Standard format for manuscripts

In keeping with my recent spate of passing along unpleasant truths and as I promised a few days ago — because yours truly is nothing if not a faithful keeper of promises, a trait that agents and editors tend to appreciate — I am coming back to the topic of standard manuscript format. I am going to harp upon this topic a bit, because it touches on an all-too-frequently misunderstood matter that affects the professional presentation prospects of non-fiction and fiction writers both. In fact, the misconceptions on this point run so deep that professional editors and the better-informed members of writing groups are often told quite huffily that they are wrong on the subject.

A manuscript, dearly beloved, is NOT an exact replica of a published book. It differs in many small, important ways — and to editorial eyes, these difference are screaming fire sirens about the experience level of the author.

A manuscript that apes the conventions of published books does not, contrary to popular belief, make the author look more professional, at least not to truly professional eyes. Instead, to an agent or editor, those very ostensibly expert touches brand a manuscript irrevocably as the work of an amateur.

Harsh? You bet, especially given that by definition, all first-time authors are amateurs. Yet in an environment where agents and editors receive 500 or more unsolicited submissions per week, being able to weed out the less experienced authors who do not adhere to standard format speeds up going through the mail considerably. Look on the bright side: if your manuscript is in standard format, it has already cleared the most pervasive hurdle on the way to publication.

To be absolutely honest, most of the conventions of standard format are seriously outdated. For instance, in standard format, all numbers under 100 are written out in full. The original reason for this was simple: to prevent the typesetter from making a mistake; in longhand, a 3 can look a great deal like an 8, but a three is pretty hard to mistake for an eight. Similarly, all dashes in manuscripts should be doubled, to prevent the typesetter from mistaking them for hyphens. Now that manuscripts are transmitted whole and entire via computer program, the risk of this type of mistake is significantly lower, yet the traditions of standard format remain intact.

I find it helps to think of the rigors of standard format as the manners of the publishing world. You would not stumble into a group of foreigners whom you wanted to impress and deliberately hurt their sensibilities by refusing to comply with their rituals, would you? If you met the Queen of England, would you seize the opportunity to insult her taste in hats, or would you curtsey and murmur a few polite words, like everyone else in the receiving line?

I imagine that your mother would like think that she brought you up well enough to choose the latter. Pet the corgis, and get out of the palace with your head on straight.

Agents and editors may not have the power to chop off your head if you displease them, but they do have the authority to pronounce your manuscript dead on arrival. So the prudent course for those new to the publishing world is to learn its manners and traditions. Honoring these traditions may not guarantee your work a sympathetic reading – but on a bad day, when an agent is trying to plow through her seventieth submission in an hour, you bet your boots that deviations from standard format provide an easy excuse to toss that manuscript aside and move onto the next.

Sorry, I don’t make the rules. But here they are:

All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page. No exceptions.

All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Yes, this is wasteful of paper. Deal with it.

The text should be left justified ONLY.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along the margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

The typeface should be 12-point, preferably in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. (If you write screenplays, you may only use Courier.)

There is a very good reason for utilizing a standardized font: in Times or Times New Roman, one double-spaced page is 250 words, rendering word count estimation easy.

No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the entire manuscript in the same font and typeface.

Even if the manuscript features an extensive correspondence in translated Elvish. If it’s in English, it should be in a standard typeface.

Words in foreign languages should be italicized.

Every page in the manuscript should be numbered.

Each page contains a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #.

Thus the third page of my memoir manuscript reads: MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3.

The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally.

The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s. Even if every chapter ever printed by your favorite author has used this device, you will not be in a position to explain that to an agent or editor until after he has already noted that your work is not professionally presented.

All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.

Dashes should be doubled -— hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, I know that your word processing program will automatically change a doubled dash to a single one. Change it back.

Dashes should have spaces at each end —- rather than—like this.

Yes, yes, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy. But standard format is invariable upon this point.

The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™.

Yes, I know you’ve never seen this in a finished book – that’s because the legal department at some publishing house has meticulously gone through the text of those books with a fine-toothed comb, finding brand names so they can obtain permission from their owners to use them. Save the legal department some time: flag the words.

I can’t tell you how many editing clients and writing friends have fought me on these issues, and I must say, I think they have a point. Since publishing contracts specify that the author must provide the editor with an electronic copy of the text, why are we still writing out numbers so that the crusty old typesetter won’t accidentally misread the number?

Beats me. But we all have to do it, and it will save you time in the long run if you simply incorporate standard formatting from the first instant you sit down to write.

Again, this is yet another of those areas where you can beat yourself bloody, railing against an illogical system, or you can just accept the status quo. I vote for the latter. This is an industry that changes only very, very slowly: believe it or not, most NYC literary agencies still don’t even have an on-site computer wizard. It is not uncommon for e-mail attachments, the transition between Mac and PC, and the linked documents to appear as big, ugly mysteries to people who are otherwise very, very savvy. A polite person, a prudent person, a person who wants these people to like her and her work, will not rub their noses in the fact that you probably know more about computers than they do.

Trust me on this one: it’s a paper-based industry, and one that likes to see new authors respect its traditions. Flow with it.

I’m just the messenger, signing off now, urging you to keep up the good work!

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