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!

It’s all a matter of perspective, or, let’s move the piano over here. Wait — how would it look over there? And other tales of title page formatting.

sagrada familia ceiling3

If you’ve been hearing the Muses tap-dancing on the floor of heaven today, I think I know why: at long last, Author! Author!’s epic behind-the-scenes site upgrade has officially drawn to a close. It’s still going to take me a while to go back through the literally thousands of pages of archival posts, making sure that they’re taking kindly to all of the new bells and whistles, but in theory, the bulk of my blogging time will no longer be sacrificed on the altar of the Internet Deity.

Who, I gather, does not hobnob much with the Muses. If s/he did — hey, who am I to impose gender norms on higher beings? — all of the formerly fuzzy page shots would have magically clarified themselves in the course of this upgrade. Please bear with me while I painstakingly go back and refocus ‘em.

In the meantime, let’s get back to the matter at hand: the proper formatting of book manuscripts. As Odysseus no doubt said to his sailors and soldiers on the way home from the Trojan War, I know that it feels as though we’ve been on this journey forever, but it can’t be much farther now.

But hark! Do I hear some discontented murmuring amongst aesthetes out there in the ether? “But Anne,” visually-oriented aspiring writers murmur under their breath, so as not to attract the wrath of their nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, “my objection is not so much to the sheer length of time we’ve spent going over the strictures of standard format for book manuscripts — not to be confused with the formatting norms for short stories, magazine articles, screenplays, or any other kind of writing intended for professional submission — but to what I feel these rules are doing to my personal style. The pages look so plain! These rules are stepping all over my right to creative expression.

“So I’m asking you as a friend, Anne: if I believe my writing looks best in a special font like Abadi MT Condensed Extra Bold, and it’s how I want my words to look in the published book, why shouldn’t I run with it in a submission? Surely, Millicent can look past a little originality of presentation while she is seeking originality in writing.”

That’s a good question, murmuring aesthetes. The short answer: because Millicent will take your writing more seriously if you format it as she expects to see it — that is, the way that professional book manuscripts are formatted.

And why might she respond better to that than a more creatively-presented set of pages, murmurers? Is it time to trot out the broken record again?

broken-record3 A manuscript should not resemble a published book in many important respects. Therefore, formatting a submission to reflect one’s publication preferences on matters like font (which is the publishing house’s decision, anyway, not the author’s) will not strike the pros as a creative choice, but a reflection of a misunderstanding of how publishing works — and an indication that the writer has not yet taken the time to learn the rules of submission.

What’s that you’re murmuring now? That this is a pretty sweeping set of conclusions to draw from something as simple as font choice or a title page graced with a photograph? Perhaps, but to someone who deals with manuscripts and/or book proposals all day, every day, for years on end, it’s not all that far-fetched. After all, it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of your dreams, would ever consider submitting your manuscript to an editor at a publishing house in anything but standard format; it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

An editor would be too busy staring at that remarkable font choice or non-standard indentation to pay close attention to what’s dearest to any writer’s heart, the actual writing. So in practice, discontented murmurers, presenting your original writing in standard format is more conducive to getting your creative expression into print, not less.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? That’s because you’ve been looking at the page like a writer, rather than an agent, editor, contest judge, or the Millicent lucky enough to screen submissions for any of the above. It’s all a matter of perspective. As international relations professors like to say early and often, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Don’t see why perception of writing talent, like beauty, might lie partially in the eye of the beholder? Okay, tell me: did I take the photograph gracing the top of this post while looking down into an abyss, sideways into an alcove, or up at an impossibly high ceiling?

Out of context, it’s hard to tell which way is up, isn’t it? (But here’s a hint: the purple stuff is flying dust.) Without some orienting landmarks, it’s difficult even to know for sure what you’re looking at, or from what direction.

That’s more or less the same problem the average aspiring writer faces when looking at her own first manuscript or book proposal with an eye to figuring out whether it is formatted correctly. Let’s face it, very, very few as-yet-to-be-published writers have ever seen a professional manuscript up close and personal; still fewer have had the opportunity to glance through a professional book proposal.

Oh, there’s plenty of advice out there on how it should be done, of course, but as many of you have no doubt noted with chagrin, sources differ. And surprisingly often, the sources most inclined to tell aspiring writers that they have no hope in Hades of landing an agent if their manuscripts don’t contain Feature X (because Millicents have, presumably, been trained to reject X-less manuscripts on sight, then rush to a national blackballing database, to urge every other agency in the country not even to open that writer’s queries) or if they do contain Feature Y (because not only is Y hopelessly old-fashioned, but spotting even a single instance of it will provoke gales of laughter from Millicent) do not pause in their warning spates long enough to explain why X is desirable in a submission or Y is not.

