Standard Format, AGAIN

Hello, readers —

I am going to revisit standard format again today, to make absolutely certain that every single reader of this blog who plans to enter the PNWA literary contest next week is aware of it. I had dealt with it in December, but those archives aren’t posted yet. So here we go again.

Yes, yes, I know: those of you who are regular readers of this blog now exhibit a conditioned response to the term standard format; Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the bell, and you suddenly sit bolt upright, wondering if there was some unreported technical reason behind your last form rejection letter. You may, in fact, be tired of hearing about it.

However, violations of standard format cost precious points in literary contests; it is often the difference between an entry that makes the finals and one that doesn’t. Put another way, do you honestly think I would be spending a sunny Seattle Sunday inside, going over it one more time for my readers, if it weren’t absolutely crucial to their success?

Here are the rules of standard format, gussied up a bit for contest use. I’ve just quadruple-checked the PNWA contest rules, and I’m going to point out below every area where they are more specific (or different) from standard format.

(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. Which, lo and behold, the PNWA rules don’t.

(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. The entire publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. 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 both side 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.

These are plain, not-too-pretty fonts, but they are in fact the standards of the publishing industry; it’s a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent) and elite (Times). As I’ve explained before, queries and manuscripts printed in other fonts are simply not taken as seriously. The PNWA rules make this point even more stringently: only entries in these typefaces will be accepted.

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript or contest entry, 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. 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. Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page.

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

There is literally no reason, short of including words in languages that have different scripts, to deviate from this. If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, this is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Sorry.

(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. The standard way to paginate is in the header, so see point #8.

The PNWA’s contest rules deviate from standard format in one significant respect: they ask that the first page of the manuscript NOT be numbered. (This was more common back in the typewriter days, when the header had to be typed manually onto each page. Skipping one of them actually saved the author some work, back then.) If you don’t know how to tell your word processing program to have a different first page, see yesterday’s blog for instructions.

(8) 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.

Okay, here is another area where PNWA rules differ from standard format, which has a strong but not binding preference for left-justified slug lines. But the PNWA’s rules SPECIFY a RIGHT-justified slug line. And since contest rules also specify that the title of the work be on every page, but no number on the first page, your first page’s slug line will simply be the title of the book.

For those of you meeting standard format for the first time, it 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 single-spaced 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, and paragraphs are all indented, so there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break.

The ONLY exception is that you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break, but here, too, the PNWA has something specific it would like you to do instead:

* * * * * *

That’s at least three asterisks, centered on the page (which I can’t do in blog format, so you’ll have to use your imagination). No line skipped above, no line skipped below. I use five, because actually, the standard to which this rule is a throwback WAS five, not three.

Again, this is a typewriter-based archaisms, a way to show those crotchety old manual typesetters that the skipped line was intentional; no agent or editor I have met in the last ten years would actually expect you to have asterisked inserts in your manuscript. But where contest rules lead, entrants must follow.

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

Again, this was for the benefit of the manual typesetters, but I actually think this one makes sense. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

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

Yet another signal for ye olde typesetters, archaic but still honored. It was so they could tell when the author intended a dash, and when a hyphen.

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, and many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. 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 within the last couple of years, so be careful about it.

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.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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