Writing standards II: the font of wisdom?

Yesterday, I wrote at length in response to reader Claire’s questions about why writing advice on the Internet is so often contradictory. To set your mind at ease, for the record: if I am wrong in what I’m telling you, we’re all going down together. I have walked countless books through the submission process, including a memoir of my own (and a novel that is at an advanced stage of submission to a major house). The rules I show here are the rules that I apply to my own work — and my clients, and the published writers in my critique group, etc.

So I do have pretty good reason to feel that I’m steering you right. However, as I said yesterday, Claire is quite correct to inquire a little more closely into the sources of internet-based information, because there is quite an array out there. Since agents and editors see so many technically perfect manuscripts, a mistake can be costly: a poorly-formatted submission is often not read at all. So it is only prudent to check and double-check one’s understanding of submission guidelines.

Also, kudos to Claire for being brave enough to ask for clarification on specific points; please, everybody, feel free to do that anytime. My blog, like all the others out there, has to be written with a very broad constituency in mind: since we all have both brand-new readers and long-time loyalists reading each of our posts, we net-based writers on writing have to walk a fine line between providing enough basic information that those absolutely unfamiliar with the industry will be able to glean useful information from a post, while at the same time not repeating ourselves so much that returning readers get bored.

In my case, I receive feedback from everyone from someone who started submitting for the first time this month to writers who have been with their agents several years. Heck, I even know a few successfully published writers who read my blog for kicks. Obviously, this is one reason that I make my archives available, so readers can have access to specific topics easily when they need it most. And one of the reasons I welcome readers’ questions – actually, some of the best questions I’ve gotten have come from readers putting query to paper for the first time, because those are precisely the questions that someone farther along in the process would never think to ask. (And that conference- and class-goers tend to be too cool to ask in public. Come on, you know it’s true.)

It’s really, really important that you let me know, though, if I haven’t clarified something enough — or recently enough. For instance, I had written at length on the subject of italicization in my blogs of August 24 – 26, so revisiting it was not high on my list of priorities. Thus, if Claire had just kept quiet, I might not have come back to it for another month or two, and the masses would have been left wondering.

So let’s get to the nuts-and-bolts part of Claire’s missive, the actual technical questions. I want to address them specifically, because it’s been my experience that for every one person who writes in to ask, there are dozens who have heard similar claims. To recap:

“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.”

As far as I know, only one literary agency in the country demands Courier to the exclusion of all other typefaces. It may not be the only one, but since the one I have in mind also has a reputation for charging prospective clients rather hefty editing fees, I do not consider them a good indicator of the norms of the industry, nor do I wish to promote them by posting the name of their agency here. That’s just my opinion, though. (See? I’d make a bad Point-of-View Nazi.) Suffice it to say that this particular agency’s typeface preference is set out clearly in their guidelines — and, as always, you should read the submission guidelines before you send.

Otherwise, it is my understanding that Times and Times New Roman are actually more widely preferred amongst agents and editors, but either is acceptable. BOTH the Times family AND the Courier family are ostensibly replicas of typewriter fonts — Times echoes Elite (12 characters per inch) and Courier replicated Pica (10 characters per inch) — so both are regarded as “normal” by the tradition-loving industry. Basically, by accepting them both, they are making a rather sweet, if anachronistic, attempt not to discriminate against those darling Luddites who still write on typewriters.

Not that the industry doesn’t feel perfectly dandy about discriminating against folks who prefer writing in longhand. But I digress.

All of the standard screenplay software programs will automatically convert your work to Courier, since that is the industry standard. I have heard from many, many script agents that they simply will not read anything in another typeface. Why? Well, their assumption is that if a writer does not know which typeface to use, he’s probably unfamiliar with the other formatting restrictions of this very format-heavy medium.

For book submissions, I recommend Times or Courier because, in my experience, manuscripts just look more professional to industry eyes. Most of the agents in the country will tell their clients to use only these two fonts for materials that they intend to submit to editors. (And in response to the implicit question: yes, I have had a conversation with an agent within the last week where he uttered the sentence, ”Well, obviously, I’m going to have the writer change the typeface before I send it out,” because the manuscript wasn’t in either Times or Courier. He did pick up the client, though, so it wasn’t an absolute deal-breaker.)

I submit all of my work in Times New Roman, which has raised nary a murmur. So does every published writer I know. NEVER has anyone in the industry suggested that this was an inappropriate font, to me — or anyone of my acquaintance. Or, as far as I know, to anyone at the quite prominent agency that represents me.

Seriously, to those of you who had just dropped a submission in Times in the mail, you’re going to be fine. Take a deep breath; the universe isn’t out to get you.

So why, in the face of two quite widely-accepted fonts, would an online writer on writing insist that only one would do. My guess would be that the writer’s agent has a personal preference for one over the other, or represents a lot of screenplays. Or – and this is usually the way that such information is disseminated within the larger writing community, alas – the writer may have heard a preference for Courier expressed by some agent or editor at a conference. Or knows a successful writer who swears by it.

Any of these things could have resulted in a Courier-only pronouncement including the fateful words, “Only an amateur would…” And that’s not even scratching the surface of the many psychological reasons a writer might champion that particular typeface: since it’s one of the two standard fonts, recommending it is not going to hurt anyone, and being able to make a categorical pronouncement is a dandy way to make sense of an often arbitrary industry.

No matter how we net writers like to kid ourselves, though, VERY few agents, editors, or executives in the industry ever read blogs or writers’ fora. Even those who write their own blogs, for precisely the same reason that I don’t spend the days it would require to surf around to other sites and argue with people who give different advice than I do — they’re all really, really busy with the business of publishing books. So no matter how much all of us complain about, say, the irksome double dash or typeface norms, the industry standards are not likely to change as a result of it.

But the fact is, either Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New looks right to agency screeners. And that’s the important thing, isn’t it?

On to the italics issue tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *