The slugs of the Pacific Northwest

Continuing my series of responses to terrific questions posted by readers (and don’t worry, Colleen: I have not forgotten your excellent query. I am in the midst of trying to blandish one of several award-winning poets I know into answering it.), apparently I was not as clear about the slug line as I wanted to be. So today, I am going to clarify.

In case you don’t know, a slug line is the repetition of the author’s last name, title, and page number in the upper-left hand corner of each page of a manuscript. In general, it looks like this:


Usually, it is all in caps, but not everyone does it that way. I notice, for instance, that in my memoir manuscript, mine is in title case, for some reason that no doubt seemed good to me at the time that I first formatted the work. Thus, page 15 contains:

Mini/A Family Darkly/15

If your title is especially long (technically, mine is A Family Darkly: Love, Loss, and the Final Passions of Philip K. Dick), you may use a condensed version, but avoid actual abbreviations. FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE, for instance, could be listed in the slug line as


but not as


For a contest that insists, as most do, that the author’s name appear nowhere in the manuscript, the slug line should be modified thus:


Pretty much any word processing program will allow you to insert a changing page number, of course. In my version of Word, it’s just a matter of clicking on the # icon on the HEADER/FOOTER ruler.

The slug line is not merely another of those cosmetic touches that tells a professional reader whether a writer is industry-savvy or not — although leaving out the slug line does advertise that the writer has never worked with an agent. It is there for a very practical reason: a LOT of paper passes through the average agency or publishing house.

Manuscripts often get passed from hand to hand within agencies AND within publishing houses. Since manuscripts are never bound (unless a contest asks it to be), it is not unheard-of for pages to go astray. (This is also true of book proposals, incidentally, where the marketing department might get one section and the editor another, so it’s a good idea to include a slug line on every page of a book proposal, too.) Having every page labeled minimizes the possibility of pages remaining missing for long — or getting thrown away because no one knows where they belong.

(To answer the question your mind just howled: yes, it happens; stray papers get tossed all the time.)

Some authors I know like to make themselves hyper-contactable, so they include contact information in the slug line, too:

Author/Title/e-mail address or phone #/page #

I don’t do this, personally, because I think it encourages engaging in paranoid fantasies about what could possibly happen to my manuscripts when they are out of my hands. It’s easy to get carried away, once you admit the possibility: an agent’s picks up a single page of a submissions, walks around with it for awhile, realizes it is brilliant, runs back to her assistant’s desk to grab the rest of that sterling manuscript — only to find that the assistant has already sent it back to the author. Since, contrary to writers’ conference gossip, agencies do NOT keep very good logs about who has submitted what when (they get FAR too many to do that anymore), it would not, in this fantasy, be possible for the agent to contact the author of the single brilliant page — alas…

If you go the additional information route, please do not get carried away. There is no need to include your entire mailing address, middle initial, subtitle of the book, or any other tidbits you might want your readers to know. Remember, contact information in a slug line is for use in a case of last resort, when an agent has lost your title page AND cover letter.

Whatever you do, keep it to a single line. I once knew a very good writer who made the unfortunate choice to produce slug lines like this (names and titles changed to protect the guilty):

Widbey/The Coming Storm

Page 3

He thought it looked elegant, and after all, when it was single-spaced, there was more than enough room for it in the header. Actually, it did look kind of cool. And when he did finally land an agent (after two years when I, at least, wondered if his manuscripts were getting rejected because they looked unprofessional), she lectured him for fifteen minutes about how stupid his slug lines were. He reverted to standard slug lines thereafter.

Yes, people in the industry really do care that much about standardization.

What confuses some aspiring writers about the slug line is the fact that it is located IN the upper left margin of the manuscript — that’s right, floating in that inviolate one-inch space running all around the page, that part that’s supposed to remain white. So the first time that you put a slug line there, it can feel a trifle naughty, as though you are violating the rules.

Actually, even in contests, manuscript readers expect the slug line to be there — so much so, that contest rules very seldom even mention it as an exception to the top margin measurements. So you don’t need to worry about your entries being disqualified for margin violations.

Since most of us now use computers to produce our manuscripts, inserting the slug line could not be easier, but just in case some of you out there are reading this via your local library’s net browser, let me tell you how to do it on a typewriter. Go down one double-spaced line from the top of the page (which logically makes it two lines down, doesn’t it), then type the slug line. Then hit the carriage return to get yourself down the required inch, and start your text.

While, as I demonstrated yesterday, advancing technological choices have not always been the author’s friend (what’s the point of HAVING all of those other fonts if we can’t use them?), most word processing programs are already set up so you do not have to worry about WHERE to locate your slug line within the header. If you are set up for a one-inch top margin, the program will automatically start your header at half an inch from the top of the page, unless you specify otherwise. Nifty, eh?

There are different schools of thought about the type size for the slug line. Most professionals just use the same type size as the rest of the text (e.g., 12-point Times). However, if you are going to include your contact information in the slug line, you may reduce it to 10 point, so you don’t end up with a slug line that stretches all the way across the top of the page.

And that, my friends, is the story of the slug line. It’s an excellent idea to get into the habit of inserting your slug line in the margin IMMEDIATELY, before you even begin to write a chapter — just make it part of your initial formatting. That way, you won’t accidentally forget to insert it later on.

Many thanks to the readers who wrote in asking me to clarify this issue — because, as I mentioned yesterday, there are many, many little professional touches that become second nature after one has worked with agents and editors for awhile, and it’s easy to forget that no one is born knowing about them. (Actually, since I grew up in a family of writers, I honestly can’t remember when I didn’t know what a slug line was. I have, in fact, been known to insert slug lines absentmindedly in personal letters from time to time, so used am I to seeing them at the top of the page.) That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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