Conflicting opinions on writing standards: what’s a girl to do?

Reader Claire wrote in the other day with an interesting observation, one that I thought merited its own post. Quoth she:

“I tend to read your blog as if it were the Bible, but as I’ve seen conflicting formatting advice on the use of italics and font all over the Internet from equally wonderful writers, I find myself having a crisis of faith. I’ve heard it preached that only Courier will do because it’s not mono-spaced as is Times New Roman, and that only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized. I guess I need reassurance that your advice is what belongs in the canon. As for the life changing news that query letters should be in correspondence format, I am truly grateful. Thanks for opening the doors of the temple to the uninitiated.”

Well, for starters, Claire, I’m not sure anyone should be treating what I say — or what anybody says, for that matter — as Gospel, and on matters of style, there simply isn’t a canonical source that will answer all conceivable questions for every kind of book. (Sorry, but it’s true.) On matters of formatting, it’s been my experience that the folks who take such matters as italicizing foreign words seriously take it VERY seriously, so I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would want there to be a firm canonical text that states beyond the shadow of a doubt what needs to happen in a manuscript.

So while admittedly, my first impulse was to disclaim the idea of a canon at all — the substance of my original answer: if you don’t like my advice on any given point, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it! — I’m going to talk explicitly today about a subject I generally avoid like the plague, out of professional courtesy to other writers on writing. I’m going to talk about why we writing advice-givers so often advise diametrically opposed things.

To set everyone’s nervous pulses at ease right off the bat, most of the conflicting advice I have seen deals with matters of style, with industry trends in what is liked and disliked, rather than with matters that will get your submission rejected unread after three lines. (Next week, I am planning a fairly hefty series on what industry professionals said at the two conferences I attended this month about why they stop reading a submission — and I think it may surprise you how many of those reasons are matters of personal preference.) The industry assumption is, alas, that only properly-formatted submissions deserve serious consideration, so you are quite right, Claire, to be concerned with whether you are getting the real story on how to present your work.

I try to maintain a fairly strong distinction between what a writer MUST do in a submission (i.e., adhere to standard format) and what it might help a writer to do in it (e.g., matters of style). And I have to say, my version of the must-do advice has never steered anyone wrong, as far as I know.

There’s a good reason for that. In the must-do posts, all I am presenting is a discussion of what has worked successfully for my own work and that of my editing clients, and what I have seen used by career writers throughout my life. I know from long experience that no manuscript adhering to the standard format guidelines I have given here will be rejected for technical reasons — but I have seen many, many manuscripts that do not adhere to them rejected.

Beyond that, I talk about matters of style, and those discussions are, too, based upon my observations of the industry as a writer, editor, contest judge, and interviewer of agents, screeners, etc. As with all advice, I would hope that my readers recognize that what I am presenting is my opinion, and thus not to be regarded as the revealed word of God, any more than any other fallible mortal’s. Seriously, it’s not really possible to comment credibly upon one’s own credibility, and I suppose if I were worried about it, I would go on about my doctorate, publishing successes, my status as a fine human being, my kindness to stray kittens, etc. I don’t make any secret of my background — my bio is posted on this site for all to see, after all — but I would prefer to think that my advice speaks for itself.

As I routinely tell my editing clients, if a particular piece of stylistic advice doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it. Yes, it’s important that your work be professionally packaged, but it’s equally important that you sound like you.

I have to say, though, I think the tone of my blog is one of the least order-barking of any writer’s on the net, yet every time I post a list of standard format restrictions, I am barraged with questions each time I set foot outside my door for the next month. As if MY changing my mind on a particular point would make a particle of difference to whether it is necessary to adhere to industry standards. But as I believe I have pointed out several times before, I run neither the publishing industry nor the universe: I don’t invent the rules; I just report ’em to you. Sorry about that.

Believe me, my life would be FAR easier if I just stopped being honest with my readers about the doubled dash vs. the emdash, or about underlining vs. italics. Yet about a fourth of the people who ask me about them seem to be wanting me to say, “Oh, I was just kidding about THAT part of standard format,” or to be trying to draw me into a dispute with another online writing advice-giver, as if we could settle differing opinions on stylistic issues by arm-wrestling once and for all.

Trust me, neither is going to happen; I have neither the time, the inclination, nor the arm strength. I have manuscripts to get out the door, people, mine and others: believe me, devoting a couple of hours a day to misleading you about how title pages should look would NOT be an efficient use of my time.

Although it’s not a bad premise for a comic novel, come to think of it.

That being said, Claire’s crisis of faith is quite understandable, because there are a LOT of people on the net claiming to be experts on what does and doesn’t work in a submission. And, frankly, a lot of them seem to be speaking in tones of great authority. The burning bush sounds like a timorous stutterer compared to some of the Point-of-View Nazis out there, and there is certainly no shortage of prophets of doom who will tell you that their advice alone holds the hidden key to publication.

