Contests, Part VII: Why standard format is your friend

Hello, campers —

All done digesting yesterday’s bitter pill about the realities of contest competition? Or are you still fighting the notion that something very, very tiny might have knocked your last contest entry out of finalist consideration? (Or have you not been following the last week and a half of blogs, my holiday present to my readers, on how to improve one’s odds in the contest game, and thus haven’t the vaguest notion what I’m going on about?) Well, keep those digestive juices flowing, because what I’m going to tell you today will cause you chagrin for about a month — and then save you massive amounts of writing grief for the rest of your natural life.

As I mentioned last week, contests that give entrants written feedback, regardless of where their entries place, can be a real boon for the aspiring writer. Sometimes, they give great advice — and actually, the cost of the average entry fee is not much more than a professional editor would charge to give feedback on the average-length entry. So if you get a conscientious editor, you can glean a great deal of practical advice.

If you get a grumpy judge, however, or one who disqualifies your entry on technical grounds, getting feedback can be a real ego-saver. If the judge missed the point of your piece (it’s been known to happen, alas; remember, until the final round of judging, the vast majority of readers are volunteers, and as such, their reading skills vary), it will be very, very apparent from his feedback. And if you got a judge who simply did not like the typeface you used (again, it has been known to happen), it is far more useful to you to learn for certain that the typeface — and not, say, the quality of your writing — scuttled your chances.

Okay, everyone, take a deep breath. Yes, I did just say that I have seen good writing disqualified for reasons as minor as typeface selection — and in contests where the entry requirements did not specify the use of a particular font. I have seen good writing tossed aside for reasons as arbitrary as the first-round judge not liking semicolons much. Basically, your entry needs to speak to readers with the broadest possible array of prejudices about what is and is not good writing. Effectively, your work is not just being read by the judges, but by the spectre of every writing teacher they have ever had.

What I’m trying to tell you here is that when you submit your work to be judged in a contest, you are expected to adhere to not only the contest requirements (see yesterday’s blog for guidance on that all-important insight) but also to the contest judges’ conception of how a professional manuscript should be presented. As a result, it is VERY much in your interest to make your entry look as close to a submission to a top-flight agent as the contest rules permit.

You should make sure, in short, that your work is in standard format.

I can hear my long-time readers groan: yes, I am harping on standard format AGAIN, and with good reason. As I mentioned last week, it adds significantly to the prestige of a contest if its winners go on to have their work published; to obtain this wholly delightful result, contest judges tend to screen entries not just for quality, but for marketability as well. So if your entry contains the type of non-standard formatting that the judge believes would cause the average agent or small-press editor to cast it aside, it’s not going to make it to the next round. (Particularly in those contests where final-round judging is performed by agents, editors, and/or celebrity writers; the screeners want a very clean set of manuscripts to send to them.)

Trust me on this one: the exact same entry, if you entered it once in standard formatting and once in more eccentric format, would almost invariably place at different levels in any writing competition held in North America. I have judged contests where formatting counted for as much as a quarter of the final score. If you are serious about making it to the finalist round, use standard format.

You can save yourself SIGNIFICANT bundles of time during contest entry season if you just go ahead and adhere to standard format from the first day you start working on a project, of course. Sending out queries will be swifter, and you will definitely be in better shape on that great day when an agent or editor asks to read your first 50 pages. Think of it as having your interview suit all pressed and ready, so you can leap into it the second you get the call from your dream job.

Here are the rules of standard format, tarted up a bit for contest use:

1) All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page.

No exceptions, unless the contest rules SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise.

2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Again, unless you are asked to do otherwise — and yes, this is wasteful of paper. Deal with it.

3) The text should be left justified ONLY.

A lot of writers squirm about this one. They want to believe that a professional manuscript looks exactly like a printed book, but the fact is, it shouldn’t. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along the margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

4) The typeface should be 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

Yes, these are plain, not-too-pretty fonts, but they are in fact the standards of the publishing industry. If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in the manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. That is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor. For the purposes of contest entries and queries, stick to looking like a professional.

If you write screenplays, you may only use Courier. Seriously, most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface — which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

5) 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.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions. You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it.

6) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.

Including Elvish. You don’t want your judge to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered.

This one is generally an automatic disqualification offense.

Each page should a standard slug line in the header, listing ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #. The safest place for this is left-justified, but you can get away with right-justifying it as well.

Yes, I know: this seems a trifle silly to do in a contest that threatens to disqualify you (as blind contests do) if you mention yourself by name. However, I have seen complaints about lack of a slug line so often in judges’ circles that I am going ahead and recommending its use.

However, this is one instance where contest standard is different from standard format. Standard format dictates a slug line that runs thus: AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #. So the third page of my memoir manuscript reads: MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3.

In contest format, however, the slug line would look like this: A FAMILY DARKLY/3

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

That’s twelve lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the first line of the first page, but then nothing should appear until a third of the way down the page.

10) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style will surely get your work knocked out of serious prize consideration.

11) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs.

This one is for all of you bloggers out there. The whole darned manuscript should be double-spaced. The only exception is that you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break.

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

13) 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, because you never know when a real stickler for format is going to end up as your contest judge.

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

Again, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy. But standard format is invariable upon this point. It’s a pain, true, but is it really worth annoying a judge over?

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

If you catch a judge under the age of 30, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it. Writers — yes, and publishing houses, too — have actually been sued over this.

There you have it. If you adhere to these standards in your contest entries (except, of course, where the contest rules specify otherwise), your work will sail past that scourge of entries everywhere, the hyper-nit-picky judge. A manuscript in standard format looks to the critical eye like a couple dressed in formal wear for a black-tie event: yes, it is possible that the hosts will be too nice to toss them out if they show up in a run-of-the-mill casual suits or jeans, but the properly-attired couple will be admitted happily. By dressing as the hosts wished, the couple is showing respect to the event and the people who asked them to attend.

Dress your work appropriately, and it will be a welcome guest in the finalist ring.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to more subtle ways to woo contest judges. In the meantime, keep up the good work, and avoid that nasty cold that’s going around!

– Anne Mini

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