Heck, most sets of rules don’t even specify to which kind of manuscript they’re supposed to be applied. No wonder so many aspiring writers labor under the false impression that all writing, anywhere, anytime, should be formatted identically, upon pain of instant rejection. Or, like our murmurers above, just assume that the welter of conflicting guidelines must indicate that Millicent is serious about only the elements common to most sets of rules. Like our murmurers above, they presume that as long as a manuscript is double-spaced and in 12-point type, anything goes.

As you may perhaps have gathered from my many years of revisiting this topic, I have nothing but sympathy for writers at both ends of the spectrum. How on earth is someone new to the game supposed to figure out which end of the manuscript is up, figuratively speaking?

The trick lies in remembering that the principles governing manuscript formatting are based upon practical and historical considerations, not purely aesthetic ones. Shall we wind up that Victrola again?

broken-recordA manuscript is designed to be easy for the intended audience to read, not for the writer to produce. Thus, while two-inch margins and a cursive typeface may strike a writer as the perfect expressive extension of the spirit of his novel, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, they’re just puzzling. And, frankly, distracting from the writing.

What looks right in a manuscript, in other words, depends upon the perspective of the person reading it. From where Millicent is sitting, non-standard formatting makes it harder for her to pay attention to the writing. Obviously, she reasons, a writer who presents his work in 14-point type or with half-inch margins, is either unaware that these choices are eye-distracting. So rather than impressing her with his creativity, he simply seems out of touch with how publishing works.

And why might Millicent’s drawing that conclusion from her first glance at page 1 prove problematic for the submission, campers? Out comes the broken record:

broken-record4 Because professional manuscripts and book proposals are always present in the same way, Millicent knows that her boss, the agent of your dreams, would have a hard time convincing an editor at a major publishing house to read even the first page of an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript. She also knows that taking on a manuscript by a writer unaware of that will be more time-consuming to represent than one already familiar with how submissions to publishers work.

That means, unfortunately for lovers of wacky typefaces everywhere, that a choice as small as a typeface can make an astonishingly great difference to how professional your work looks to the pros. That comes as something of a surprise to most aspiring writers — who, not entirely surprisingly, tend to regard that particular decision as a purely aesthetic one. “Why,” they ask, and not unreasonably, “should it matter? Good writing’s good writing, isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, good writing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. No, insofar as good writing tends to have less impact on the average Millicent when it’s presented in an unusual typeface.

To see why, let’s once again start at the top of the submission packet, taking a gander at the same title page in three different typefaces. Here it is in 12-point Times New Roman, one of the two preferred typefaces:

Title page 1

That’s what anyone sitting in Millicent’s seat would expect to see — and before we move on, would you join me in tap-dancing with the Muses over how much crisper that image is than any of the page shots I’ve been able to post within recent memory? Nearly brings a tear to the eye, that does. Should your emotional intensity be interfering with your ability to spot the small details, try holding down the Command key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Now that we have it in focus, let’s look at precisely the same information, presented in another font. Let’s assuming that Aunt Jane had favored 12-point Helvetica so strongly that she just couldn’t resist submitting in it:

Title page 2

The letters in this version are quite a bit bigger than in the first, aren’t they? Not enough so to appear to be rendered in, say, 14-point font, but large enough to make Millicent wonder whether the word count is accurate. (Estimated word count does, after all, vary by typeface: Times New Roman is estimated at 250 words/page, Courier at 200. More on that below.)

Honestly, do you want her speculating about your credibility before reading the first page of your manuscript? Now that we have seated ourselves firmly in Millicent’s office chair, we can see that Aunt Jane’s choice of Helvetica, while not a deal-breaker, does not necessarily present her manuscript to its best advantage. Even before the text starts, it’s distracting.

Does that increased volume of disgruntled ethereal muttering mean some of you are longing to see a typeface that would be a deal-breaker for Millicent? Happy to oblige. Very few of us who read for a living would be even vaguely tempted to turn the page and start reading this one.

Title page 3

Can’t really blame Millicent for regarding the entire manuscript with a jaundiced eye, can we? Despite containing all of the information that a title page should include — in the right places and in the right order, no less — this page simply screams that Aunt Jane has not thought about her future agent’s ease or comfort in reading. Clearly, she was so intent upon expressing herself via font that she neglected to consider the preferences of someone who might conceivably want to judge her writing.

