:

I’m so cold, Musette thought.

Before you decide whether to italicize thought at all, it’s a good idea to check recently-published books in your chosen book category — not new releases in general, as the practice varies across genres — to see how common it is. Do be aware, too, that many agents and editors actively dislike this style choice. They feel, and with some justification, that a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.

I have to confess, as a reader, I’m with them on that last one, but that’s just my personal preference. I find it distracting, especially if a narrative leans to hard upon it: many aspiring writers seem to labor under the impression that dialogue readers will want to know every single time a character applies more breath to one word than another. Like any literary trick, the more often it appears over a short run of text, the more likely the reader is to tire of it — and thus the less efficacious it is as a device.

There are, however, many agents and editors who don’t have a problem with italics at all. Which means, I’m afraid, there is no fail-safe option here. Sorry. You submit your work, you take your chances.

Whichever route you take, however, do make certain to adhere to it throughout your manuscript — you would be astounded at how many submissions will italicize words in foreign languages for ten pages, then underline them for the next sixty. Or simply don’t appear to have been subject to any overarching guidelines at all.

To a professional reader, an uneven application of the rules of standard format can be a red flag, again for practical reasons. Consistency is the hallmark of a strong authorial voice, after all, and professional writers are expected to read and re-read their own work to refine it. If a manuscript simply bellows that its writer has not only never sat down and read the current draft beginning to end — the only way to catch certain types of plot inconsistencies, by the way — it’s usually a pretty good indication that it could benefit from further revision.

And it’s not as though an agent could submit an inconsistently-formatted manuscript to an editor at a publishing house; it wouldn’t show off the writing to its best advantage. Which is, of course, true when the writer submits the manuscript to an agency or literary contest as well.

As I said, the goal here is practical: you want your writing to shine. At minimum, you’re going to want to rid your manuscript of anything that distracts from it.

Next time, we’ll polish off the rest of the rules, and perhaps talk a little about presentation finesse. Keep up the good work!

Yet another typo prone to distracting the professional reader’s eye just a trifle

Okay, I’ll confess it: I find writing for an audience as diverse as the Author! Author! community more gratifying than I would addressing a readership more uniformly familiar with the ins and outs of the writing world. I particularly like how differently all of you respond to my discussions of fundamentals; it keeps me coming back to the basics with fresh eyes.

I constantly hear from those new to querying and synopsis-writing, for instance, that the challenge of summarizing a 400-page manuscript in a paragraph — or a page, or five — strikes them as almost as difficult as writing the book they’re describing; from the other direction, those of us who read for a living frequently wonder aloud why someone aiming to become a professional writer would complain about being expected to write something. A post on proofreading might as easily draw a behind-the-scenes peek at a published author’s frustration because the changes she made in her galleys did not make it into her book’s first edition as a straightforward request from a writer new to the challenges of dialogue that I devote a few days to explaining how to punctuate it.

And then there are days like today, when my inbox is crammed to overflowing with suggestions from all across the writing spectrum that I blog about a topic I’ve just covered — and approach it in a completely different way, please. All told, within the last week, I’ve been urged to re-tackle the topic in about thirty mutually-exclusive different ways. In response to this barrage of missives, this evening’s post will be devoted to the imperative task of repairing a rent in the fabric of the writing universe that some of you felt I left flapping in the breeze.

In my appropriately peevish post earlier this week about the importance of proofreading your queries — and, indeed, everything in your query packet — down to the last syllable in order to head off, you guessed it, Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves in the typo department, my list of examples apparently omitted a doozy or two. Fortunately, my acquaintance amongst Millicents, the Mehitabels who judge writing contests, the Maurys that provide such able assistance to editors, and the fine folks employing all three is sufficiently vast that approximately a dozen literature-loving souls introduced my ribcage to their pointy elbows in the interim, gently reminding me to let you know about another common faux pas that routinely makes them stop reading, clutch their respective pearls, and wonder about the literacy of the writer in question.

And if a small army of publishing types and literature aficionados blackened-and-blued my tender sides with additional suggestions for spelling and grammar problems they would like to see me to address in the very near future, well, that’s a matter between me, them, and my chiropractor, is it not? This evening, I shall be concentrating upon a gaffe that confronts Millicent and her cohorts so often in queries, synopses, book proposals, manuscripts, and contest entries that as a group, they have begun to suspect that English teachers just aren’t covering it in class anymore.

Which, I gather, makes it my problem. Since the mantle of analysis is also evidently mine, let me state up front that I think it’s too easy to blame the English department for the popularity of the more pervasive faux pas. Yes, many writers do miss learning many of the rules governing our beloved language, but that’s been the norm for most of my lifetime. Students have often been expected to pick up their grammar at home. Strange to relate, though, houses like the Mini abode, in which children and adults alike were expected to be able to diagram sentences at the dinner table, have evidently never been as common as this teaching philosophy would imply.

Or so I surmise from my friends’ reactions when I would bring them home to Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine my surprise upon learning that households existed in which it was possible for a diner without a working knowledge of the its/it’s distinction to pour gravy over mashed potatoes, or for someone who couldn’t tell a subject from a predicate to ask for — and, I’m incredulous to hear, receive — a second piece of pumpkin pie. Garnished with whipped cream, even.

So where, one might reasonably wonder, were aspiring writers not taught to climb the grammatical ropes either at home or at school supposed to pick them up? In the street? Ah, the argument used to go, that’s easy: they could simply turn to a book to see the language correctly wielded. Or a newspaper. Or the type of magazine known to print the occasional short story.

An aspiring writer could do that, of course — but now that AP standards have changed so newspaper and magazine articles do not resemble what’s considered acceptable writing within the book publishing world (the former, I tremble to report, capitalizes the first letter after a colon, for instance; the latter typically does not), even the most conscientious reader might be hard-pressed to derive the rules by osmosis. Add in the regrettable reality that newspapers, magazines, and even published books now routinely contain typos, toss in a dash of hastily-constructed e-mails and the wildly inconsistent styles of writing floating about the Internet, and stir.

Voil? ! The aspiring writer seeking patterns to emulate finds herself confronted with a welter of options. The only trouble: while we all see the rules applied inconsistently all the time, the rules themselves have not changed very much.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, if your literary intake weren’t fairly selective. Take, for instance, the radically under-discussed societal decision to throw subject-object agreement in everyday conversation out with both the baby and the bathwater — contrary to popular practice, it should be everyone threw his baby out with the bathwater, not everyone threw their baby out with the bathwater, unless everyone shared collective responsibility for a single baby and hoisted it from its moist settee with a joint effort. This has left many otherwise talented writers with the vague sense that neither the correct usage nor the incorrect look right on the page.

It’s also worth noting that as compound sentences the length of this one have become more common in professional writing, particularly in conversational-voiced first person pieces, the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees paragraph- or even page-long sentences strung together with seemingly endless series of ands, buts, and/or ors , has skyrocketed, no doubt due to an understandable cognitive dissonance causing some of the aforementioned gifted many to believe, falsely, that the prohibitions against run-on sentences no longer apply — or even, scare bleu, that it’s actually more stylish to cram an entire thought into a single overstuffed sentence than to break it up into a series of shorter sentences that a human gullet might conceivably be able to croak out within a single breath.

May I consider that last point made and move on? Or would you prefer that I continue to ransack my conjunctions closet so I can tack on more clauses? My neighborhood watch group has its shared baby to bathe, people.

It’s my considered opinion that the ubiquity of grammatical errors in queries and submissions to agencies may be attributable to not one cause, but two. Yes, some writers may never have learned the relevant rules, but others’ conceptions of what those rules are may have become blunted by continually seeing them misapplied.

Wait — you’re just going to take my word for that? Really? Have you lovely people become too jaded by the pervasiveness or sweeping generalizations regarding the decline of grammar in English to find damning analysis presented without a shred of corroborative evidence eye-popping? Or to consider lack of adequate explanation of what I’m talking about even a trifle eyebrow-raising?

Welcome to Millicent’s world, my friends. You wouldn’t believe how queries, synopses, and opening pages of manuscripts seem to have been written with the express intention of hiding more information from a screener than they divulge. They also, unfortunately, often contain enough spelling, grammar, and even clarity problems that poor Millie’s left perplexed.

Doubt that? Okay, let’s examine a not-uncommon take on the book description paragraph from a query letter:

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty eight year old out of work pop diva turned hash slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself. Fiercely pursuing her dreams despite a dizzying array of obstacles, she struggles to have it all in a world seemingly determined to take it all away. Can she find her way through her maze of options while still being true to herself?

Excuse me, but if no one minds my asking, what is this book about? You must admit, other than that long string of descriptors in the first sentence, it’s all pretty vague. Where is this story set? What is its central conflict? What is Pandora running from — or towards — and why? And what about this story is better conveyed through hackneyed phrasing — running from her past, true to herself — than could be expressed through original writing?

On the bright side, Millicent might not stick with this query long through enough to identify the clich? use and maddening vagueness as red flags. Chances are, the level of hyphen abuse in that first sentence would cause her to turn pale, draw unflattering conclusions about the punctuation in the manuscript being offered, and murmur, “Next!”

I sense some of you turning pale at the notion that she might read so little of an otherwise well-crafted query, but be honest, please. Are you wondering uneasily how she could possibly make up her mind so fast — or wondering what about that first sentence would strike a professional reader as that off-putting?

If it’s the latter, here’s a hint: she might well have lasted to be irritated by the later ambiguity if the first sentence had been punctuated like this.

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty-eight-year-old out-of-work pop-diva-turned-hash-slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself.

Better, isn’t it? While we’re nit-picking, the TITLE is the story of… is now widely regarded as a rather ungraceful introduction to a query’s descriptive paragraph. Or as an opening for a synopsis, for that matter. Since Millicent and her boss already know that the purpose of both is — wait for it — to describe the book, why waste valuable page space telling them that what is about to appear in the place they expect to see a book description is in fact a book description?

There’s a larger descriptive problem here, though. If the querier had not attempted to shove all of those multi-part descriptive clauses out of the main body of the sentence, the question of whether to add hyphens or not would have been less pressing. Simply moving the title to the query’s opening paragraph, too, would help relieve the opening sentence of its heavy conceptual load. While we’re at it, why not give a stronger indication of the book’s subject matter?

As a great admirer of your client, A. New Author, I am writing in the hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction manuscript, OPAQUE. Like Author’s wonderful debut, ABSTRUSE, my novel follows a powerful, resourceful woman from the public spotlight to obscurity and back again.

By the tender age of twenty-eight, pop sensation Pandora has already become a has-been. Unable to book a single gig, she drives around the back roads of Pennsylvania in disguise until she finds refuge slinging hash in a roadside diner.

Hooray — Millicent’s no longer left to speculate what the book’s about! Now that the generalities and stock phrases have been replaced with specifics and original wording, she can concentrate upon the story being told. Equally important, she can read on without having to wonder uneasily if the manuscript will be stuffed to the proverbial gills with typos, and thus would not be ready for her boss, the agent of your dreams, to circulate to publishing houses.

While I appreciate the refreshing breeze coming from so many heads being shaken simultaneously, I suspect it indicates that not everyone instantly spotted why a professional reader would so vastly prefer the revised versions to the original. “I do like how you’ve unpacked that overburdened first sentence, Anne,” some brave souls volunteer, “but I have to say, the way you have been moving hyphens around puzzles me. Sometimes, I’ve seen similar phrases hyphenated, but sometimes, they’re not. I thought we were striving for consistency here!”

Ah, a common source of confusion: we’re aiming for consistency in applying the rules, not trying, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, to force the same set of words to appear identically on the page every time it is used. The first involves learning the theory so you can use it appropriately across a wide variety of sentences; the second entails an attempt to memorize how certain phrases appear in print, in an attempt to avoid having to learn the theory.

Trust me, learning the rules will be substantially less time-consuming in the long run than guessing. Not to mention more likely to yield consistent results. Oh, and in the case of hyphens, just trying to reproduce how you saw a phrase used elsewhere will often steer you wrong.

Why? Stop me if this sounds familiar: anyone who reads much these days, especially online, routinely sees more than his share of hyphen abuse. Hyphens crop up where they don’t belong; even more frequently, they are omitted where their inclusion would clarify compound phrasing. No wonder writers — who, after all, tend to read quite a bit more than most people, and certainly read with a closer eye for picking up style tips — sometimes become confused.

And frankly, queries, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts reflect that confusion. You’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers will, on a single page, hyphenate a phrase correctly on line 5, yet neglect to add a hyphen to a similar phrase on line 18. Or even, believe it or not, present the same phrase used in precisely the same manner in two different ways.

Which raises an intriguing question, doesn’t it? Based on that page, how could Millicent tell whether a sentence was improperly punctuated because the writer was in a hurry and just didn’t notice a one-time typo in line 18 — or if the writer didn’t know the rule in the first place, but guessed correctly on line 5? The fact is, she can’t.

