Formatpalooza, part III: the necessities, or, how you would feel if you got locked in Millicent’s mailbag

restrooms & cemeteries

Ah, life’s quotidian necessities. If you look closely in the background, you’ll see that there’s also a liquor store. The wee tourist trap where I took this is a town of practical people, evidently.

I’ve got practicality on my mind today, campers — as should you, really. 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 practical 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.

Was that massive sound wave that just washed over my studio two-thirds of you suddenly crying, “Huh?”

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. Trust me, it’s a learned instinct that can save a writer oodles of time and misery come deadline time.

How, you ask? Well, to a writer for whom proper formatting has become automatic, there is no last-minute scramble to change the text. It came into the world correct — which, in turn, saves a writer revision time. Sometimes, those conserved minutes and hours can save the writer’s proverbial backside as well.

Scoff not: even a psychic with a very, very poor track record for predictions could tell you that if you are lucky enough to land an agent and get published, there will be times in your writing career when you don’t have the time to proofread as closely as you would like, much less check every page to make absolutely certain it looks right. Sometimes, the half an hour it would take to reformat a inconsistent manuscript can make the difference between making and missing a contest deadline.

Or between delighting or disappointing the agent or editor of your dreams currently drumming her fingers on her desk, waiting for you to deliver those minor requested revisions to Chapter 7. You know, that lighthearted little revision changing the protagonist’s sister Wendy to her brother Ted; 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!)

Or, for nonfiction writers, delivering the finished book you proposed by the date specified in your publishing contract. Trust me, at any of these junctures, the last thing you’ll want to have to worry about are consistent margins.

Perversely, this is a kind of stress that makes writers happy — perhaps not in the moment we are experiencing it, but on a career-long basis. The more successful you are as a writer — any kind of writer — the more often you will be in a hurry, predictably. No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

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, anyway?)

That’s the good news about how easily standard format sinks into one’s very bones; in practical terms, it honestly is easier than what many aspiring writers are already doing to their pages. The rise of the Internet has led to a proliferation of time-consuming rumors about secret handshake-type requirements for submissions. 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 real examples of writerly obsession, by the way. I wasn’t kidding about these rules saving you time in the long run.

The less-good news about standard format is that once someone — like, say, the average agent, editor, or Millicent — has spent enough time staring at professionally-formatted manuscripts, anything else starts to look, well, unprofessional.

The implications of this mindset are vast. First, as I mentioned yesterday, if an agent or editor requested pages, it would behoove you to send them in standard format, unless s/he specifically tells you otherwise. Ditto with contest entries: it’s just what those who read manuscripts professionally expect to see. It’s so much assumed that s/he probably won’t even mention it, because most agents and editors believe that these rules are already part of every serious book-writer’s MO.

So much so, in fact, that agents who’ve read my blog sometimes ask me why I go over these rules so often. Doesn’t everyone already know them? Isn’t this information already widely available? Aren’t there, you know, books on how to put a manuscript together?

I’ll leave those of you reading this post to answer those for yourselves. Suffice it to say that our old pal Millicent the agency screener believes the answers to be: because I like it, yes, yes, and yes.

Second, this mindset means that seemingly little choices like font and whether to use a doubled dash or an emdash — of which more below — can make a rather hefty difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript. (Yes, I know: I point this out with some frequency. However, as it still seems to come as a great surprise to the vast majority aspiring writers; I can only assume that my voice hasn’t been carrying very far the last 852 times I’ve said it.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but professional-level critique is HARSH; it’s like having your unmade-up face examined under a very, very bright light by someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings by pointing out flaws. In the industry, this level of scrutiny is not considered even remotely mean.

Actually, if your work generates tell-it-like-it-is feedback from a pro, you should be a bit flattered — it’s how they habitually treat professional authors. Yet the aforementioned vast majority of submitting writers seem to assume, at least implicitly, that agents and their staffs will be hugely sympathetic readers of their submissions, willing to overlook technical problems because of the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.

I’m not going to lie to you, though — every once in a very, very long while, the odd exception that justifies this belief does in fact occur. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, or the story is drool-worthy, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer.

You could also have a Horatio Alger moment where you find a billionaire’s wallet, return it to him still stuffed with thousand-dollar bills, and he adopts you as his new-found son or daughter. Anything is possible, of course.

But it’s probably prudent to assume, when your writing’s at stake, that yours is not going to be the one in 10,000,000 exception.

Virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to an improperly-formatted manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: speedy rejection. From a writerly point of view, this is indeed 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 using the skills that she did grant me, a childhood surrounded by professional writers and editors who made me learn to do it the right way the first time. 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 Formatpalooza thus 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 ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

(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. 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.

(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, with the chapter title appearing 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 clear on all that? If not, this would be a dandy time to pipe up with questions. 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 bring up 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 of typewriter. As you may have heard somewhere, however, MS Word, the standard word processing program of the 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?

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 wide-spread computer use. To set the nervous at ease, let’s 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 consistent.