Still resisting the concept? Okay, slip back into Millicent’s moccasins for a second, pretend you’ve been screening submissions for the last seven hours, and feast your eyes on this:

Title page 4

Ah, that one caught some of you originality-huggers by surprise, didn’t it? “But Anne,” those who want to stand out from the crowd protest, “I’ve been submitting my writing on slightly tinted paper for years. White is just so boring, and besides, everybody uses it. I’m merely being strategic: if every other submission Millie sees today is white, mine will automatically catch her eye, right?”

Well, yes, but not for the right reasons — and not in a manner even remotely likely to convince her that this submission, out of the hundreds she will be perusing this week, is the one that will wow her boss. Yes, regardless of how good the writing might be.

Why? Look for yourself: could the agent possibly submit this manuscript to a publishing house in this typeface and on this oddly-colored paper? Would it stand a fighting chance if she did?

And if it doesn’t, does presenting the manuscript in this manner make sense at any stage of submission?

The answers to all three of those questions is a resounding “By Jove, no!” And that’s sad, considering that the book this title page covers is, lest we forget, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. The moral, should you care to know it:

broken-record7Even the best writing can be placed at a competitive disadvantage by unprofessional presentation. Standard format is the good writer’s friend, not her enemy.

Is all of that ambient clanking is a thousand writers’ hackles being raised? “But Anne,” outraged voices thunder, “aren’t you making Millicent out to be pretty darned shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their blogs about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they often disclaim the notion with scorn. I’ve even heard a few of them say that they don’t care about issues like typeface, spaces after periods and colons, or where the chapter title lies — and that strikes me as significant, as I’ve never, ever heard one say it was okay to let a query letter run longer than a single page. Isn’t it the writing all that matters in a submission, ultimately?”?

Again, yes and no, hackle-raisers. Yes, the writing matters — and no, it’s not all that matters.

Naturally, the writing matters most in a submission, with freshness, audience-appropriateness, marketability, and fit with the agent or editor reading it jostling for second place. Equally naturally, and something that I often point out, individual agents, editors, and even contest judges harbor individual preferences as well and have been known to express them at conferences. Or on their blogs, Twitter feeds, and over drinks at that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any literary conference in North America.

One person’s pet peeve, however, may not be another’s. Since few aspiring writers have access to the industry-specific information required to find out the preferences of every agent to whom they are submitting, adhering to standard format minimizes the probability of running afoul of unknown annoyance-triggers.

Then, too, adopting the norms of standard format and clinging to them like an unusually tenacious leech will also help you preserve your sanity throughout the often-protracted submission process, for the reason I mentioned in passing above — have you seen how many conflicting sets of ostensibly authoritative manuscript formatting rules are floating around out there?

Honestly, trying to apply every single one of the expressed opinions to your manuscript will drive you 100% nuts. Don’t even try. However, because personal (and genre) preferences do exist, it’s always worth a submitter’s time to double-check an agency or small publishing house’s submission guidelines, just in case they call for something wacky. That’s worth throwing another record on the machine, surely.

broken-record2If an agent or editor to whom you are submitting asks for something different, for heaven’s sake, give it to her. If, as is almost always the case, the guidelines don’t specify, keep the presentation unprovocative and professional so that your writing may shine without visual competition.

In other words, it’s only prudent to adhere to the strictures of standard format, rather than assuming, as so many aspiring writers do to their cost, that the writing is the only thing that matters.

Remember, where you stand depends on where you sit. It’s a matter of perspective. And from both Millicent and the aspiring writer’s perspective, taking the time to present writing professionally is genuinely worth it.

Admittedly, one does hear of the mythical isolated case of a kind, literature-loving agent has looked past bizarre formatting in order to see a potential client’s, well, potential. One also hears of isolated cases where a manuscript rife with spelling and grammatical errors gets picked up, or one that has relatively little chance of selling well in the current market being recognized for the work of genius it is and swept to bestsellerdom. The age of miracles has not entirely passed, apparently.

Have you ever noticed, though, how seldom a specific book title comes attached to those stories? Or, when they do, it turns out on closer examination that the writer in question roomed in college with a major agent, or is married to a senior editor at a large publishing house, or used to be a Monkee? If one happens to fall into such a category, one might well encounter an unusual leniency. Ditto if one happens already to be a household name.

Before anyone raises his hand, though, we’ve all heard offbeat How I Got Discovered Stories at conferences. But — and this is a BIG but — these cases get talked about because they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. (They also tend to have happened before the mid-1980s; agents used to take chances on long shots more often.) 9,999 times out of 10,000, though, a submission’s tumbling into any of the pitfalls we’ve been discussing will result in, if not instantaneous rejection, then rejection upon Millicent’s lighting upon the next problem in the manuscript.