That’s a shame, really, as this type of typo/rule wobbling/dizzying confusion can distract the reader from the substance and style of the writing. To see how and why, take a gander at a sterling little passage in which this inadvertent eye-attractor abounds.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. ”

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Okay, okay, so Millicent seldom sees so many birds of a feather flocking together (While I’m at it, you look mahvalous, you wild and crazy guy, and that’s hot. And had I mentioned that Millie, like virtually every professional reader, has come to hate clich?s with a passion most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, waiting in line at the D.M.V., and any form of criticism of their writing skills?) In queries and synopses, our gaffe du jour is be spotted traveling solo, often in summary statements like this:

At eight-years-old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Or as its evil twin:

Alphonse was an eight year old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Am I correct in assuming that if either of these sentences appeared before your bloodshot eyes in the course of an ordinary day’s reading, a hefty majority of you would simply shrug and read on? May I further presume that if at least a few of you noticed one or both of these sentences whilst reading your own query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, as one does, you might either shrug again or not be certain how to revise it?

Do I hear you laughing, or is Tyrone at it again? “I know what the problem is, Anne!” experienced query- and synopsis-writers everywhere shout, chuckling. “Savvy writers everywhere know that in a query’s book description, it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce a character like this:

Alphonse (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk.

“As you will notice, it’s also in the present tense, as the norms of query book descriptions dictate. By the same token, the proper way to alert Millicent that a new character has just cropped up in a synopsis involves presenting his or her name in all capital letters the first time it appears, followed by his or her age in parentheses. While I’m sure you’d like to linger to admire our impeccable subject-object agreement in that last sentence, I’m sure readers new to synopsis-writing would like to see what the technique described in the first sentence of this paragraph would look like in print, so here it is:

ALPHONSE (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk — and now that a tragic Tonka Toy accident has left him temporarily unable to walk or swim, what is he going to do with his time?

I’m impressed at how clearly you’ve managed to indicate what is and is not an example in your verbal statements, experienced ones, but we’re straying from the point a little, are we not? Not using parentheses to show a character’s age in a book description is hardly an instant-rejection offense, and eschewing the ALL CAPS (age) convention is unlikely to derail a well-constructed synopsis at submission time. (Sorry, lovers of absolute pronouncements: both of these are matters of style.)

Those are sophisticated critiques, however; I was hoping you would spot the basic errors here. Basically, the writer immortalizing Alphonse’s triumphs and tribulations has gotten the rule backwards. Those first two examples should have read like this:

At eight years old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Alphonse was an eight-year-old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Does that look right to you? If so, can you tell me why it looks right to you?

And no, Virginia, neither “Because you said it was right, Anne!” nor “I just know correct punctuation when I see it!” would constitute useful responses here. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.

The answer, I hope you will not be astonished to hear, depends upon the role the logically-connected words are playing in an individual sentence. The non-hyphenated version is a simple statement of fact: Alphonse is, we are told, eight years old. Or, to put it another way, in neither that last sentence or our first example does eight years old modify a noun.

In our second example, though, eight-year-old is acting as a compound adjective, modifying boy, right? The hyphens tell the reader that the entire phrase should be taken as a conceptual whole, then applied to the noun. If the writer wanted three distinct and unrelated adjectives to be applied to the noun, he should have separated them with commas.

The small, freckle-faced, and tenacious boy flung himself into the pool, eager to join the fray.

Are you wondering why I hyphenated freckle-faced? Glad you asked. The intended meaning arises from the combination of these two words: freckle-faced is describing the boy here. If I had wanted the reader to apply the two words independently to the noun, I could have separated them by commas, but it would be nonsensical to say the freckle, faced boy, right?

Applying the same set of principles to our old friend Pandora, then, we could legitimately say:

Pandora is an out-of-work diva.

The diva is a has-been; she is out of work.

Out-of-work has-been seeks singing opportunity.

Let’s talk about why. In the first sentence, the hyphens tell the reader that Pandora isn’t an out diva and an of diva and a work diva — she’s an out-of-work diva. In the second sentence, though, out of work does not modify diva; it stands alone. Has-been, however, stands together in Sentence #2: the hyphen transforms the two verbs into a single noun. In the third sentence, that same noun is modified by out-of-work.

Getting the hang of it? Okay, let’s gather our proofreading tools and revisit Tyrone, Hortense, and Ghislaine, a couple of paragraphs at a time.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

Some of that punctuation looked pretty strange to you, I hope. Let’s try applying the rules.

“All of this build-up we’ve talked about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the tabletop build-up of wax at the drive-in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed in on the sign-in sheet. “I know she’s stepped in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick up my backpack and run away through my back door to my back yard. ”

Hortense revved her pick-up truck’s engine, the better to drive through and thence to drive into the parking space. “That’s because Anne built up your hopes in a much-talked-about runaway attempt to back up her argument.”

All of those changes made sense, I hope. Since drive-in is used as a noun — twice, even — it takes a hyphen, but when the same words are operating as a verb plus a preposition (Hortense is driving into a parking space), a hyphen would just be confusing. Similarly, when Tyrone signed in, he’s performing the act of signing upon the sign-in sheet. He and his friends talked about the build-up, but Hortense uses much-talked-about to describe my runaway attempt. Here, back is modifying the nouns door and yard, but if we were talking about a backdoor argument or a backyard fence, the words would combine to form an adjective.

And a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. “But Anne, I notice that some of the compound adjectives are hyphenated, but some become single words. Why runaway, backpack, and backyard, but pick-up truck and sign-in sheet?”

Because English is a language of exceptions, that’s why. It’s all part of our rich and wonderful linguistic heritage.

Which is why, speaking of matters people standing on either side of the publishing wall often regard differently, it so often comes as a genuine shock to agents and editors when they meet an aspiring writer who says he doesn’t have time to read. To a writer, this may seem like a simple matter of time management — those of us in favor with the Muses don’t magically gain extra hours in the day, alas — but from the editorial side of the conversation, it sounds like a serious drawback to being a working writer. How on earth, the pros wonder, can a writer hope to become conversant with not only the stylistic norms and storytelling conventions of his chosen book category, but the ins and outs of our wildly diverse language, unless he reads a great deal?

While you’re weighing both sides of that potent issue, I’m going to slip the next set of uncorrected text in front of you. Where would you make changes?

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

Have your edits firmly in mind? Compare them to this:

At her lived-in post at the drive-through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick-up sticks. “Hey, lay off. You mean build-up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head into this head-in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned-out coworker could tune out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the backdoor logic — it’s the runaway pace.”

How did you do? Admittedly, the result is still a bit awkward — and wasn’t it interesting how much more obvious the style shortcomings are now that the punctuation has been cleaned up? That’s the way it is with revision: lift off one layer of the onion, and another waits underneath.

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, polishing all of the relevant layers often does require repeated revision. Contrary to popular myth, most professional writing goes through multiple drafts before it hits print — and professional readers tend to be specifically trained to read for several different types of problem at the same time. So as tempting as it might be to conclude that if Millicent is distracted by offbeat punctuation, she might overlook, say, a characterization issue, it’s unlikely to work out that way in practice.

With that sobering reality in mind, let’s move on to the next section.

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. “

I broke the excerpt there for a reason: did you happen to catch the unwarranted space between the final period and the quotation marks? A trifle hard to spot on a backlit screen, was it not? See why I’m always urging you to read your work IN HARD COPY and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you slip it under Millicent’s notoriously sharp-but-overworked eyes?

And see what I did there? Believe me, once you get into the compound adjectival phrase habit, it’s addictive.

I sense some of you continue to shake off the idea that proofing in hard copy (and preferably by reading your work OUT LOUD) is more productive than scanning it on a computer screen. Okay, doubters: did you notice the partially deleted word in that last excerpt’s second sentence? Did you spot it the first time you went through this scene, when I presented it as an unbroken run of dialogue?

The nit-picky stuff counts, folks. Here’s that passage again, with the small matters resolved. This time, I’m going to tighten the text a bit as well.

“Oh, pick up your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick-up’s back door behind her — a good trick, as she had previously been sitting in the driver’s seat. “We’re due to do over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back-up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste to the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed up! “Just give me time to back out of the room. I have lived in too many places where people walk into built-in walk-in closets, and wham! They’re trapped. “

Still not precisely Shakespeare, but at least the punctuation is no longer screaming at Millicent, “Run away! Run away!” (And in case the three times this advice has already floated through the post today didn’t sink in, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Do you have a recent back-up stored somewhere other than your home?)

The text is also no longer pointing out — and pretty vehemently, too — that if her boss did take on this manuscript, someone at the agency would have to be assigned to proofread every draft of it. That’s time-consuming, and to be blunt about it, not really the agent’s job. And while it is indeed the copyeditor’s job to catch typos before the book goes to press, generally speaking, agents and editors both routinely expect manuscripts to be thoroughly proofread before they first.

Which once again leads us to different expectations prevailing in each of the concentric circles surrounding publishing. To many, if not most, aspiring writers, the notion that they would be responsible for freeing their manuscripts of typos, checking the spelling, and making sure the grammar is impeccable seems, well, just a trifle crazy. Isn’t that what editors do?

From the professional reader’s side of the equation, though, it’s practically incomprehensible that any good writer would be willing to send out pages — or a query — before ascertaining that it was free of typos. Everyone makes ‘em, so why not set aside time to weed ‘em out? You want your writing to appear to its best advantage, right?

Hey, I’m walking you through this long exercise for a reason. Let’s take another stab at developing those proofreading skills.

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Did you catch the extra space in the last sentence, after the comma? Wouldn’t that have been easier to spot in hard copy?

Admit it: now that you’re concentrating upon it, the hyphen abuse is beginning to annoy you a bit, isn’t it? Congratulations: that means you are starting to read like a professional. You’ll pardon me, then, if I not only correct the punctuation this time around, but clear out some of the conceptual redundancy as well. While I’m at it, I’ll throw a logical follow-up question into the dialogue.

“Can we have a do-over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in line for in-line skates.”

“What do skates have to do with anything?” Tyrone snapped.

“To escape if we run into overtime. At this rate, our boss will walk in with that pasted-on grin, take one look at our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay-off list.”

Hey, just because we’re concentrating on the punctuation layer of the textual onion doesn’t mean we can’t also give a good scrub to some of the lower layers. Let’s keep peeling, shall we?

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Quite a bit to trim there, eh? Notice, please, how my initial desire to be cute by maximizing phrase repetition drags down the pace on subsequent readings. It’s quite common for a writer’s goals for a scene to change from draft to draft; to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein manuscript, inconsistently voiced due to multiple partial revisions, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of rereading every scene — chant it with me now, folks — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD after each revision.

Here’s how it might read after a switch in authorial agenda — and an increase of faith in the reader’s intelligence. If Hortense is able to walk into the closet and stay there for paragraphs on end, mightn’t the reader be trusted to pick up that it’s a walk-in closet?

Hortense vanished into the closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut-rate social analyst, is the lounge where we lounge in our loungewear? I’d hate to cut through the rules and regulations.”

“Has she gone nuts?” Tyrone whispered.

“That’s what you get,” Ghislaine muttered under her breath, “for complaining about Anne’s advice. She’s only trying to help writers like us identify patterns in our work, you know.”

A button-down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “I don’t think the build-up for Anne’s larger point is our greatest problem at the moment. Right now, I’m worried that she’s trapped us in a scene with a maniac.”

“Don’t forget to button your shirt to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grab you a jacket.”

“Tremendous,” she called back. Scooting close to Tyrone, she added in an undertone, “If Anne doesn’t end the scene soon, we can always lock Hortense in the closet. That would force an abrupt end to the scene.”

“I vote for a more dramatic resolution.” He caught her in his arms. “Run away with me to Timbuktu.”

She kissed him enthusiastically. “Well, I didn’t see that coming in previous drafts”.

The moral, should you care to know it, is that a writer needn’t think of proofreading, much less revision, as a sterile, boring process in revisiting what’s already completely conceived. Every time you reread your own writing, be it in a manuscript draft or query, contest entry or synopsis, provides you with another opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Rather than clinging stubbornly to your initial vision for the scene, why not let the scene evolve, if it likes?

That’s hard for any part of a manuscript to do, though, if its writer tosses off an initial draft without going back to it from time to time. Particularly in a first book, storylines tend to alter as the writing progresses; narrative voices grow and change. Getting into the habit of proofreading can provide not only protection against the ravages of Millicent’s gimlet eye, but also make it easier to notice if one part of the manuscript to reflect different authorial goals and voice choices than other parts.

How’s the writer to know that if he hasn’t read his own book lately? Or, for that matter, his own query?

This is not, I suspect, the conclusion any of the fine people who suggested I examine hyphen abuse presumed my post would have. But that’s what keeps the conversation interesting: continually revisiting the same topics of common interest from fresh angles. Keep up the good work!