After 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 have slightly different indentations, 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, 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 pretty much exactly 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.

Which brings me back to the no exceptions part: nothing you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format. To people in the publishing industry, it simply looks illiterate.

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 is likely to be?

Yes, what all of you newly well-lit souls are thinking right now is quite true: those submissions may well have been rejected at first glance by a Millicent in a bad mood. Heck, there are agencies where a manuscript that designates paragraphs by skipping a line between paragraphs rather than by indenting simply would not be read.

Yes, even if the writers submitted those manuscripts via e-mail. (See why I’m always harping on how submitting in hard copy, or at the very worst as a Word attachment, is inherently better for a submitter?) And that’s a kinder response than Mehitabel the veteran contest judge would have had: she would have looked at a block-formatted first page and sighed, “Well, that’s one that can’t make the finals.”

Why the knee-jerk response? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large, the people who have devoted themselves to bringing good writing to publications still tend to take it awfully darned seriously. To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence — and that’s definitely not good.

Why, you ask? Well, do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder about your literacy?

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?

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.

Including the first paragraph of every chapter, incidentally. Yes, Virginia, published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. But again, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying it in a submission, no matter to whom it is intended as an homage, might get your work knocked out of consideration.

Speaking of problems adhering to business format might cause…

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

I’m serious about that being the only exception: skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text, and for no other reason.

Really, this guideline is just common sense — so it’s a continual surprise to professional readers how often we see manuscripts that are single-spaced with a line skipped between paragraphs. (Again, much like blog format, seen here in all of its glory. The blogging program makes me do it, Millicent, I swear.)

Why surprising? Well, 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.) In a double-spaced document, a skipped line means a section break, period.

Also — and this is far from insignificant, from a professional reader’s point of view — it’s practically impossible to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on 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!

So 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.

But — feel free to shout it along with me now; you know the words — a professional book manuscript or proposal is not, nor should it be, formatted like any published piece of writing. Manuscripts should not resemble books.

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?”

I wouldn’t advise including these throwbacks to the age of typewriters — the * * * section break is no longer necessary in a submission to an agency or publishing house, nor is the #. So 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, it’s safe to assume that professional readers won’t expect to see them in a book manuscript or proposal.

Why were these symbols ever used at all? To alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional.

That being said, although most Millicents will roll their eyes upon seeing one of these old-fashioned symbols, they tend not to take too much umbrage at it, because the # is in fact proper for short story format. A writer can usually get away with including them. However, since every agent I know makes old-fashioned writers take these markers out of book manuscripts prior to submission, it’s going to save you time in the long run to get into the habit of trusting the reader to understand what a skipped line means.

(To be fair, I know a grand total of one agent who allows his clients to use short-story formatting in book manuscripts. But only if they write literary fiction and have a long resume of short story publications. He is more than capable of conveying this preference to his clients, however.)

One caveat to contest-entrants: do check contest rules carefully, because some competitions still require * or #. You’d be amazed at how seldom many long-running literary contests update their rules.

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

Professional readers are perpetually amazed at how often otherwise perfectly-formatted manuscripts get this rule backwards — seriously, it’s a common topic of conversation at the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. (You already knew that the conference center’s bar is the single best place to meet most of the agents, editors, and authors presenting at the average writers’ conference, didn’t you?) According to this informal and often not entirely sober polling data, an aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.

Again, since your future agent is going to make you change all of that underlining to italics anyway, you might as well get out of the habit of underlining now. Like, say, before submitting your manuscript — because if Millicent happens to be having a bad day (again, what’s the probability?) when she happens upon underlining in a submission, she is very, very likely to roll her eyes and think, “Oh, God, not another one.”

Fair warning: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline the words and phrases mentioned above. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. 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.

DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards. And 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.

So DO NOT BE TEMPTED. In a submission for the book industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Ever.

Are all those capital letters conveying my ABSOLUTE SINCERITY about the importance of your NEVER doing this? I hope so: violations of this particular rule are rejection-triggers more often than not.

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.

But that little history lesson didn’t really set your mind at ease about italics, did it? Calm down: the rules governing their use are not at all complicated.

(a) The logic behind italicizing foreign words is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(b) The logic behind using italics for emphasis, as we’ve all seen a million times in print, is even more straightforward: writers 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. Before you make the choice, do be aware that many agents and editors actively dislike this practice. Their logic, as I understand it: 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. There are, however, many other agents and editors who think it is perfectly fine — but you are unlikely to learn which is which until after you have sent in your manuscript, alas.

Which means — again, alas — there is no fail-safe for this choice. Sorry. You submit your work, you take your chances.

I have a few more rules to cover, but this seems like a dandy place to break for the day. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble picturing what all of this might look like on the page: next week, I’m going to be showing you so many images of actual manuscript pages that you’re going to feel as if you’d gotten locked inside Millicent’s mailbag.

Hey, our intent is practical here. Keep up the good work!

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