Those pesky hackles are clacking again, aren’t they? “Okay,” the hackled concede, “I can understand how Millicent would be tempted to skip reading submissions presented like the last two examples, where she’s likely to strain her eyes. But if presentation is so darned important, why don’t aspiring writers hear about it more often at conferences, in articles about submission, or even just in discussions amongst ourselves?”

Excellent question, h-raisers. I can’t say for sure, of course, but it wouldn’t be going out too far on an interpretive limb to speculate that a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect might be slightly reluctant to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me, okay?” Having once seen a well-meaning agent tell an indignant crowd that he only took query letters seriously if they came from writers he met at conferences (yes, really; there were many, many witnesses), I can tell you precisely what would happen if some honest soul did take this astounding step: instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE; HE’S MEAN.

Which would rather defeat the agent’s purpose in coming to the conference to recruit new clients, would it not?

As a veteran teaches of writing and formatting classes, I can think of another reason that a speaker might want to be careful about such pronouncements: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything she says about submissions is likely to be repeated with the ?clat of a proverb, to borrow a phrase from Aunt Jane, for years to come amongst the writing community.

You might be surprised how often it happens. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, particularly if those comments happen to relate to the cosmetic aspects of querying and submission. 5-4 Supreme Court decisions are routinely discussed with less vim and vitriol. Some particularly vehement agents’ pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that last is a slight exaggeration. My point, should you be interested, is that the very notion of from-the-horse’s-mouth rightness carries such a luster that such speakers are constantly in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I must admit, I occasionally experience qualms about presenting the rules of standard format here at all. On the pro-regulation side, we are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical. (Yes, really.) On the con side, literally nothing else I talk about here consistently raises as much writerly ire.

The very topic of manuscript presentation seems to be emotionally trying for a lot of writers — disproportionately so, from where Millicent is sitting. Tell an aspiring writer that his dialogue is turgid, or his pacing drags, or he’s left a necessary section out of his book proposal, and most of the time, he’ll be at least curious about why you think so. (If a bit defensive.) If you tell him that his protagonist’s sister is Ruth for the first 72 pages, and Ren?e thereafter, he might actually thank you.

Yet suggest to the same writer that he might be better off reformatting his manuscript to include such niceties as paragraph indentation or moving his page number to the slug line, and a good quarter of the time, he’ll look at you as though you’d just kicked his grandmother. Thrice.

Go figure, eh?

Presentation issues definitely do matter. Which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and again, this is a BIG but — as we’ve discussed, rejection decisions are more often than not made on page 1 of a submission. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. If a manuscript is hard to read due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, Millicent may just pass on reading it at all.

While these phenomena are, in fact, quite widely recognized as true, the person who announced them this baldly from the dais at a literary conference would swiftly find herself covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat. Metaphorically, at least. Which is why I’m going to keep saying it until I’m blue in the face and you die of boredom:

broken-record-150x150From the perspective of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it more likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

They can’t fall in love with your good writing until they read it, can they? So don’t you want to do everything within your power to convince them that your manuscript is the one that deserves more than a cursory glance?

Of course you do. Instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

“Okay, Anne,” lovers of Bauhaus 93 sigh. “What fonts would be the least, you know, Millicent-provoking for me to use?”

I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, both on the title page and in the manuscript. These are the standards of the industry, and thus the least likely to raise Millicent’s ever-knitted eyebrows. Like other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: from where she is sitting, word count estimation is always predicated upon one of these typefaces.

Why is the question of estimating relevant on a title page? Again, we must look to Millicent’s perspective: unlike word counts in articles or short stories, word counts in book manuscripts are generally estimated, not based upon the actual number of words. For short stories and articles, use the actual total.

Was that giant gust of wind that just knocked my desk over your collective gasp of astonishment? I’m not entirely surprised; a lot of aspiring writers are confused on this point. “But Anne,” they shout, and who can blame them? “My Word program will simply tell me how many words there are in the document. Since it’s so easy to be entirely accurate, why shouldn’t I be as specific as possible? Or, to put it another way, why would an agent or editor ask for the word count, then expect me to guess?”

Would you fling something at me if I said once again that this is a matter of perspective? From Millicent’s seat, the answer is pretty obvious: industry practices dictate how manuscripts are handled, not the whims of the fine folks at Microsoft. The Microsofties I know are sterling human beings to a man, but they’re hardly experts on the publishing industry’s requirements.