Before you send out that query, will you do something for me? Please? Or do I need to call out the kraken?

As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while are, I hope, already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits all querying advice. Or generic writing rules allegedly applicable to all writing everywhere, for that matter. While there are indeed some standard expectations hovering above the querying process — keep it to a single page; be polite; include your contact information; tell the nice agent what kind of book it is, and so forth — I have for seven years now been a tireless advocate of the notion that there’s no such thing as a query that will appeal to every agent, every time.

Certainly not one that will withstand mass mass-mailing to every agent in Christendom with no more fine-tuning between strikings of the SEND key than a change in the salutation from Dear Mr. Representativeson to Dear Ms. Choosemenow. Yet as someone who regularly blogs about querying, teaches classes on it, and offers one-on-one consultation to writers trying to improve their querying chances, I regularly encounter would-be queriers absolutely outraged at the mere suggestion that learning enough about an agent’s sales record and client list to be able to personalize the missive might conceivably be more effective than simply sending the same thing to everyone.

The personalized route is demonstrably more effective, incidentally, but try telling that to an eager would-be author determined to send out 200 queries within the next week and a half. There’s no one so sure of what he is doing than someone that’s learned only the bare minimum requirements for a query and thinks that any old agent will do.

Also not true, by the way: agents specialize by fiction vs. nonfiction, book category, and often by writing style or narrative worldview as well. Narrowing their sales focus enables them to pitch their existing clients’ work more effectively to their already-established network of editorial connections.

But try explaining that to a determined writer who’s promised herself, her kith and kin, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy that she’s going to land an agent for her novel, darn it, before Easter or perish of exhaustion in the attempt. No matter how gently those of us who handle manuscripts for a living break the news that in practice, there’s no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for even the best-written book in a category her boss simply does not represent, she’ll cling to the belief that while there’s a stone left unturned, she hasn’t yet given it her best shot.

I have also not been particular quiet about my belief that, contrary to online popular opinion, it does not make either creative or strategic sense to approach people looking for original writing and innovative ideas by lifting a prefab query template, plugging your book’s information into it as if it were a Mad Lib, and merrily send the result to the agent of your dreams. Usually, all that achieves is causing Millicent the agency screener’s eyes to glaze over, because, let’s face it, the 712th reading of a stock phrase like my novel is complete at XX,XXX words is no more likely to strike anyone as startlingly beautiful writing than the 12,453rd.

But try explaining that to someone cranking out Query No. 84 out of a projected 217. “But I saw it in an example online!” these well-intentioned souls will shout, wiping the sweat from their eyes as they lick the next envelope — or, even more often, pound the SEND key yet again. “If it didn’t work, why would it be posted to help people like me?”

Oh, where do I even start with that one? Perhaps by keeping it simple: despite the apparently astonishingly pervasive belief that all of the writing/querying/submission advice online is equally credible, it isn’t. Furthermore, there’s no Ambrosia, the Good Agent or Euphemia, the Good Editor floating over the ether, whacking incorrect or, even more common, insufficiently explained online guidance with their magic wands, transforming misguided self-described words of wisdom into something actually useful.

Believe it or not, the ideas put forth in that last paragraph reliably generate controversy in querying classes, in the comment section of post on querying, and, indeed, in pretty much any writers’ conference in North America. Which is funny, because often, the very aspiring writers most vehement about a particular theory on querying success tend to be those most irritated by the diversity of opinion they’ve turned up online. It’s hard to blame them, really: if you want to hear fifteen different views on querying, each presenting itself as the authoritative last word, all you have to do is traipse into a class, conference, or online forum and ask to be told what to do.

I accept all that, after all these years. That’s why I always provide such extensive explanations for any querying — or submission, or writing, or editing — strategy I urge you to embrace: as an established blogger, I’ve learned from experience that savvy writers new to the game are often juggling conflicting advice from multiple sources. I would never dream of asking smart people to take my advice just because I say so.

It may come as a surprise, then, that today, I’m going to give you some querying advice that I do in fact expect everyone within the sound of my fingertips tapping on my keyboard to take as much to heart as if Ambrosia, Euphemia, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy all appeared above your writing desk, chanting it in three-part harmony: never, under any circumstances, send out a query letter without having both spell-checked and proofread it.

I hear some of you chuckling, thinking it would never occur to you to hit SEND or pop a query in the mail without double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking that it was free of typos and grammatical errors. Would you still think it was safe to shrug off this rule if I added and you should do this every time, even if you’re sending out essentially the same query letter ?

Ah, you’ve stopped laughing now, haven’t you? At some point in his checkered career, virtually every aspiring writer has just churned out two or more query letters that closely resembled each other. With the entirely predictable result that the Millicent working for agent Sharpeye McNitpicker at Literary Giants Literary Management has frequently opened an envelope to find an opening like this:

Selectivity Exclusiveberg
Seldompicksupanewclient & Jones Literary Agency
1234 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10000

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg:

Well might you gasp, but honestly, when you’re mailing off a lot of queries all at once, it’s pretty easy to shove one into the wrong envelope. And, lest those of you planning to query via e-mail be feeling smug, it’s even easier to copy an earlier query and forget to change the salutation. Imagine Sharpeye’s Millicent’s facial expression upon finding this in her inbox:

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg,

Since you so ably represented Rookie T. Neophyte’s MY FIRST NOVEL, I am hoping you will be interested in my mainstream novel…

It wouldn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out what happened here — clearly, our querier had just sent off a query to the excellent Mr. Exclusiveberg. Millicent would realize that, of course. Think about it, though: if you were Sharpeye’s loyal screener, wouldn’t you be just a trifle annoyed at this querier’s lack of attention to detail? Wouldn’t you be inclined to leap to the conclusion that a writer this overwhelmed by the querying process, however understandably, would also feel flummoxed by the often-intimidating submission process? Or the sales process, or the publication process? Wouldn’t you be likely to suspect that this querier might be just a trifle more time-consuming for your boss to represent than someone who took the time to make sure the right query went to the right agent?

And while I’m asking rhetorical questions about your feelings about a job you don’t currently have, wouldn’t you also feel the urge to hit DELETE the 926th time you saw a query addressed to your nice female boss like this:

Dear Mr. McNitpicker:

Congratulations on your continued success in representing Bigwig Z. Bestseller’s thrillers. My thriller, DERIVATIVE? YOU BET! is very much in the same tradition.

Here, our querier has correctly identified one of Sharpeye’s clients, but has obviously not bothered to read her bio — which, as any true admirer of Ms. McNitpicker would happily tell you, repeatedly and correctly refers to her agenting triumphs via the feminine pronoun. Because her name might conceivably refer to someone either male or female, her Millicent has also rolled her eyes over many an otherwise well-crafted query that has tried to hedge by using both names:

Dear Sharpeye McNitpicker,

Or by embracing a too-familiar tone in the query overall, presumably to justify dispensing with the honorific altogether in favor of the first name:

Dear Sharpeye,

I love your blog! And while we’re talking about great writing, why not take a look at my memoir, REMINISCENCES OF A NARCISSIST? It’s so fantastic, it’ll blow your mind.

Now that you’ve been toddling along in Millicent’s moccasins for a few examples, it may not completely astonish you to learn that all of these are usually instant-rejection offenses. If a screener saw any of them only once in the proverbial blue moon, she might be amused enough to let it pass, but if she toils at a large agency or screens for an agent that represents a bestselling author, she might well see each of these several faux pas crop up several times per week.

If not per day. But try telling that to a querier who thinks he’s cleverly avoided the Scylla of gender misidentification by steering straight for the Charybdis of unprofessionalism.

Oh, you thought I chose today’s opening illustration at random? Would that be in keeping with my notoriously close attention to detail?

The strong likelihood of misaddressing the agent of your dreams, or at any rate, his hardworking Millicent. is not the only reason that I would urge you to read your queries — feel free to sing along with me here, long-time readers — EACH TIME IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD, however, even though we all know that’s the best way to catch any mistakes. Beautifully-addressed queries frequently run afoul of yet another beastie haunting agency waterways.

Instead of just warning you of the monster’s existence, let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat. To give it a sporting chance of escaping, I’ve allowed it to swim freely around a hard-copy query. If you’re experiencing trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Not the world’s easiest missive to read, is it? But just try explaining that to the lover of fonts who is absolutely convinced that choosing an off-the-wall typeface will make her query stand out from the crowd. And she’s right: it will — for the font and nothing else.

Remember, part of what a writer demonstrates in a query is a reasonable willingness to conform to the expectations of the publishing industry. In that spirit, here’s that query again in 12-point Times New Roman, the industry standard. Notice how much more room Wacky has to make her case with a smaller font.

How gratifying to see so many hands flung skyward. Yes, eagle-eyed readers? “But Anne,” those of you conversant with my HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER FROM SCRATCH series bellow triumphantly, “there are quite a few things wrong with this letter! It doesn’t contain a date, for one thing, and Wacky’s e-mail address appears in blue, a Word AutoFormat correction that’s notoriously annoying to screeners. Nor does it include Wacky’s phone number. Shouldn’t a savvy querier be making it easier, not harder, for an agent to contact him? Her? What kind of a name is Wacky, anyway?”

You’re quite right, bellowers: I had asked you a trick question — this query does contain several red flags, even with the more legible font. Any of you bright people want to tell me why not including a date on a regular mail query might trigger rejection?

Help yourself to a gold star from petty cash if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because an undated letter might have been sent anytime! That makes it seem as though — sacre bleu! — Wacky has been reusing the same query for every agent she’s approached, changing only the address, salutation, and work to be praised!” This is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, dating from the pre-personal computer days when aspiring writers would write what were known as Dear Agent letters, photocopy a hundred of them, and mail them to every agency in New York.

Today, the personal computer renders the same tactic much easier to disguise, but still, why advertise it? While writing a basic query letter and personalizing parts of it for each agent is in fact quite a clever strategy, it defeats the purpose if the letter’s lack of a date indicates that it’s a multi-purpose document. Maintain the illusion; even though Millicent knows perfectly well that with the current practice of not answering queries if an agent does not want to request a manuscript, she’ll appreciate the courtesy.

Did you happen to notice, though, the dead giveaway that Wacky had not proofread this query — and thus, Millicent might be within her rights to extrapolate, might not have proofread his manuscript, either? If you didn’t catch the repeated problem, try going back and reading the query out loud.

Did you spot the multiple dropped words that time? Whenever text is composed quickly, there’s a danger of the head’s moving faster than the fingers, resulting in skipped words, punctuation, and even sentences. And perhaps I’ve been misinformed, but when writers are composing something they don’t really want to write — like, say, a query letter or synopsis — they do tend to rush the job.

That’s not the only reason this problem has become ubiquitous in queries in the home computer age, however. As you may perhaps have heard, savvy queriers often compose a basic query letter, then personalize it for each recipient. With every cut, paste, and added word, the chances of cutting a necessary element without noticing it rise.

I sense a few more raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne, even with the missing elements, it’s perfectly clear what Wacky wanted to say here. His story sounds like an interesting one, although like many readers, I may well be thinking of it rather differently now that I know it to have been written by a man than a woman. That’s a topic for another day, however. At the moment, what I really want to know is if Millicent is reading Wacky’s query very quickly, anyway, isn’t it possible that she might, you know, overlook the missing words?”

It’s possible, I suppose, remotely so. It’s also remotely possible that by the time we wake up tomorrow, the literary world will have decided that sentence fragments are much, much cooler to read than complete sentences.

And then. We’ll all. Be writing. Like this.

Even if the world changes so much that cats develop opposable thumbs and begin turning up as dealers at poker tables, though, the possibility that dropped words, repeated phrases, misspelled words, clich? use, and other line-level red flags will fall off Millicent’s to-scan-for list within our lifetimes remains so remote that we should probably stop speculating about it and start worrying about those kitties.

The publishing world appreciates good writing, and that means preferring clean, polished prose to, well, the other kind. But just try explaining that to a writer that believes, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, that agency denizens will be willing to look past problematic writing in a query. It’s only fair to judge a writer on the writing in the manuscript, right?

I can see why a writer might feel that way: a query, like a synopsis or a book proposal, calls for a different kind of writing than a novel or nonfiction manuscript. But just try explaining that to Millicent, whose job is predicated, at least in part upon the assumption that it is not only possible but probable that someone who can write a book well can also produce a graceful letter. Or synopsis. Or book proposal.

Oh, dear — should I have told you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Writers trying to break into the biz seldom think about it this way, but at the querying stage, the only basis Millicent has to judge writing quality and talent is, you guessed it, the query letter. If that doesn’t strike her as well-written — or if, as we saw in that last example, it doesn’t seem to have been either proofread or put together with the level of care her agency expects from its writing clients — she will reject it.

And no, in response to what many of you just thought very loudly, she’s not allowed to treat a query like our last example as her own Mad Lib, filling in the spaces with words of her own. That would be judging her writing, not yours.

