Standard format — and the word count bugaboo

Hello, readers —

Time for a quick jaunt back to synopsis land: sharp-eyed and insightful reader Bill has written in to ask: “Just how sacred is the four-page limit? How big should the margin be, since that can affect the word count?”

Good questions, Bill, and thanks for reminding me that I had not mentioned that the synopsis, like your first 50 pp., should be in standard format: 1-inch margins, double-spaced, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typeface. Printed on only one side of the page, of course, and on nice, crisp white paper. (This last might sound like window-dressing, but speaking as a frequent contest judge, I can tell you: it honestly is more pleasant to read a submission printed on nice paper. And don’t you want the agent or editor to ENJOY reading your submission?)
In Times or Times New Roman, a four-page synopsis is roughly 1000 words; no need to count, since 250 words/page in this typeface in standard format is how the industry estimates word count.

Go back and read that last sentence again, please, if you have been using your word processing program’s word counter to produce your word counts. THE INDUSTRY DOES NOT USE EXACT WORD COUNTS; IT RELIES UPON PAGE-BASED ESTIMATES. So you should, too: 250 words/page for Times or Times New Roman, 200 words/page for Courier.

Never mind that these are nowhere near accurate in actual word count: when in Rome, you need to use the same units of measurement as the Romans do; the state-by-state electoral vote count seldom bears much resemblance to the actual popular vote figures, but we still abide by whom the electors pick for president, right? Fighting for accuracy in word count estimation will get you nowhere, and in fact can even hurt your manuscript’s chances of being picked up by an agent: since professional word count estimates always end in a zero (think about it…), an odd-numbered word count on a title page or in a cover letter blatantly announced that the submitting author is new to the business. And, as you may have noticed, this is not a business that is very friendly to those who are not familiar with its rather esoteric ways.

The differential between actual and estimated word count, in case those of you who are veteran conference-goers were wondering, is why everyone on the agent panel goes pale (even under conference-center fluorescent lighting –which is saying something, since those lights make everyone look like a corpse) when some eager soul stands up and says, “I have a manuscript that’s 200,000 words, and…” Now, in actual word count terms, that’s probably in the neighborhood of 550 pages, but in industry estimation, that translates into 800 pages. Quite a difference, eh?

So in answer to your excellent first question, Bill: don’t worry about the actual word count of your synopsis; worry about the number of pages it covers. If it covers 3, 4, or 5, it’s fine.

I am going to revisit standard format again today, to make absolutely certain that every single reader of this blog who is planning to pitch at a conference this summer is aware of it well in advance.

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, in a submission to an agent or an editor, violations of standard format are serious business: when you’ve been asked to send chapters after a successful pitch, do you really want your pages to make you look unprofessional?

Here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable:

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

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s 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. 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.

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. The typeface ultimately used in the published book is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor — or, even more frequently, a decision made by the publishing house without the author’s input at all. If you try to illustrate the fabulousness of your desired typeface now, you run the risk of your manuscript being dismissed as unprofessional.

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 the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered.

This one is generally an automatic rejection offense. The standard way to paginate is in the header, so see point #8.

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

The safest place for this is left-justified, but you can get away with right-justifying it as well. And the header, for those of you who don’t know, is the 1-inch margin at the top of the page.

(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 here might get your work knocked out of 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

(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 an agent over?

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

If you catch an agent under the age of 30, or one who doesn’t have a graduate degree, 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: literally every page of text (yes, including the synopsis, Bill), should be in standard format. Trust me, your work will be treated better if you follow these rules. 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 at an agency or publishing house.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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