Details, details…

There’s nothing like trying to write on somebody else’s computer set-up to make you understand the value of ergonomics, is there?  While my beloved laptop is in the shop, I’m working on the system of a kind soul who is 6’2″, and boy, does his workstation reflect it.  I’m not tiny, certainly, but women whose genes hail from small Mediterranean islands inhabited primarily by goats and basil are not infinitely stretchable, after all.

No matter what your cheapskate boss has been telling you:  it’s bad for the human body to type in a workstation designed for a much larger body.  Or a much smaller one.  If you have to look down to see your computer screen, for instance, rather than straight ahead, it is absolutely predictable that your neck is going to start taking exception to it after a while.

Fortunately, I know a good chiropractor, one who deals often with writers and other computer-users stuck in ergonomically trying situations.  (Yet another potentially tax-deductable business expense for those who file Schedule Cs as writers; ask your tax advisor about it.  You see, I’m already thinking ahead to April for you.)  It would, however, probably be a better investment (and equally tax-deductable) for a serious writer to hire an ergonomics expert for an hour or two to personalize the workstation, to eliminate problems before they start.

Maybe, if you ask nicely, Santa will stick an ergonomist in your stocking this year.  I’ve certainly asked Santa for stranger things.

I seldom plug products here (in fact, I think this may be the first time I’ve done it), but if you use a laptop, or even a computer with a detachable keyboard, and you think Santa might be, well, persuadable, Levenger carries a floating keyboard/laptop desk that’s adjustable to absolutely the perfect height for anyone.  This desk positively saved my wrists when I had repetitive strain injuries — I rely upon it so heavily that I once had it shipped to an artists’ colony where I was shortly to be in residence, because I couldn’t imagine writing for a whole month without it.  (For those with less blandishable Santas, Levenger also carries good, not-very-expensive lapdesks, for those who prefer to work on their laptops in easy chairs.)

Enough about furniture.  On to gloating:  one of my dissertation editing clients just passed her doctoral exams today.  Congratulations, Pam!

Writing a dissertation is a tremendous exercise in rule-following:  every margin, every footnote has to conform with an absolutely inflexible set of formatting rules.  (Sound familiar?)  And, to make the process more exciting, dissertators are frequently not TOLD what these rules ARE until after they’ve already taken their books through several professor-reviewed drafts — and sometimes not until after the final draft has been approved.  It is not unheard-of, for instance, for a dissertation to be rejected at the last minute because its maps were on the wrong kind of paper, or its bibliography was in the wrong format.

Admit it:  doesn’t it make you feel just the teensiest bit better to hear that there are luckless souls out there whose pages are given even tighter scrutiny than agency screeners give yours?

If it does, then the final stage of the disseration process should make you feel downright lucky.  Picture this:  after jumping through every other hurdle to earn a doctorate (and there are plenty, believe me), the dissertation-writer is forced to sit in a room with a fiend incarnate who flips through the dissertation in front of the writer, searching for minute formatting flaws.  If even a single one is found, BOOM, back it goes to the writer for revisions.  Diplomas have been known to mold, or even crumble into dust, during such revisions.

You, however, do not have to be in the room when minions of nit-picky powers pore over your manuscripts, looking to find reasons to reject them: you merely have to live with the results.  And because you do, and because PLENTY of good manuscripts, like well-argued dissertations, get rejected on technicalities, I am going to walk you once again through the rigors of standard manuscript format.

Stop groaning, long-term readers; I know I did it only a couple of months ago.  But contest-entry season will shortly be upon us, and since the publishing industry is more or less shut down until after New Year’s, anyway, what better time to make sure YOUR work does not suffer from these common maladies?

So, for those of you who do not already know: standard manuscript for manuscripts is NOT the same as standard format for books, and agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not). In either case, an improperly-formatted manuscript seldom gets a fair reading by the aforementioned cabal of literary power.  In fact, improperly-formatted manuscripts are often not read at all.

Why? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that their PRIMARY goal is to weed out the one they are reading at the moment. The faster they can do that, the better for them.