To be fair, though, she might not have noticed all of the dropped words here, for the exceedingly simple reason that she might not have kept reading after the first or second gap. Once she’s noticed a red flag or two, she’ll generally stop reading and move on to the next query. That’s often the case, incidentally, even if the agency in question’s submission requirements allow queriers to include a synopsis, book proposal, or the first few pages of the book in the query packet. Since the query will be the first thing Millicent reads in it– remember how easy it is for her to reject a type of book her boss does not habitually represent? — if its not well-written, she’s unlikely to peruse anything else. Next!

Which comes as almost as great a surprise to most first-time queriers as the majority of manuscripts’ being rejected on page 1 comes to most first-time submitters, I’ve noticed. Why ask for pages, both parties wonder, unless someone’s going to read them?

Good question, and one with a good answer: so they will be handy. If the screener likes the query, why, she can turn immediately to those opening pages; if she finds the first few pages of the manuscript gripping, she doesn’t have to e-mail the writer to get to read the rest of the book.

While that’s sinking in, let me call on the disgruntled souls that have had their hands in the air since I first broached the subject of Millicent’s eye for sentence-level detail. “But Anne,” they mutter, and can we really blame them? “I get why Millie might have taken umbrage at that last example — she would have had to fill in the missing words herself, and that’s not really her job. As you say, she can only judge the writing by what’s in front of her. But you mentioned typos. Surely, we all see enough of those even in published writing these days that she’s going to see them for what they are, slips of fingers in a hurry, not as deliberate mistakes.”

I’d urge you to try to make that case to someone who reads hundreds of queries per day, but frankly, I don’t think you’d have a chance of convincing a professional reader. Agents, editors, contest judges, and Millicents are specifically charged with noticing the small stuff, after all; it’s part of their job not to look past textual errors. And realistically, given only a page of writing, how on earth could a screener tell whether the writer used the wrong form of there, their, and they’re because he was in a hurry, or because hadn’t learned the rules governing their use?

Or, almost as serious from a publishing perspective, if simply thought it didn’t matter, because someone else would be proofreading his work down the line? Wouldn’t that mean that if the agency signed that writer, they could not ever send out so much as a page of his writing without reading it first? Wouldn’t that prove problematic if an editor asked for a quick revision?

Then, too, it doesn’t pay to underestimate how distracting those of us that read for a living find small gaffes. How distracting, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: since I’m fond of you fine people, I’m not willing to run the risk that even a single one of you might not be aware of how to decide when to use some of the more commonly mixed-up words. Just for the record, then:

There = in that place
Their = belonging to them
They’re = they are

It’s = it is
Its = belonging to it

Mom = the name one might conceivably call one’s mother
her mom = the lady in question’s mother
her Mom = an improper use of capitalization. Generally speaking, only proper names should be capitalized — and if you mention a city, country, or named institution in your query, make sure it is spelled correctly.

Speaking of institutions, person graduates from a school, not graduates college.

Whew, I feel better for having gotten all of that off my chest. Oh, what a relief it is. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and all’s well that end’s well. While we’re at it, where’s the beef?

Sick of it yet? Millicent is — and to be completely honest, she’s puzzled. Why, she finds herself wondering over query after query, would a talented writer waste perfectly good page space by including even a single stock phrase, rather than original phrasing? Isn’t the point of any writing sample — and make no mistake, every syllable a writer sends to an agency is indeed a writing sample — to show how you would phrase things, not how any random person on the street might?

I’m sensing some nervous shifting in chairs, am I not? “Gee, Anne,” those of you gearing up to send out a few queries murmur under your respective breaths, “all of this is making me self-conscious. I feel as though my query is going to be examined under a microscope.”

Not the most original of concepts, murmurers, but I understand the feeling. I have to say, I’m rather pleased to hear that you’re getting antsy — it means you have an accurate understanding of just how important the writing in your query letter is to your chances of interesting an agent in your work.

Had I mentioned that you might want to invest a little time in proofreading?

To give you some practice, and to help convince the few of you out there who I can feel trying to shrug off this advice, here is Wacky’s query again, with the problems we have been discussing cleaned up.

Not a bad little query, is it? Now here it is again, after having come down with a severe case of the typos. Do you find the addition of the gaffes distracting? If you were Millicent, would you read it all the way to the end? (My apologies about the spacing at the bottom; there actually is a margin there, but my pesky finger slipped while I was capturing the image. And yes, I know that excuse wouldn’t fly with a screener.)

Ooh, that was painful to produce. I could have sworn that my fingertips were about to burst into flame when I typed their instead of there. I had meant to use — ow! — an apostrophe + s form a — it burns! It burns! — plural, but my weak frame wasn’t up to it.

Be honest, though: you had only seen that last version, wouldn’t you have assumed that Wacky wasn’t the world’s best writer? And if you’d been sitting in Millicent’s chair, wouldn’t you have been tempted to call, “Next!” even though the book sounded like it might be fun to read?

Or didn’t you notice that the story seemed like a hoot, because your eye kept flying to those typos? And if so, would you like to try explaining that to Wacky, or shall I?

Proofread, people. In your query’s entirety, preferably in hard copy and out loud. And, as always, keep up the good work!

Capturing the distinctive buzz of reality

As Virginia Woolf — whose birthday all right-minded literary types are celebrating today — tells us, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” Our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, might like to add, however, “Yes, but that does not mean that everything that has ever occurred on the planet Earth would necessarily make a good scene in a novel, or even a plausible one. And that goes double, perversely enough, for memoir.”

Are you wondering just how that is possible, those of you devoted to writing about reality? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers: just because something actually occurred does not mean that it will ring true on the page. In a book, it’s the writer’s job to make everything that happens seem plausible; within the world of the story, everything has to make sense.

That can be a daunting task for the writer devoted to truth-telling, because, let’s face it, the world as we actually experience it on a day-to-day basis frequently defies understanding. Storylines meander; villains do not receive their well-earned comeuppances; virtue is not always either its own reward or lauded by anyone else.

In fact, when you come right down to it, quotidian life is usually dramatically unsatisfying, and have you ever paused to consider the kinds of characters reality routinely introduces onto its stage? Totally unbelievable; the average reader would laugh ‘em off the page. And let’s not even begin to discuss how some of those characters talk.

All of which means, contrary to apparently popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that simply jotting down a transcript of a real event and inserting it into a novel may not work particularly well; all too often, a purely factual account will not provide the reader accustomed to fiction’s standards of world-depiction with sufficient information to be able to picture what the writer experienced. Nor does lifting a living, breathing person and inserting him into a novel necessarily create a character that will spring to life on the page, unless the writer fleshes him out as fully as any character dredged up from her imagination.

There’s a reason that perennial cry of the realistic writer — “But it really happened that way!” — doesn’t particularly impress agents, editors, or contest judges, you know. With apologies to Aunt Virginia, no matter how true the facts, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make them seem true to the reader.

By the same token, while reporting accurately what happened in one’s own life is necessary in a memoir, it’s not the only storytelling requirement; it has to sound true as well. More than that, the narrative needs to present the memoirist’s world vividly enough that the reader can, to recycle a metaphor, walk in the protagonist’s shoes. Plausibility on the page is largely dependent upon style. As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing.

Do I spot some raised hands out there in the ether? “Fair enough, Anne,” writers of the real across the globe admit. “I never conceived myself as a mere recorder of human events. I want to add my unique authorial voice, trenchant analysis, and distinct worldview to the story I’m telling. But now that you’ve got me worried about the difference between factual accuracy and literary plausibility, how about sharing some tips on how to tell the difference on the page?”

A perfectly reasonable request, reality-lovers, but as it does indeed all depend upon the writing (where have I heard that before?), there really are not any one-size-fits-all criteria. Some plausibility faux pas crop up in submissions and contest entries more than others, however. So that you may learn to spot them in the wild, let’s take a gander at a few of them roaming about their natural habitat.

Here, for your Millicent-imitating pleasure, is an honest-to-God, hand-to-heart real event, rendered for the fiction page as professional readers often see it. Does it ring true to you, or could it use a reality overhaul?

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

Excited, Antoinette extended a shapely leg from the covers to test the air. Chilly, but bearable: surely, by the time she got down to work, the room would have risen to a temperature that would not cause her fingers to cramp. Antoinette clambered out of her cot and into her robe and slippers, shuffling to her cabin’s door.

Nothing there but freezing air and a bit of lingering snow on the doorstep. Laughing at her own optimism, Antoinette turned to fill the electric teapot next to her makeshift desk.

Strange that a place that boasted such an endowment would expect her to balance her laptop on a sheet of plywood resting on sawhorses made out of two-by-fours. It did not make Antoinette sanguine about breakfast down at the dining hall; maybe she’d wait for lunch before she ventured out. That would give Antoinette a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended. She was glad she’d had the foresight to slip some Lady Grey tea and a few protein bars into her luggage.

If you immediately cried, “In heaven’s name, why must every other female leg depicted on the printed page be described as shapely? Couldn’t some of them be, say, nicely-formed or well-rounded? Sometimes, I think that there are no other leg-related words in the language,” well, Millicent would agree with you there. She’s seen enough shapely legs trot across the manuscript page to keep the Rockettes fully staffed until the end of the next millennium. And not, as some genre snobs might assume, merely in the kind of hard-boiled mystery in which dames with gams that go all the way down to the floor lure tough guys into the kind of trouble of which film noir is made.

I tremble to report, though, that this description — and this type of description — is fairly common in both memoir and fiction based upon real events, especially if those events happened to occur in the writer’s own life. Any guesses why?

The answer is rather charming, I think: when writers are describing themselves, even fictionally, they tend to focus upon what they consider their best features — or their worst. Our writer friend above may well feel that the leg in question is what would catch a discriminating bystander’s eye first.

Neither Millie nor I have any reason to doubt that, of course. We just wish that the writer would have come up with a means of describing her leg with sufficient clarity that after having read about it, we could recognize it in a crowd of well-constructed torso support systems, if you catch my drift.

Does the sound of two thousand of you shifting uncomfortably in your desk chairs mean that I hadn’t mentioned lately that those of us who read for a living often develop some rather strong negative reactions to clich?s — or phrasing that turns up in submissions and contest entries so often that it might as well be on every set of lips in North America? That’s an inevitable side effect of screening, I’m afraid: after the 7,259th iteration, even a pleasing and apt description can seem a bit, well, overdone.

The moral, should you care to know it: a writer has no control over where a submission or contest entry falls in a screener or judge’s reading queue. It would behoove a savvy writer, then, to make sure that the page is phrased so it will come across as original and stylish if it’s Millie’s first of the day or her 105th. Give those gams a rest, will ya?

Now that I’ve lectured you into feeling good and protective about the text we’re discussing — oh, you thought I was being nit-picky for its own sake? — let me ask: did you notice the red flag that might have prompted Millicent to shout, “Next!” even if she personally can never get tired of the sight of a shapely leg? While you were at it, did you notice the yellow flag that might merely have irritated her a bit?

No? Perhaps it would help to see this excerpt as she would in a submission, on a page. If you’re having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. And if you really want to replicate the screener experience, read the following fifteen times, walk away for an hour, then return and read it again.

Did one or both leap off the page at you this time? If not, I invite you to try a practical experiment. First, look away from that page for at least fifteen seconds. Then glance back and read the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible.

Notice how much the name repetition grabs the eye when you’re skimming? That’s the yellow flag, and long has it waved over submissions. Why might it bug a tired-eyed screener? Those capital As are visually distracting, so it could feel to someone who has been screening submissions all day as though our writer friend has reminded the reader that the protagonist’s name is Antoinette far more than is strictly necessary for clarity.

Or, as Millicent might put it, “How short an attention span do you think I have, to remind me of this character’s name on every other line?”

A picayune objection? Perhaps, but since fiction and memoir submissions alike tend to name-check their characters over-much — and as writers often love the monikers they’ve given their protagonists most of all — a Millicent can frequently become sensitive to the practice. Especially in a text like this, in which there is only one character, so there is no possibility of the reader’s saying, “Wait — which she are we talking about now?”

Over-naming certainly isn’t limited to writing based upon real-life events, however, any more than the other major red flag here. To get a handle on the second, let me ask you: how much do you remember about the plot of the page you’ve now read twice?

If your answer even remotely resembled, “Um, not much, but then, not much happened on that page,” congratulations; you’re reading like a pro. While you are already meandering in Millicent’s moccasins, then, let me ask you: if you were a screener, would you turn the page and keep reading?”

Oh, don’t look at me that way; most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Yes, even ones like this: properly-formatted, free of typos, and clearly written. Remember, this is not the only manuscript Millie will be screening today; she may well have dozens loading her desktop, or even hundreds. If the story and/or protagonist don’t grab her pretty quickly, she’s likely to move onto the next.