Being emphatic doesn’t mean they’re correct, though — or that their opinions are either reflective of or influential in the industry as a whole. I — and most of the good writing bloggers out there, I think — try to be honest with you about the fact that, as nearly as I can tell, the only magic key to success is writing talent; I merely try to let you in on the not-quite-secret handshakes, such as submitting in standard format, that will enable you to get your talent under the right eyes for long enough that it can be discovered.

And the first step to that, in my experience, is submitting in standard format. The second is avoiding the most common manuscript mistakes, and the third is polishing one’s style. The first two, I think, tend to be fairly cut-and-dried; the last is much more personal to the writer. But, again, my goal here is to try to help speed up my readers’ progress through those steps by showing what I have seen does and doesn’t work, not to give dicta for the ages.

I’m not convinced that any writer about writing, however well qualified, is entitled to be regarded as an authority beyond that. It’s not as though the online advice-givers make the rules of the industry — and as much as some of our readers might like to see us step into the ring and duke it out, I, for one, don’t think that it would be appropriate for any of us to dictate matters of style as unwavering rules. Personally, as a fiction writer, I do tend to take far more seriously the insights of writing gurus who have actually written a novel or two themselves (which surprisingly few have), but again, that’s my individual choice.

Yet when writers farther along in the publication process give advice to the aspiring, practically everything we say can sound like a prescription for literary greatness, can’t it? It’s a fine line between being honestly self-revealing and saying, “Hey, I think you should work precisely the way I do.” And, as anyone who has ever spent much time at writers’ conferences can tell you, a lot of writers who teach writing stray across that line with some frequency.

In my experience, what works for one writer will not necessarily work for another — and really, the vast majority of us writing about writing are not writing about immutable rules most of the time. We’re writing about practice; we’re writing about style; we’re writing about our experience of what does and doesn’t work in the industry. We’re writing about our writing habits, and while I do definitely think listening to the more experienced is a great way to learn, sometimes our quirks are not transferable.

To make the distinction clear, I would NEVER even consider sending out a submission that did not have the foreign words italicized, any more than I would send out one that did not include a slug line on every page; because I know that to be the norm of the industry, I would encourage you never to do it, either. I’m completely comfortable presenting that as a hard-and-fast rule, one that I am equally likely to preach to you as to the fairly well-known foreign-born author of 5 published novels and 2 nonfiction books in my writers’ group, who is not always consistent about it (at least before I get my grubby paws on her chapters). I’m known for harping upon standard format in a variety of contexts.

However, I always put my longish hair up in a French roll while I am revising my own work, and for a very good reason. For years, the left side of my nose always broke out when I was revising. I thought it was just due to stress, but during a revision of my memoir last year, I noticed that my nose looked better after hot days of revising than after cold ones. That seemed counterintuitive, so I started paying attention to what I was doing while I was staring at the screen re-reading my work for the 521rst time — and lo and behold, it turns out that some little imp in my id springs to life at that particular moment, grabs a few strands of my hair, and idly rubs it against my nose while I’m thinking. I must have been doing this for years, but I had never noticed the cause, only the effect. Thus my skin’s being happier on hotter days: those were the days I wore my hair up. So now, whenever I revise, I twist my hair into a French roll, to keep it away from my face.

Now, this is my own personal pre-revision ritual, right? Flipping up my hair, just like always starting a writing session playing the same piece of music, alerts my body to the fact that it’s revision time, helping me to sink into the task faster. It works for me.

I am not, however, under the illusion that wearing a French roll would help anyone else get published. See the difference?

But perhaps that is straying a bit far afield from Claire’s questions, which were after all about my credibility on the hard-and-fast rule front. Why does my advice on format sometimes clash with that of others with equally good credentials? Well, there are a quite a few of us, and while I can understand why readers might like it if we all gave the same advice all the time, the fact is, we’re all individuals, with different levels of experience in the industry. I honestly don’t think it’s too astonishing that we don’t always agree.

Some of what is said out there does astonish me, admittedly, but that’s just my opinion and my experience talking. Since I grew up in a family whose members have been getting published since the early 1930s, I probably have a stronger sense of tradition than most, as well as a longer list of anecdotes about what happens to submitters who do not adhere to standard format. I was told scary bedtime stories about such people, after all. But I was also one of the few 10-year-olds in the country who knew what all of the major fiction-printing magazines paid per word for short stories, and probably the only junior high schooler on the planet entrusted with the delicate task of proofing galleys. I’ve had my mitts on a LOT of manuscripts in my day, and obviously, that is the perspective I bring here.

I think it’s completely legitimate for all of us to present our various arguments and let the reader decide, though. Yes, even on matters of formatting. You’re smart people. (And, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I believe this strongly enough that I prefer not to expend my scant writing time here in arguing over what somebody else has advised, especially without knowing the context or the rationale he used in advising it.) Presumably, if you are reading several different writing blogs on a regular basis, they are all giving you something. If they have given you advice that makes sense to you, who am I to say that you should not take it? Or to decree that your work would benefit from getting your hair off your face while you’re working, for that matter?