Don’t give ‘em half a chance. The more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by people within the industry. Period.

Don’t be surprised if not all of these rules are familiar to you:  my extended family has been writing professionally since the 1930s, and there were a couple of them that were news to me when I first started submitting.  I, for one, don’t think it’s fair to judge writers by standards that are not widely known, any more than it’s fair to judge a dissertation’s success by the width of its margins.  But I, as I believe I have mentioned once or twice before, do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules.

Those of you who have lived through my harping on them before, please do not skip over the rest of this post.  I promise, you will learn something new this time around.  These restrictions honestly do need to sink into your blood, so you won’t make a mistake someday when you’re in a hurry.

A word to the wise:  the more successful you are as a writer, the more often you will be in a hurry, generally speaking.  No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

Here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable.  Santa Claus himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on flying reindeer.  (If that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your agent-speak.)

(1) All manuscripts must be typed in black ink and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise. No ecru paper, no off-white.  Yes, it can look very nice, but there’s a strategic reason that bright white paper tends to be taken more seriously:  very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.  You’d be amazed at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions.

So make sure your printer cartridge is relatively full, okay?

Why the heavier paper? Well, they won’t reject you outright for this, but it’s prudent.  A submission often passes through three or four hands in the course of its road to acceptance — often more, at a large agency or publishing house. Lower-quality paper will wilt after a reading or two; 20-lb or better will not.

(2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page (unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise).
Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the millions of pages of submissions that run through the agencies and publishing houses every month. Most agencies do not even recycle; the only reason agencies started accepting e-mailed queries at all was because of the anthrax-in-envelopes scare. (I swear I’m not making that up.)

I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory. Also, writers would all be given seven hours each week more than other mortals, free domestic help, and a freshly-baked pie on Truman Capote’s birthday every year. But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe, we all just have to live with the status quo.

The entire publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

(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 preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.  These are not mandatory, but experience has shown that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously.
Translation:  a manuscript in one of these typefaces looks more professional to agents and editors than the same manuscript in other typefaces.

The industry’s affection for these plain, not-too-pretty fonts, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, is a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in only two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent, 10 letters per inch) and elite (Times; 12 letters per inch).

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.

If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Sorry. (See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.)

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.

Don’t run that risk.

(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 size.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions, INCLUDING YOUR TITLE PAGE.  I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term in the industry for title pages with 24-point fonts and fancy typefaces.

It’s “high school book report.”

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page.
You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be in bold.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.  The first page of the first chapter is page 1.
Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission — it ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.” It is generally an automatic rejection offense, in fact.

Why do they hate it so much? Gravity, my friends, gravity. Because manuscripts are not bound, and they have been known to get dropped from time to time.  Trust me, no one currently working within any aspect of the publishing industry is going to be willing to waste twenty minutes figuring out from context which unnumbered page you wanted to follow which.

The standard way to paginate is in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page…about which, see point 8.

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

Colorful term, isn’t it?  But it doesn’t have anything to do with the beasties wiggling around in your flower beds: in typesetter jargon, a slug is a 30-character collection of type, bound together for multiple uses. (See?  I told those of you who had gone through this list before that you’d learn something new.)

If you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep it to that 30-character limit (yes, I know, printing isn’t done this way anymore, but we’re talking about a very tradition-bound industry here).  For example, my latest novel is entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces.  Since my last name is short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:


If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters, including dash, I might well feel compelled to abbreviate:

Most professional slug lines are left-justified (i.e., in the upper-left margin), but you can get away with right-justifying it as well. Just make sure that it is not much longer than 30 characters in length, and the header, for those of you who don’t know (hey, I’m trying to cram as much information into this as possible), is the 1-inch margin at the top of the page.

Whoa, I got so carried away trying to cram new and interesting information into this list that this post is becoming positively Dickensian in length.  More rules of standard format follow tomorrow.

Keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Details, details…”

  1. As influential as Truman Capote is in the literary world, if you ran the universe, I’m sure I would rather have a plum pudding on C. S. Forester’s or Patrick O’Brian’s birthday(s)!

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