Again, though, slow openings are not endemic only to fact-based fiction and memoir — but that does not prevent some of you who write one or the other from taking umbrage, I notice. “But Anne!” reality-huggers everywhere protest, and who could blame you? “If I — I mean, Antoinette — really did all of these things on the occasion described here, isn’t it a trifle dishonest to pretend that she did something else? Didn’t Aunt Virginia tell us at the top of this post that the more closely I cling to what actually happened, the better I will write about it?”

That’s not quite the central point of this ubiquitous piece of writing advice, contrary to popular belief. Possibly because one so seldom sees Woolf quote in its entirety: “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction — so we are told.”

Part of the art of writing fiction lies in providing sufficiently detailed descriptions and character development that the reader can feel she’s inhabiting the scene along with the protagonist. The same holds true for memoir, right? As we’ve discussed, that’s frequently the problem with transcribing a verbal anecdote directly to the page: the way most people tell their kith and kin about a real event does not contain enough evocative detail or subtle characterization to be equally gripping in print. That’s especially likely to be the case when, as in our example above, the real-world inspiration isn’t all that action-packed.

And don’t roll your eyes and mutter that clearly, Millicent’s never read any Proust. No one could be a greater fan than I of sitting around and remembering things past, but let’s face it, what wowed the literati in 1917 would not necessarily receive a kind reception today. Literary tastes change. And, as half of the publishing industry’s denizens would be only too glad to roll their eyes and tell you, even habitual readers of high literary fiction have more demands upon their time than in days of yore.

Oh, you think you’re immune to the pacing expectations of our age? Okay, let me ask you — by the middle of that first page, you were mentally shouting at Antoinette to do something, already, were you not? You wanted her to nibble on a madeleine, at least, if you happen to be a Proust fan.

Or, as editors like to scrawl in margins, “Get out of her head and into the story, already!”

To be fair, most current readers have a much, much higher tolerance for protagonists’ sitting around and thinking about stuff than your garden-variety Millicent, especially after the story has shown the major character(s) act vigorously. The cool-down-and-reflect scene is a staple of movies and television dramas for a reason: it allows Our Hero(ine) to reflect on what has just happened and decide what to do next. Since the cinematic medium requires a voice-over to convey silent thought, this scene often consists of the protagonist’s providing a recap and analysis for her best friend, his law partner, her boss, somebody’s mother, or a random passerby, more often than not while consuming some form of liquid libation.

Which is why, in case those of you who regularly frequent writers’ conferences and workshops had been wondering, agents and editors who have been at it a while sometimes urge startled attendees to cut any and all scenes in which the protagonist and another character imbibe coffee, tea, milk, hot cocoa, or any other drink conducive to cozy conversing. It’s not that, as a group, people who read for a living are hostile to, say, caffeine. Far from it.

It’s that, like Millicent, they’ve just seen so many plots stop dead in their tracks for pages on end in order to tell the reader what he already knows — what’s just happened — and to preview what’s about to occur that they cringe a little at the first hint of it. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscript submissions open with a conversation in which the protagonist explains what has happened just before the story started, as a shortcut for introducing back-story to the reader.

I see you blushing, writers of narratives that open with the protagonist’s calling her mother/best friend/significant other/beloved dog Trey to tell her/him/it about the awful/wonderful/just so-so thing that’s just happened to her. Yes, people do this all the time in real life, but that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to depict it on the page. Or even that it’s solid storytelling strategy: remember, the more Millicent is confronted with a narrative trick, the less effect it will have on her.

At the risk of going out on an interpretive limb, on the page, repetition often seems redundant. And before anyone suggests it, as writers so often suggest to agents and editors, no, the fact that something was done or said more than once in real life does not matter. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: just because something actually happened does not mean it will work well on the page. Or even be interesting.

Stop reaching for that club to bludgeon me. I’m not talking about writing untruthfully about actual events here; I’m merely suggesting selectivity in narrative. Just because real life is, let’s face it, often so darned repetitious that it ought to be brought up on charges of plot plagiarism, that doesn’t mean that having your narrative faithfully reproduce that already literary quite well documented tendency will not run the risk of boring the reader.

No matter how true a story is, a writer owes the reader an entertaining yarn, right? Antoinette’s creator/alter ego seems to have forgotten that, and I think I can tell you why.

But first — see what I did there? I gave reality a small twist, for narrative effect. If I were married to literalism in storytelling, I couldn’t have said that, right? I write 99% of the examples I use here at Author! Author! — why would I have to guess the motivations of today’s text-producer?

That being said, let’s return to the rhetorical conceit already in progress: like so many aspiring writers of the real, the teller of Antoinette’s tale presumed that readers would be interested in a fairly mundane set of thoughts and activities not only because they actually happened, but also because those thoughts and activities appear in a novel. Or a memoir. In any case, in print.

Or so Millicent and her ilk surmise from the fact that so many submissions contain — and open with — the kinds of scenes that do undoubtedly occur in real life, but neither advance the plot of the book in question nor provide character development. So why, the reader is left to wonder, is that part in the book at all?

Especially if, as in today’s example, it appears on page 1. As a reader, I find it hard to believe that this particular moment is the most interesting of Antoinette’s no doubt fascinating journey across this terrestrial orb. Nor, as an editor, do I accept that this was the only conceivable place to begin the story– or that a page of set-up was necessary to establish a mood before the plot could possibly lurch into motion.

And, frankly, as an intimate of Antoinette’s — we could hardly be closer, even at this very moment — it rather irks me that the fictional version of the original rather scarifying event translated this way to the page. In real life, this was quite the action-fest.

How might I — that is, Antoinette’s amanuensis — have conveyed that better? Perhaps by getting out of the lady’s head and into the plot more quickly. At minimum, let’s lose the tea.

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

No such luck, but she could easily skip breakfast. That would give her a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended.

She was deep into the middle of Chapter Three of her Great American Novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Startled, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s the fault of the original page 1, I’m afraid. By devoting its entirety to the relatively uninteresting details of quotidian life, it would have fooled Millicent into thinking that this is a pretty slow book.

And honestly, did you really miss all of the earlier rumination this time around? Heck, if we really wanted to get things moving, we could skip all of that naming of emotions (Millicent sees too many {Name} was {emotion} statements on any given day of screening, anyway) and simply throw poor Antoinette straight into her dilemma — and, not entirely coincidentally, into the plot.

Antoinette had just finished typing the fifty-third joke of her novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Screaming, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk — or, rather, the bowed and frayed sheet of plywood balanced precariously upon makeshift sawhorses the It Shall Remain Nameless artists’ colony had seen fit to provide writers-in-residence. The second bee landed in her lap, the third atop her sleep-ravaged hair. She fled the cabin, sloshing through the March slush in her bedroom slippers.

Much more exciting, isn’t it? yes, Aunt Virginia, this quite different narrative is every bit as factually accurate as the original version; it’s merely told with an alternative emphasis and swifter pacing. Sticking to the facts need not mean relegating stylistic concerns to the compositional back seat, after all.

Two more common faux pas, and we’ll call it a night. See if you can spot what would raise Millicent’s notoriously easily-levitated hackles as the story moves through its next set of conflicts.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny window — was the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He’s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Did the level of word repetition bug you, so to speak? Again, it might help to see it as Millicent would.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny windowwas the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He‘s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Quite eye-catching, is it not? And entirely for the wrong reasons. For some reason that years of editing and writing experience have left me powerless to explain, word and phrase repetition — up to and including that clich? about the chattering teeth — is notoriously common in both fictional and nonfiction accounts of real events. The prevailing theory (to which I only occasionally subscribe): writers of the real tend to focus more upon recounting the facts accurately than upon how they recount them. In a laudable attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they sometimes forget to show off how well they can write.

I do think that explanation is sometimes applicable to real scenes committed to paper, because all types of writers fall into word repetition patterns at one time or another; when writers are in a hurry to get a good concept down on paper, style often falls by the wayside, at least for the first draft. I suspect, though, that a few other factors frequently nose their heads under the literary fence. The old verbal-anecdote-not-translating-well-to-writing trap, for instance: it’s hard to deny that even the most gifted raconteurs tend to reuse words more than the prevailing standards for professional writing smile upon in these decadent days.

If you still don’t believe that the spoken and the printed word are different, try reading that last sentence out loud. Tumbles awkwardly around the mouth, doesn’t it? Yet most readers would not have perceived it as especially awkward on a first reading. (I would — and did, as soon as I typed it — but hey, I’m a professional reader. Don’t try this at home.)

Writers of fact and fact-based fiction also occasionally fall into this pattern because in their aforementioned laudable effort to tell the truth, the whole…well, you know the rest, they conflate the goal of being factually accurate with a desire to be consistent. If an account is true, they reason, it should sound the same each time it’s told, right? And they’ve been telling it a certain way out loud for years. So telling it any other way can sound not only wrong to them, but actually untrue.

This logic, if you’ll pardon my saying so, drives many of us benighted souls that read for a living nuts. “What do you mean,” they bellow, rending their garments, “there’s only one way to tell this story? You’re a writer — there are a million ways you could tell this story!”

That response, in turn, drives many writers of the real equally nuts, especially if they happen to be writing memoir. “What do you mean,” they wail, bearding heaven with their bootless cries, “I should write about my life in a different way? I’m telling the truth here — so are you asking me to lie about what happened, or are you saying that I should have lived my life in some other way?”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate realistically. Naturally, a memoir editor wants the writer to present her life story accurately, but if you’ll pardon my repeating myself, it also has to be a good yarn — and well written, too, if the writer can possibly manage it. That means being selective about what real elements to include, as well as exerting narrative authority to ascertain that the story both flows plausibly on the page and entertains the reader.

Oh, holster that throwing knife. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will necessarily read as plausible on the page. All that nice professional reader wants you to do is tweak your account so the reader gets yanked out of the story by muttering, “Oh, that would never happen.”

Exercising some finesse can be quite necessary, as I think we can all agree that sometimes, reality can be mighty implausible. As I may have mentioned, the world is often a genuinely lousy writer, distributing punishments and rewards with little sense of dramatic fitness, jumbling together entirely disparate character traits within a single individual, and generally displaying a perverse affection for the trite and predictable. The real world wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in an editor’s chair.

Or a writer’s, for that matter, because to make sure that the written word is appreciably better than reality. That takes both a discerning eye for the actual and an acutely sensitive sense of story.

Sound like a tall order? You may be encouraged to hear — I know I am — that many writers of autobiographical fiction and memoir do exercise both talents in their submissions and contest entries, imposing a very strong authorial point of view onto the story arc. Sometimes, unfortunately, they go a trifle overboard.

How? See if you can catch the subtle narrative bias in the next segment of Antoinette’s story. Why might this factually truthful account rub Millicent the wrong way at the end of a long day’s screening? (Hint: verbal anecdotes are prone to this misstep, too.)

Antoinette felt as though every bee in the world had landed on her back, buzzing and pacing on its tiny legs. “What am I supposed to do until he gets back?”

The administrative assistant rolled her eyes, clearly thinking what a wimp. “Why don’t you try ignoring it?”

“Them,” Antoinette corrected her quietly. “I’m being dive-bombed.”

“Try opening a window.”

Antoinette dragged herself downstairs, hoping to delay her unexpected exterminator duties with some scrambled eggs, but the breakfast servers slammed the dining room door in her face. She couldn’t even snag a lousy cup of coffee. With envious eyes, she watched the well-fed sculptors, painters, and photographers amble back to their beautifully lit and undoubtedly bug-free workshops.

Has the self-pitying tone begun to grate upon you yet? No? Okay, I’ll ramp it up.

She waded back through the ankle-deep slush to her cabin, rolling up a newspaper she had snagged from the dining hall into what she hoped and prayed would be an adequate hornet-smasher. Opening the cabin’s door just enough to peek inside, she recoiled. The plywood desk was polka-dotted with groggy be. Dozens more lazily circled the old-fashioned bowl light fixture on the ceiling.

Terrified to her bones but determined not to lose a half-day’s writing time, she clamped her eyes and mouth shut, clenched her teeth, and ran across the room. Grabbing the nearest window by its sash, she wrestled it open, a worrying buzzing just off her right ear the whole time.

The storm window couldn’t be budged. Swatting wildly in all directions, she ran all the way back to the administration building.

“Back already?” the administrative assistant snorted. She called to workers in other parts of the office, laughing.

“Please,” Antoinette begged, “I don’t know what to do. I think there’s an entire hornet’s nest in the ceiling light. I can’t get to my computer to rescue it.”

Everyone laughed. “Can’t you write in longhand?” someone asked.

She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain polite. “I don’t mind trying to work someplace else for the rest of the day, but could I borrow an electric fan or something so I can get back into the cabin for some clothes? Or maybe even my laptop?”

More guffaws. “Look,” the administrative assistant snapped, “if you want, you can write a note for Joe.”