So I guess my answer, Claire, is that I don’t think you should take any of my ilk’s pronouncements as canonical, especially when it’s a matter of style, not hard-and-fast rules — which, incidentally, is what most discussions of italicization choices are (but of that, more tomorrow). A good writer or editor can certainly give you stylistic advice, but honestly, style is personal: it’s really not something about which you should be taking anyone’s word, no matter how authoritative-sounding, as unquestionable Gospel. The ultimate choice, always, is yours.

But then, I am the author who spent a significant part of her memoir urging readers not to be too credulous about anything any author says in any memoir. I’m just not all that into authority. The writer at the next blog over may well feel differently.

Oh, my — just look at the time. I’ll deal with the specifics of fonts and italicization tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

5 Replies to “Conflicting opinions on writing standards: what’s a girl to do?”

  1. Should I be asked about the quandry presented by Claire, I’d have to say, pick one source of information, one you feel is correct and follow it as closely as possible. When I was first trying to comprehend standard format, I “googled” it, and wow, what a plethora of conflicting standards. To go into the variations would use too much space in the comments section. I did see the one saying to use only Courier, as it is non-proportional, and thus, most like a typewriter. But Courier gives many less words per page, and if there is a page limitation, such as in a contest, Times Roman makes more sense.
    I too was always told to underline what would be italicized in the published piece, but who knows when that advice was written. Now that most of us use computers, we can italicize, and if the industry accepts it that way, why not? It does seem that there are some variations, such as what side of the page for a slug line, how to separate scenes, etc. I’d say that if what one chooses to do, and it is acceptable, the best thing is to be consistant.

  2. Dear Anne,

    Thanks for responding to my crisis. I apologize if it seemed as though I was impugning your credibility. Really, the focus for me was, “Are my sample chapters that I’ve already submitted going to get rejected because I’ve underlined what should have been italicized?” My question was a scream of panic, not a challenge to your veracity, and I’m sorry if it seemed that way. I do love your blog and can’t wait to buy your memoir.


  3. No offense taken. I honestly do think it was a really, really good set of questions — which is why I’m devoting several days to them. I just thought it was a good opportunity to address the issue at some length, because I think the conflicting advice issue does bother a lot of people, and justifiably so.

    Well, yes, underlined things should be italicized instead — but if that’s the only deviation from standard format in your submissions, you’ll probably be okay. You might get a kind of snarky note about it from the agency screener, but unless it happens on every page (or the screener is in a SPECTACULARLY bad mood), a single problem is not going to nullify the effect of good writing.

    Now, TWO kinds of problem…

    Seriously, every writer in the world has realized after the fact that we’ve sent out a manuscript with a problem in it. One of my favorite writers recently sent a submission to an editor, only to realize with horror after it was in the mail that there was a basic mistake in the first line! We all feel like screaming from time to time.

    I’m thinking good thoughts for your submissions, to keep that screener from burning his lip on a latte just before reading it!

  4. Darn, darn, darn. I had meant to ask agents their opinions about the italics thing while at the Surrey conference. I did get other questions answered (re: synopses, returning manuscripts via SASE, email submissions, word count, etc), and ya know, the answers vary from agent to agent. I took notes of each agent’s preferences so I can cater my queries and submissions to them. Mostly, they care about the writing and the story. During the panel on query letters, an agent showed examples of queries that resulted in requests to see the manuscript. In three examples, the agent’s name was misspelled. (gasp!) And one had 1/4 inch margins. And yet, the manuscript was requested. Hmmm….

    I’ve had my opening chapters looked at by various professionals in the publishing industry, and I’ve received all kinds of mixed advice regarding the use of italics. About 25% of the feedback I’ve received advised me to italicize internal thoughts. (One reader highlighted every internal thought in my first three chapters and told me italicize it. I took this as positive feedback that I do not need to italicize it. hee.) Only once was I told that I needed to underline what was to be italicized–and this was from a much-respected independent editor. *sigh* How confusing. I have decided that unless an agency website specifically instructs me to do this, I’ll assume they do not want to read underlined text. Similarly, I’ve decided that unless I am told by a specific agent or publisher to change my use of italics (or lack of use, I should say) to flag internal thoughts, I’ll stick to my preferred style.

    Oops, sorry this is so long.

  5. I think you’re right to stick to your preferred method, Colleen. On matters of style, rather than of format, the writer should cling to her rights!

    And yes, queries and submissions with technical problems do occasionally get through the screening system — but that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to think that proper format doesn’t matter. Because it’s not as though all the agents in North America get together once a year and agree on what is an automatic rejection offense, different agencies do have different standards, naturally — but if you format correctly, you never need to worry about being rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with either your writing or your story, right?

    I’m THRILLED that the agent who taught your class was inclined to be merciful; may her numbers increase. Most major agencies report that they get enough perfectly formatted submissions to have the luxury of being very picky indeed. Or, as I keep pointing out, the screener could just have burned her lip on an over-hot latte, and be in no mood to accept a well-written but poorly formatted missive. Really the luck of the draw, so it\’s probably not prudent to rely too much on the kindness of strangers.

    The much-respected independent editor must not have edited directly for a publishing house in the last decade, I\’m guessing, to advise underlining…or was so well-respected that the copy editors just knew to catch the mistake!

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