And really, why should they be? Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, just because Word is set up to allow certain things — giving you an exact word count, for instance, or access to 147 different fonts — doesn’t mean that the publishing industry wants writers to do things that way. (And if you doubt that, consider the doubled dash vs. the automatic emdash Word favors.) Word processing programs came into use long, long after standard format for manuscripts, after all; why should agents, editors, and Millicents allow computer programmers to dictate what strikes them as professional?

Perspective, people: which makes more sense, assuming that the word count on your title page will be read by Millicent — or Bill Gates?

I cannot, naturally, speak to Mssr. Gates’ views on the subject, but here is why Millicent would care on the estimation front. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is estimated to be roughly 100,000 words if it’s in Times — something Millicent should be able to tell as soon as she claps eyes on the submission’s title page, right? — and 80,000 if it’s in Courier.

Wondering why anyone would estimate at all? Since word length vary, and because manuscripts shrink around 2/3rds in the transition to published book, the number of pages is actually a better measure of how much it will cost to print and bound the thing. So if your title page says that your baby is 86,250 words and it’s in Times New Roman, a pro will just assume that it’s 345 pages (345 x 250= 86,250) rather than flipping to the bottom of the stack of papers to check. If it’s in Courier, she would conclude that it is 431 pages — and that your math skills are not particularly good.

Now, in the world as we know it, a 400-page manuscript in TNR is usually closer to 115,000 words than 100,000; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program so kindly provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400-page novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject, either (as one might expect, the inmates of agencies tend overwhelmingly to have been English majors), but she can do third-grade multiplication in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript. That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be these days; at around 450 pages, binding costs rise significantly.

In other words: next!

Boy, those hackles are getting a workout today. “But Anne, why would Millicent want to estimate at all when she has a submission in front of her? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number?”

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture. She has a hard job, truly. In practice, the answer is far less personal than practical: because the word count is right there on the title page.

Tell me, hackle-raisers: why should she doubt its accuracy? Unless, say, the title page were in a non-standard typeface like Helvetica, she’s going to assume that an aspiring writer familiar enough with standard format to include the word count on the title page would also know how to estimate it accurately.

I know, I know: from a writer’s perspective, that’s kind of a wacky assumption. But her chair boasts a different view than ours. Besides, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50, without resorting to some pretty impressive maneuvering through time and space?

I’m aware that I’m running long today, but in the interest of clarity, let’s invest another few minutes in turning to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman. Just for giggles, I’m going to use that notorious editorial nightmare, the opening paragraphs of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

2 cities good

Now let’s take a peek at the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:

2 courier

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Just kidding — you want to see why it’s a good idea, don’t you? Okay, take a gander at the same first page, not in standard manuscript format. See how many differences you can spot:

example for spotting

Fascinating how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? As with our earlier title page examples, it’s exactly the same writing, but it just doesn’t look as professional. To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the last three examples could not be clearer.

And yet, if we’re going to be honest about it, there were really very few deviations from standard format in the last example. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

In all probability, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format would strike our Millie as serious enough to cause her to toss a submission aside as soon as she noticed them. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long opening sentence ol’ Charles managed to cough up — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

broken-record-150x150It’s never in your best interest as a writer to tempt a professional reader to draw the wrong conclusion about your devotion to your craft. Remember, where a manuscript stands depends upon where the reader sits.

Before any hackles start racing skyward again, I hasten to add: where the submitting writer sits often makes a difference to a reader’s perception, too. Her reception of that last example is very likely to be different before Dickens became a household name or after. Once he was established, he could get away with more.

Unless you happen already to be famous, though, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk. (And if you do happen to be famous, could I interest you in writing a back jacket blurb?)

In fairness to Millicent, it’s highly unlikely that it would even occur to an established Charles to deviate this markedly from standard format. Experience working with an agent or editor would discourage it. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

Come to think of it, that sense of fitness may well be the reason that discussions of formatting tend to become so vitriol-stained. We all like to be right, and propriety is in the eye of the beholder. After all, each of us is most familiar with the view from her own chair.

Pulling back from one’s own perspective can be most helpful. There’s a reason that it’s called the bigger picture, people.

In that spirit, let’s take a longer view of our original photo, to situate ourselves:

sagrada familia ceiling

Substantially simpler to tell up from down now, isn’t it? Taking a broader perspective, you can see that the green light on the left is coming from a stained-glass window; on the left, there’s a decorative support beam. From the myopic tight shot, it was far less obvious that this was a cathedral.

Making sure your writing is framed properly can have a similar effect. Keep up the good work!