I was pretty flabbergasted at this reaction, I must admit; as I said, reality’s not a very subtle writer. Which is why, believe it or not, this narrative seems to lack authenticity: it’s too obvious where the reader’s sympathies should fall. Not only is our saintly heroine — who is, you will note, unflaggingly polite — entirely in the right while her faceless tormenters cold- and warm-blooded alike are entirely in the wrong, but the humans’ reaction doesn’t even make sense.

“Oh, come on,” the reader would have every right to huff. “What kind of retreat’s administrative staff would be this callous to danger to one of its guests? Some people are allergic to beestings, you know. And even if that possibility hadn’t occurred to anyone concerned, wouldn’t they be worried that a massively bee-stung former writer-in-residence might, if she lived to tell the tale, make certain that any writer who might even consider taking up residence there would hear this dreadful epic of woe and uproar?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The purpose of telling this story in writing, though, is presumably not to point a finger at the guilty — or at least not to do it so obviously that the reader perceives a narrative bias — but to beguile the reader with a true-to-life, entertaining yarn. Antoinette’s creator might try, for instance, limiting the dismissive reaction to only one character, the administrative assistant, rather than presenting the rest of the office’s staff and the dining hall’s personnel as uniformly hostile. Some individual character development might be nice. And why not seduce the reader into sharing the protagonist’s horror by giving more of a visceral sense of what it felt, smelled, sounded, and tasted like to be in that room stuffed with bees?

Let me answer that last question myself: I’d rather not relive that nasty moment any more intensely than I already have to write the story so far, thank you very much. If I were writing this scene for a memoir or autobiographical fiction manuscript, however, it would be my job to envision it down to the very last flutter of wings.

The truer the facts, the better the fiction, right? Otherwise, how could the reader possibly gain a true sense of what it was like to be living inside Antoinette’s skin? And wasn’t that what the writer telling her story set out to achieve?

Hey, nobody ever said writing about reality well is easy. Often, it’s not particularly fun, either. But you chose your subject matter because you wanted a writing challenge worthy of your ambitions and talent, didn’t you?

In the interest of factual accuracy, I should add that Joe did eventually turn up — he’d gotten embroiled in a still life — but since the hornet’s nest extended all the way into the cabin’s disused attic, he wasn’t actually able to stop the hailstorm of hornets until well until the middle of the next day. I slept on a crumbling couch between two other writers’ bedrooms. My slippers did not dry out fully until the beginning of Week 5.

P.S., I wrote roughly 200 pages while I was in residence. But I’ve never looked a hornet in its beady little eye again.

Seriously, I could have constructed a far more dramatically satisfying resolution to that storyline, reality. You really do need to work harder on your craft and characterization.

But nice job on all of the shapely legs with which you’ve managed to stock the world. Keep up the good work!

“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

These are the times that try editors’ souls

No time for a lengthy missive today, I’m afraid, but I could not resist sharing a bit of tangible evidence in support of a theory long lurking in the minds of editors across the English-writing world: in recent years, many people’s eye-brain connections seem to have ceased working reliably. At least insofar as signage is concerned, citizens of this great land have evidently decided that if a piece of prose sounds vaguely like what its writer had in mind, well, that’s close enough to print.

To an editor, that logic represents the first step down the slippery slope that leads to, well, a heck of a lot of work. If nailing down a precise meaning in writing has ceased to have social value, what’s next? Widespread confusion of colons with semicolons? Ravening packs of the untutored roaming the streets, doubling or even tripling prepositions? Or even — avert your eyes, children — eschewing proofreading altogether?

Whom the gods would destroy, Euripides informed us, they first drive mad. Clearly, this was the kind of thing he had in mind.

I’m not merely talking about grocery store signage that adds an extraneous -e to potato or tomato, the misguided belief that pointless abbreviations such as tonite, thru, and alright have ever actually saved anybody any time, or even the bizarre gender blindness that struck otherwise perfectly reasonable people in the media to toss subject-object agreement to the winds in the mid-1980s, causing everyone and their monkey to crowd everyone and her monkey practically out of the language as she is spoke — although, naturally, the literate find such slips inexplicable. Many of my fellow editors insist that we should expect no better from people incapable of understanding why a female member of Congress might conceivably be known on paper as a Congresswoman, rather than a Congressman. Once it became necessary to begin explaining to even fairly well-educated people why paragraphs should be indented, handlers of manuscripts everywhere began hearing the resounding thumps of barbarian weaponry upon the gates of civilization.

I do not take such a dismal view of the matter, but I must confess, bungled logic in print drives me precisely as nuts as our pal Euripides predicted. Take, for instance, the undoubtedly generous offer that appeared in a local paper recently:

Did that second paragraph make you beard the heavens with your bootless cries? Or, like vast majority of the comparatively carefree denizens of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, did your eye simply gloss over it?

Unfortunately for editorial sanity, but fortunately for literature, those of us that read for a living do not enjoy the luxury of believing that close enough is fine for print. English is a language that permits, nay, positively encourages precision: just look at the stunning array of adjectives you have at your disposal. The benighted composer of the free pizza offer above had every bit as many tools at his disposal (nice subject-object agreement, eh?) as the next fella, yet fell down on the descriptive job.

To his credit, he does appear to have realized that his prose might be just a tad confusing to those who believe that words carry specific meanings. To an editorial eye, a phrase like to be clear can indicate only one of two authorial fears: either the writing immediately before it lacks communicative oomph, or the writer isn’t too sure of the comprehension capacities of the reader.

In this case, both terrors probably governed word choice. Let’s take a closer look. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the — sacre bleu! — all-caps presentation of the original.

After the costume parade, head up to Pagliacci for a free slice for your little monster! And to be clear, only kids in costume accompanied by a parent will be served.

Did you catch it, now that the eye-distracting formatting is gone? No? Would it help to know that what the writer almost certainly meant was this?

After the community-sponsored costume parade has run its course, we at this fine pizza emporium would be pleased to serve a free slice to any child in costume who shows up clutching the hand of either a biological or adoptive parent.

But that’s not what the original actually said, was it? Read literally, these were the preconditions for scarfing down some pie gratis:

(1) The potential scarfer must be a minor.

(2) The potential scarfer cannot show up before the parade has ended.

(3) The potential scarfer must be in costume.

(4) The potential scarfer’s costume must also be occupied by a parent — and, the use of the plural kids implies, possibly one or more other children.

Now, I can certainly picture a few charming two-wearer costumes — if the child in question were open to being strapped to a guardian’s chest at a 45-degree angle, the pair could form a wonderful spider. However, long practical experience with both advertising and careless writing leads me to conclude that the pizza-hawkers almost certainly did not intend to limit their offer to only literal readers with creative multi-party costumes on hand.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. It’s my job to nit-pick. “But Anne,” eye-rollers everywhere protest, “I was not confused at all by the original version. It was clear enough what the pizza-mongers meant. I can see why prose imprecision might be unacceptable in a high literary manuscript, but why get so exorcised about a small slip?”

However did you manage to slip through that gate, barbarian? We in the editorial keep already have boiling pitch prepared to fling onto the noggins of all comers.

Seriously, those of us that read for a living are perpetually flabbergasted by how many writers seem to cling to a close-enough-is-good-enough philosophy. Clarity constitutes the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra. As a reader, I’m sure you would agree: on the printed page, you don’t believe it’s your responsibility to guess what the author probably meant, do you? It’s the author’s job to convey precisely what she had in mind.

Contrary to astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not an agent, editor, or contest judge’s job to speculate, either. No matter how often any of us are treated to the sight of unclear, poorly written, or logically convoluted prose, the trick to catching a sharp editorial eye in a positive way lies in choosing your words with care.

Oh, and not stubbornly retaining topical jokes after their expiration date just because you happen to like them. ( I had intended to use that last paragraph a couple of weeks ago, you see.)

Yet another reason to read your submissions and contest entries IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course. Since the human eye, editorial or otherwise, tends to read about 70% faster on a backlit screen, even the most dedicated self-editor will be substantially more likely to catch subtle gaffes on a printed page. You wouldn’t want to leave Millicent the agency screener wondering just how many family members your text wanted her to envision stuffed into a single costume, would you?

Actually, the barbarians currently howling at the gate might actually prove helpful in this endeavor. Bless their unrepentant hearts, their lack of precision in wielding the language provides would-be self-editors with abundant opportunities to sharpen their editorial eyes. The photo at the top of this post, for instance: scroll up and give it your best nit-pick.

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “By Jove, that restaurant appears to be ordering lunch customers to bring their own egg roll and rice!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Come w(ith) egg roll in any other context would in fact mean that the speaker would expect the hearer either to show up with an egg roll — not the kind of thing most of us tote around habitually — or to accompany an egg roll on some unspecified journey. Neither, you must admit, seems like a particularly inviting prospect for restaurant patronage.

Snag a second gold star from petty cash if you also bellowed, “Nor is that the only labor the poor potential customer is evidently expected to perform. Why should the diner steam her own rice?” As steam is a verb, it must logically be a command to the reader; steamed, on the other hand, is an adjective that might conceivably be applied to rice.

Whom the gods would not see published, first they burden with an inability to spot the differences between parts of speech. While I’d like to think that they have also provided a special spot in Hades for sign-printers too callous to point out such problems, perhaps we should all be grateful for the proofreading practice advertising provides us all on a daily basis.

Excuse me — some charming visitors bearing pitchforks and torches appear to be banging on the gate, just in time for lunch. Perhaps they were courteous enough to bring their own egg rolls. Keep up the good work!

Getting possessive

The Author! Author! community is seldom far from my thoughts, but at moments when I pass a sign like this, I must confess, I find it difficult to think of anyone else. Especially of those of you brave souls that regularly put yourselves — and your manuscripts — through the literary contest-entry wringer.

Why contest entrants in particular? Because in recent years, contest judges have found themselves doing double-takes at the type of punctuation currently blaring at you from that otherwise rather straightforward piece of advertising above in ever-increasing numbers. So, too, has the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, found herself shaking her head over manuscript submissions, murmuring, “I wonder if this is what the writer here actually meant, or if this is yet another instance of the sad decline in punctuation plaguing our society in these decadent days.”

Millie’s mutter was a mighty big hint, by the way, to those of you who did not erupt in merriment the instant you first clapped eye on today’s guest image. See it now?

Chances are, if you were a contest entrant frantic to get your entry postmarked by a deadline, you would not see it; it’s the type of typo that writers in a rush often overlook. And that’s a real shame, if the entry’s well written: I’ve never encountered a writing contest that allowed its judges to assess an entry by what its writer probably wanted to say, rather than what’s actually on the page.

Nor does your garden-variety agency typically permit its screeners to correct punctuation, even mentally, while reading submissions. That, too, is a shame, for many a successful querier or pitcher aglow with the first burst of adrenaline that comes with hearing that a real, live agent or editor wants to see MY WORK has simply glossed over this kind of punctuation as well. Strategically, that’s a mistake: even if it ever were desirable to leave Millie guessing at your intended meaning — and it isn’t, ever — it’s fairly standard for screeners to be told to stop reading at the second or third typo.

And what’s the best preventative medicine for skirting that dreadful fate, campers? That’s right: taking the time to read every syllable of your contest entry, requested pages, and/or book proposal IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Does that chorus of groans mean I’ve poked some of you in a sore spot? Or merely that you wish the Submission Fairy would wave her magic wand and grant six extra hours to writers on deadlines, purely for proofreading purposes? “But Anne,” the time-strapped moan, “I see typos in published books all the time! Surely, that must mean that little punctuation gaffes, misspellings, misplaced quotation marks and the like are no longer taken as seriously as in days of yore, when mistake-free writing was considered the mark of the literate person?”

In some contexts, you’re quite right about this, proofreading-avoiders: thanks in part to a decline in hard-copy proofreading (it’s much, much harder to catch small gaffes on a backlit screen than on a printed page), we do all see more faux pas in print than even ten years ago. Spelling- and grammar-checkers have caused a general decline in proofreading, and not only amongst published writers. E-mails are notoriously typo-prone, as are texts, and Twitter practically demands leaving out otherwise essential words, letters, and punctuation. Given the choice between speed and graceful presentation, most opt for the former.

Then, too, most of us also scan a heck of a lot more unedited writing than would have been imaginable to those whose primary reading experience was before the rise of the Internet. And don’t even get a professional reader started on how much more frequently advertising copy — like, for instance, the sign depicted above — contains typos.

All of which means, in practice, that pretty much all of us have gotten almost as accustomed to seeing writing presented badly as we have to seeing it done well. So often do signs shout things like BOBS’ LIQUORS at us (spot it yet?) that even the most grammar-savvy writer might be forgiven for occasionally placing an apostrophe in the wrong place when she’s in a hurry.

Driving past ads like this all day, it might not even look problematic at first glance. So why, as our short-on-time discussants above asked, should a deadline-facing contest entrant or excited submitter lose any sleep over a questionable apostrophe or two? Won’t it be some copyeditor’s job to catch such problems before the book is published, anyway?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that a typo like this won’t jump off your pages at Millicent, if she’s been properly trained — and if she works at an agency you would want to represent you, she has. It would also look odd to Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. And, frankly, it would drive me nuts to spot on the page.

Or, as in this case, the sign. To any of us, and almost certainly to the agent of your dreams, the very sight of BOBS’ LIQUORS immediately begs the question: just how many Bobs are there in that liquid-filled emporium?

Shall I take the resounding splat of eyebrows against hairlines as an indicator that this particular question has not been dogging some or all of you since this post began? I’m not entirely astonished: although it would make Millicent, Mehitabel, and their confreres choke to hear it, a stunningly high proportion of talented aspiring writers seem never to have learned the rules about creating possessives — or plurals, for that matter. Or at least to have been schooled in them so long ago that misuse of one or the other no longer causes their eyebrows to twitch at all.

So let’s embark on a quick refresher course, not only to revivify those complacent eyebrows, but so you have some guidelines on hand during any future moments of doubt. And if that means alerting everyone within the range of my keyboard to the genuinely puzzling nature of that provocative sign, well, so be it.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do not end in -s or -z — which is to say: most nouns — just add ‘s. If Ambrose happened to own a leopard, then, Millicent would expect the text to refer to Ambrose’s leopard; by the same token, the spots decorating Ambrose’s pet would be the leopard’s spots.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do end in -s or -z — Gladys, a spaz, a passing ibis — the apostrophe goes after the s or z. So if Gladys’ pet ibis happened to become friends with Gladys’ brother Glenn, whose business partner happens to be a spaz, the ibis’ buddy’s business’ interests might be endangered by the spaz’ annoying ways.

I was expecting a certain amount of resistance to that one — and already, a forest of hands have sprouted out there in the ether. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you hand-wavers are fond of the ways of journalism. Yes, newspaper-huggers? “I can go along with Rule #1, Anne, and I remember when Rule #2 used to be common, but I see #1 applied all the time to nouns ending in -s and -z. Doesn’t that mean that Rule #2 is obsolete, and I may simply form possessives by adding ‘s to any old singular noun?”

I take your point, journalism-lovers: rarely do I pick up a magazine these days without having some well-meaning reporter inform me that the ibis’s buddy’s business’s interests might be endangered by the spaz’s annoying ways, and quite firmly, too. There’s a reason for that: in recent years, A.P. style, the style favored by newspapers and magazines, has indeed reverted entirely to Rule #1 for singular possessives. So you may expect those sources, along with online media, to slap ‘s indiscriminately on any noun. It has also become quite common for publishers of books by journalists to throw literary tradition to the winds in this respect.

And, to be fair, Millicent probably would not stop reading if you did the same: she, like the rest of us, has seen the ibis’s and similarly ungraceful possessives running amok across newspaper pages for years now. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the language in its most polished form — American English as it might appear in literary fiction, for instance — must drop one of the nicest punctuation rules we have.

To quote your mother: if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? And if half the people you knew evidently thought — at least strongly enough to put the theory into practice — that it was correct to form a plural in English by adding ‘s, instead of just an s, would you throw the rules that say otherwise off the aforementioned bridge, simply because you’d seen plurals formed incorrectly so often?

Many, many aspiring writers would, as Mehitabel and Millicent could tell you to their sorrow; judging by what’s submitted, they either do not know the rules well enough to apply them consistently or have been rendered unsure enough by the sight of rule variation that they don’t notice when their texts lapse. Even if a contest entrant or submitter is made of stronger stuff and is familiar with the rules for constructing plurals and possessives, if she does not proofread closely, she might as well be unsure of the rules.

Why? Think about it: an agency screener or contest judge can only assess a writer’s talent and skill based upon what’s on the page, right? If none of the possessive usages on page 1 are correct, obviously, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer needs a crash course in punctuation, which is not any agency’s job to provide its clients. Fair enough. That being the case, though, if two of the six possessive uses on page 1 are incorrect, in addition to the plural of fence being printed as fence’s instead of fences, could you really blame her for drawing the same conclusion?

While you’re still shuddering over the implications of that one, let me add hastily that the logic also tends to hold true in reverse. If your punctuation and grammar are impeccable, not only will the effort win your manuscript or entry Brownie points — always good in a competitive situation — but your pages will also enjoy the not inconsiderable advantage of novelty. To be blunt about it, so many contest entries and submissions contain incorrect possessives and plurals that those that don’t shine by comparison.

If, in addition to the virtues of solid grammar, the pages also manage to apply the elegant, old-fashioned rule of possessive formation in nouns ending in -s or -z, professional readers will usually like the writing even better. Seriously, literate old-schoolers just love seeing this old-fashioned punctuation used correctly. Indeed, amongst ourselves, we tend to complain that the only benefit of adding the extra s to words that do not logically require it is that those who have difficulty with complexity need memorize only one rule.

Hey, I didn’t say we were funny; I said we were literate. But seriously, folks, does it come as a great surprise that contest judges, especially in the early rounds, tend to be culled from the ranks of the conspicuously literate?

So your rhinoceros favors a particular pond, you might want to consider making Mehitabel happy by referring to the rhinoceros’ watering hole. (If there was more than one rhino, it would be the rhinoceri’s watering hole, but that’s a horn of a different color.) If Chaz were the rhinos’ keeper, they would be Chaz’ rhinos.
If you preferred A.P. style, however, you could also render it as Chaz’s rhinos. They would sound the same spoken out loud.

Getting the picture? This one is legitimately up to you, as long as you don’t mind causing Mehitabel to sigh nostalgically. Just make sure that the text is 100% consistent about whether a -z noun takes an apostrophe in the possessive or not.

Even if you decide to get modern on the -z question, I would urge clinging to tradition on the -s front. If the creatures that frequented that pond were flamingos, you would say that it was the flamingos’ favorite place to drink. I feel a rule coming on:

To form a possessive for a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the s. Thus, the spots belonging to more than one leopard would be the leopards’ spots. Contrary to popular belief, the Thus, if the entire Anderson family owned a leopard ranch, it would be the Andersons’ leopard ranch.

Let me state that another way, because Millicent and Mehitabel see family names and possessives mismatched all the time, for some reason. If the leopard in question belonged to just one person — let’s call him Ambrose Anderson — both Ambrose’s leopard and Anderson’s leopard would leave M & M’s eyebrows mercifully unraised. However, if the leopard were so lucky to belong to both Ambrose and Antoinette Anderson, it would be the Andersons’ leopard.

Is the BOBS’ LIQUORS conundrum starting to make more sense now? Let’s take a gander at why: if it belonged to just one guy named Bob, it should be BOB’S LIQUORS, right? While it would be gracious to give the sign-painter the benefit of the doubt, neither of the two remaining possibilities seems particularly likely. The place could belong to a person named not Bob, but Bobs, in which case BOBS’ LIQUORS would be perfectly correct. It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the store’s owners may well have intended the literal meaning here; we may well be looking at a two-Bob situation.

But if either of these turns out to be the case, I feel the inhabitants of Lake City are entitled to a full explanation, don’t you? The vast majority of passersby would read this sign as it was probably meant to read: as BOB’S LIQUORS.

Good old Bob may well be counting upon that; he may well believe, and with some reason, that it doesn’t really matter whether his potential customers walk in expecting one Bob or several. It’s not wise, though, for an aspiring writer to play similarly fast and loose with Millicent or Mehitabel’s sense of what’s going on.

Oh, you don’t think Mehitabel will dock your entry points if your punctuation choices imply that there are more Bobs running around your short story than there actually are? Or that Millicent might stop reading if the text seems to indicate a lack of familiarity with the rules governing apostrophes — if, say, a manuscript falls into the pervasive habit of forming plurals by adding ‘s, instead of just s?

To calm the nerves of those of you currently clutching your hearts and hyperventilating: possessive misuse all by itself is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense all by itself (although it can be, if Millicent is in a bad mood). It’s not uncommon, though, for it to combine with one or two other small gaffes to add up to rejection. Heck, I’ve known Millicents to reject a manuscript after the first malformed plural, if it fell within the opening page or two. Contest judges seldom have that luxury, thank goodness, but you’d be astonished at how often an otherwise well-written entry will knock itself out of serious finalist consideration by a typo or two on the first page. Or even — sacre bleu! — the first paragraph.

Why? Well, are you sitting down? I hope so: professional readers are paid to presume that everything on the manuscript page is there because the writer intended it to be. If the text consistently misapplies a rule, then, or simply does not apply it consistently, they tend to assume that the writer simply does not know the rule at all.

Well might you turn pale, time-strapped submitters and contest entrants. What might have started life as a typo actually can transmogrify at entry time into a reason to consider a submission less than literate — and to send the message to an agency that this talented writer would be more work to represent than someone whose work did not include such gaffes.

Why? Well, tease out the reasoning: either the writer is not aware of the rule (and thus the agency would have to invest time in teaching him something any professional writer would be expected to know), the writer is not sure enough of the rule to apply it consistently (so the agency would have to waste time proofreading his work before submitting it to publishers), or the writer knows the rule, but was simply too lazy (or, more likely, too rushed) to reread his own writing before submitting it. Whichever turns out to be the case, it means that it would be inadvisable to trust him to submit clean manuscripts, especially on a short deadline — and short deadlines crop up in the publishing world all the time. The agent of his dreams wants his work to sell, after all: it’s really in no one’s interest for her to submit his work to a publishing house if it’s peppered with typos.

She wouldn’t want to run the risk of the acquiring editor’s assuming he just didn’t know the rules. Or that he wasn’t serious enough about his own writing to proofread.

With those imperatives in mind, let’s try applying the theory to one of the great American apparent exceptions to the possessive formation rules: why is the Oakland A’s correctly punctuated?

If you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “Because that’s what the team calls itself — and proper names are spelled the way the people bearing them say they are,” give yourself partial credit. The team does in fact use the apostrophe in referring to itself. And grammar, I’m pleased to say, is on its side in that respect.

But not, I’m even more delighted to report, because the A is rendered plural by that ‘s. It couldn’t be, right? Adding an apostrophe is not how plurals are formed. That is, however, how contractions indicate that some letters are missing. In this instance, seven of ‘em: thletic. Thus, it’s perfectly acceptable to abbreviate the Oakland Athletics to the Oakland A’s.

Yet another cosmic mystery solved. Now if only we could crack the case of The Possibly Multiple Bobs. Keep up the good work!

The ever-knotty question of what constitutes good writing

An old friend presented me with a stumper yesterday, campers: although neither a teacher nor a writer himself, Nate had just been asked to teach a writing class at work. Specifically, he had been allotted six hours in which to transform the prose stylings of the fine folks in another department from argumentatively sound but hard to follow into…well, the company’s owner had not been all that clear about what better writing would mean in that context, but he certainly was adamant that he wanted it.

Oh, and would the day after tomorrow be too soon to offer the class? Under the circumstances, I would have called me in a panic, too.

Already, I see the logical conclusion-huggers out there scratching their heads. “But Anne,” the rational point out, as they are wont to do, “if this storyline popped up in a novel, readers would find it implausible. In the first place, if the owner doesn’t know what good writing is, how can he set writing standards for the department? If he does not know how his staff is falling short of those standards, how is the class — which, if my calculations are correct, should convene sometime tomorrow morning — to address the problems? And if the boss is so darned worried about his employees’ writing, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring in someone with experience diagnosing writing problems and helping writers iron them out?”

There you go, expecting the real world to be as plausible as fiction. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: reality is a lousy writer.

Case in point: Nate’s predicament is exceptional not in that he’s fallen victim to the astonishingly pervasive notion that anyone who can express himself well on paper must perforce be capable of teaching others how to do it — which, as anyone who has attended an authors’ panel on craft issues at a writers’ conference could tell you, does not always bear out in practice — but insofar as he happened to have gone to elementary school with an editor willing to help him come up with a last-minute lesson plan. Makeshift workplace writing seminars seem to have been on the rise in recent years; I hear constantly from aspiring writers who insist that their queries must be in business format (left-justified, non-indented paragraphs, a skipped line between paragraphs) because, they claim, “the guy who taught my writing class at work said standards have changed.”

Upon further inquiry, that guy virtually never turns out to have received the Nobel Prize in literature, if you catch my drift.

To be fair, though, Since my primary experience of Nate’s forays into the realm of the Muse has been a paragraph or two in his annual Christmas card, I’m not really in a position to assess his writing — and since neither of us work in the department he’s assigned to teach, I had to ask to peruse his potential students’ writing specimens before I could even begin to give him advice. Every profession has its own internal standards for communicative excellence, after all; for all I know, Nate might be the Edith Wharton of interoffice memoranda.

As a writing teacher, however, I did know that his terrified, broad-based question, “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” was not one easily answered under any circumstances. Those of us who edit for a living hear this one fairly often, doubtless due to the widespread and erroneous belief in one-size-fits-all writing solutions — and universally-applicable writing advice, for that matter.

Which is why, one presumes, that the standard editorial answer is, “It depends. What kind of writing are you talking about?”

Did that resounding thunk of chins collectively hitting floors indicate that at least a few of you were unaware that what constitutes good writing varies not only by style and voice, but by context and intended audience as well? To those of us that read for a living, there’s no such thing as generic good writing, especially when one is discussing books. While clarity and voice consistency are desirable in any genre, specific standards vary by book category: what would be laudable in YA, after all, might bore a literary fiction readership to death, and vice versa. The conventions by which paranormals operate quite happily would seem absurd in a Western. And call me zany, but when I pick up a cookbook, I don’t expect it to read like a Sherman Alexie short story. (His new short story collection is terrific, by the way, even though it contains some old stories.)

So while a layperson might have responded to “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” with a handful of soothing platitudes about the importance of showing vs. telling or some light wrist-slapping on the subject of run-on sentences, Nate could hardly have asked a pro like me more challenging question, or one more likely to produce a three-hour answer. Since neither he nor his prospective students seemed to be looking to break into the literary market, however, I spared him the nuanced lecture on the many gradations of stylistic merit, contenting myself instead with asking what kind of writing these fine folks habitually did and what about their efforts had disturbed his employer enough to be willing to stop the enterprise dead in its tracks for a day in order to improve it.

The questions seemed to surprise him, or so I surmise from a pause long enough for me to have set down the phone, have my hair permed, and returned without missing his response. “Well,” he said eventually, “they’re expected to describe real-world situations.”

Was it callous of me to laugh? “That, I’m afraid, is the challenge faced by every memoirist and other nonfiction writer who has ever trod the earth’s crust — and a hefty percentage of the novelists as well.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but my folks are not very good at it.”

As I love you people, I shall not reproduce the eighteen minutes of cross-examination required to elicit what might charitably be regarded as a reasonable description of what kind of writing these excellent people were not doing well, for whose eyes it was intended, and how their literary efforts were not pleasing that target audience. To my ear, the problem seemed not to be entirely writing-related: the budding Hemingways in question were routinely expected to walk into conflict-ridden situations, rapidly assess the various potential and/or current combatants’ needs, desires, and aggressive capabilities, and produce a terse summary in the few minutes they had at their disposal before diving into the next fracas.

I’m inclined to believe that even the actual Hemingway would have found that a writing challenge, especially on a short deadline. And the more Nate talked, the more the tight deadlines seemed to be exacerbating the writing problems. In a move that might not astonish anyone familiar with either rushed writing or professional jargon — but evidently did come as something of a surprise to Nate’s employer — those harried scribblers had fallen into the habit of using stock phrases to save time. If not actually using the copy and paste functions to recycle entire sentences.

Obviously, that practice would over time try the patience of anyone tasked with reading many of these reports back-to-back, but not only for reasons of style. Specific descriptions would not be particularly conducive to reuse, right? In order to be easily portable, the less descriptive those statements could be, the better.

Better for the rushed copy-and-paster, that is, not for descriptive clarity — or, importantly for the credibility of the reports Nate’s students are expected to write, the reader’s ability to picture what’s going on. Even if one of these writers is a terrific observer and an obsessively honest reporter of fact, repetitive wordsmithing will convey a less-then-meticulous impression.

Let’s examine why. If Report #1 reads like this:

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

And Report #2 reads like this:

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

It’s pretty hard for the reader to tell these two battling groups apart, apart, isn’t it? That’s the nature of generic description: even if the writer’s has something specific in mind, stock phrasing represents generalities — and that’s what the reader is going to take away.

Lest those of you who write fiction be congratulating yourselves, thinking that this is one writing problem, thank goodness, that does not apply to your work, let me hasten to add that the same principle applies to any description. No matter how detailed the writer’s mental image of a person, place, thing, or situation might be, if the narrative uses generalizations to depict it, or holds back salient details, the reader’s going to end up with only a vague impression of the writer’s artistic vision.

Take, for example, the photograph at the top of this post. It would be factually accurate, as well as quite speedy, to describe it as a picture of a piece of wood. A writer in less of a hurry could tell a reader that the wood is dry, has a knot in it, and that a small portion of it had apparently been slightly burned at some point in the dim past.

All of that would be true; you can see that for yourself. But if you had never seen the photograph in question, would reading either of those descriptions enable you to picture it? Couldn’t those descriptions apply to a practically infinite variety of photos of pieces of wood?

If we cranked our observational skills up to high, however, and set our literary skills on stun, we could easily describe that image so thoroughly that the reader would not only be able to envision it, but would know precisely how that particular hunk of wood differed from every other piece of wood on the planet. If the reader ever encountered it in real life, she would recognize it. (“That’s it, officer — that’s the lumber I read about!“)

If the description on the page does not show the relevant specifics, though, how is the reader supposed to learn about them? Guesswork? Telepathy? Showing up on the author’s doorstep and demanding a fuller description?

Obviously, at least from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s not the reader’s job to do any of these things; it’s the writer’s job to provide those specifics. How a savvy writer would chose to go about that, though, might well depend upon the type of narrative that would contain the description, as well as the writer’s individual stylistic preferences and the needs of the scene. In a thriller, for instance, a just-the-facts description might be appropriate:

The glass in the window rattled in the wind. Not too surprising, really, considering the state of the wood holding it together: dry, cracked, and full of knots. Even its garish yellow paint job seemed to have given up on holding itself together.

In an emotional YA scene, however, this treatment might make more sense:

I ran my fingertips along the warped wood of the window frame, wondering if I could pry it open. Old yellow paint flaked onto my sleeve as I worked a pencil into the largest crack in the wood. The last inmate must have been too depressed to try to escape — all she seemed to have done was crush out a cigarette on the yielding wood.

For literary or mainstream fiction, though, it could read like this:

No wonder the window leaked heat like a warped sieve — the very wood holding it together had dried out to the point of shattering. An ancient knot spun near the confluence of sill and frame, sending angry concentric circles of resistance shivering toward the glass. Deep, murky cracks wrinkled decades-old yellow paint.

Quite a difference from the window frame was made of wood and painted yellow, eh? While all of these descriptions are factually true, the reader would take away radically varying mental images.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take another gander at our two original examples. Now that we know that the reader’s sense of what’s going on could be substantially improved by including more specifics, what other style changes would be helpful here?

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

Did the word and phrase repetition catch your eye this time around? It would have maddened Millicent the agency screener, and for good reason. Even taking Report #1 and Report #2 individually, their repetitive phrasing is, let’s face it, not very interesting to read — and thus inherently less memorable, from the reader’s point of view, than more varied word choice.

Did that last contention make you do a double-take? Okay, here’s a test of whether it’s true: quick, without scrolling back up, explain the differences between what the writer observed in Situation #1 and Situation #2.

Did you come up with anything but a floor level, and perhaps a couple of the participants’ names? Neither would a reader. That’s a writing problem as much as a matter of content choice.

How so? Well, by definition, repeated phrases do not add new information to a description in the way that fresh wording can. Yet many writers deliberately repeat words and phrases, apparently in the mistaken belief that the reader will magically derive a more complex meaning from seeing the same writing a second, third, or fourth time than s/he did the first time around. Take a gander:

The sight made Zenobia sad, sad in a way that no sight had made her feel before. And that realization made her sad, too, because she realized that unless she could manage to change the course of history, she might well be the last human ever to see the sight at all.

Okay, okay, I get it: the lady’s sad, and she’s seeing something. But no matter how many times the narrative tells me Zenobia’s sad, I’m not going to understand her sadness better than I did the first time it used the word. And surely it’s not unreasonable for me as a reader to wonder what the heck she’s seeing — or to resent that the narrative keeps referring to a sight that it’s not showing me.

Seem like an extreme example? Perhaps this frequency of word repetition is on the high end, but you’d be amazed at how often manuscript submissions simply adapt few chosen words and phrases to many descriptive purposes. Verbs are particularly prone to this treatment.

The door was locked. That was unexpected, like the frustration downtown had been. He tried to break it down, but the door was too strong for him. Frustration made him grind his teeth.

He was down to his last idea. If he couldn’t get inside, or at least prove that he had tried, all of his plans would be down the drain. He would be broke. It was just like that time in Phoenix, when Ariadne had treated him like a dog.

If you don’t mind my asking, what does was convey to the reader the fourth time it appears that it didn’t in the first three iterations? Or, to stand the question on its head — a lot more interesting than any of the activity indicated by the verb choices here, I must say — what does this passage gain in either stylistic or in storytelling terms by recycling these words and phrases?

Come up with anything? I didn’t, either. But you’re starting to feel more sympathy for the conflict-describers’ supervisors, are you not, if not for Millicent, for having to read this kind of prose all the time?

I sense some furtive shifting in chairs out there. “But Anne,” those of you fond of word repetition protest, and well you should, “isn’t word choice a matter of style? Maybe the writer here reused things deliberately. The phrasing above might not be your cup of tea, or Millicent’s, but it is stylistically distinct. In fact, read out loud, it might even sound pretty cool.”

That, as you say, is a matter of opinion, but even if Millicent or I did think it sounded cool (and I don’t), the limited vocabulary and repetitive phrasing here carry distinct clarity costs. What, may I ask, happened downtown? Why was it frustrating, and what about it produced the same type of frustration as the current situation? For that matter, how is this situation like what occurred in Phoenix? While we’re asking, who is this trollop Ariadne, and in what way did her interactions with our hero resemble the manner in which she might hobnob with man’s best friend?

See the problem? Even if the manuscript prior to this point had simply throbbed with detail about that donnybrook downtown, conveyed a sterling sense of our hero’s door-battering capabilities, and devoted 70 pages to Ariadne’s emotionally questionable proclivities, the word choices here deprive the reader of a clear sense of what’s going on in this particular moment. Not all feelings of frustration are identical, so why present them as though they were? How does our hero attempt to breach the door, and how precisely did it resist him?

And don’t even get me started on how the inclusion of hackneyed phrases — down the drain, treated him like a dog — further obfuscate meaning. Yes, most of us will understand in general what these stock phrases mean, but it honestly isn’t the reader’s job to guess how these clich?d descriptions apply to this particular situation, is it?

Hadn’t thought of those phrases that way, had you? Most writers new to the game wouldn’t: if a phrase is in common use, they reason, it just sounds right. How else would someone put it?

That’s a dangerous question to tempt Millicent to consider, I’m afraid. “Well,” she is likely to snap, “a writer might want to phrase it in a more original fashion, just for the sake of style. While this one is at it, s/he might consider applying some thought to coming up with less expected ways to convey break it down and grind his teeth, too.”

You have a point there, Millie, and one that applies equally well to the workplace writing of our first examples and manuscripts intended for submission to agents and editors. Naturally, it’s important that writing sounds good to the writer, but that is not the only measure of whether a passage is well-written. It needs to sound good to the reader — and not just any reader, either. It must sound good to the reader in the writer’s chosen audience, the kind of reader who already reads books like the one the writer has produced.

Why? Because that’s the reader who will ultimately buy that writer’s work when it appears in print.

Millicent wants to help good writers reach that reader. So does her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor to whom he pitches manuscripts. Since agencies and publishing houses specialize in marketing to particular types of readers — thus book categories, right? — it’s a safe bet that all of these professional readers will be familiar with the kind of prose that’s currently selling well to your target audience.

That means, in practice, that they’re not just looking for generic good writing. They’re looking for what that audience will consider good writing.

Which, of course, will vary by book category. And if that doesn’t make you want to stop scrolling through this post, snatch up your hat, and race to the nearest well-stocked bookstore to check what kind of prose readers of books like yours are buying these days, well, you might want to reexamine your priorities.

I sense some purists gearing up to be huffy, do I not? “I’m appalled, Anne,” those who pride themselves on eschewing mere mercenary motives scold. “I thought we were talking about good writing here, not altering our artistic vision to conform to whatever bestseller happens to be dominating the literary market at the moment. I don’t want to sound identical the authors whose work happens to be selling well in my book category; my work is original.”

I applaud that — and it’s precisely my point. By definition, stock phrases, clich?s, and expected phrasing do not read on the page as the original phrasing of an exciting new voice; they’re generic. At submission time, that means that using them can never help a writer impress Millicent stylistically.

They’re a waste of page space, frankly. As your friend in the biz and sincere well-wisher, I would rather see you devote that space to what’s best about your writing: your individual vision, expressed as only you can describe it on the page, in a manner likely to appeal to your target readership.

No amount of one-size-fits-all writing advice is going to be able to tell you how to do that — and, frankly, that’s probably good news if you’re trying to develop your individual authorial voice. Generic style precepts that purport to be universally applicable presuppose a single notion of good writing. But you have too much respect for your intended reader than to buy into that oversimplified notion, don’t you?

Don’t squander your unique artistic vision by expressing it in vague terms or overused phrases. Trust me, your reader will want to gain a clearer sense of what you have in mind. Keep up the good work!