Details, details, Part II: avoiding a fulsome fate

“God is in the details,” architect Mies van der Rohe allegedly wrote.

I’m not a big fan of his buildings, to tell you the truth, but I do think that this aphorism applies to writing in spades. It’s quite clear to us as readers, usually — walk into any crowd of writers, and you’re sure to find at least one on-going discussion of So-and-So’s stylistic choices. There are writers whose use of semicolons makes me swoon, thank you very much, and as brilliant Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has pointed out, for most of us writers, there are fictional characters who have affected us more than most flesh-and-blood human beings.

But for the vast majority of aspiring writers who write in isolation, without significant contact with other people who speak the creative language, keeping sight of the huge weight small touches carry in their own work is harder. And this is a pity, because the little, unique details are often what catches an agent’s eye — and the misbegotten details definitely catch agency screeners’.

It pays to pay attention to the little things, therefore. Yet time and again, I hear submitting writers speak of the submission process as though the little things — spelling all of the words correctly, for instance, or formatting pages in accordance with standard format — don’t matter. It’s the overall writing, these fine folks argue, that will make or break one’s chances with an agent or editor.

Well, yes and no. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer. However, virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to such a manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: rejection. And with few exceptions, the rejectors will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript.

Why can they afford to be so caviler? Long-time readers, chant along with me now: because they receive enough technically perfect AND well-written manuscripts that they don’t need to worry about the rest. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

All that being said, let’s return to yesterday’s list of standard formatting restrictions, shall we?

(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 else should appear until a third of the way down.

This means that the title of the book, “by Author’s Name,” and/or your contact information do NOT belong on this page — all variations of a classic rookie mistake. Including any of this information on this page (other than in the slug line) will simply make the submission appear unprofessional.

But of that, see the next entry.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.
Yes, you should ALWAYS include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages. Even when a contest does not specify that you should (and no, it doesn’t count toward page count; the first page of the first chapter is page 1).

Literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor will include a title page, yet around 92%) seem to be unaware that including it is industry standard. On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope.

It’s never too early to make a good first impression.

If you do not know how to format a proper title page (and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for manuscripts), please see the Your Title Page category at right.

(11) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces — no exceptions — and nothing you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format.

To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence, which is to say that they regard it as a symptom of creeping illiteracy.

Just don’t do it.

Yes, yes, I know: published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style here might get your work knocked out of consideration. At minimum, you won’t get any points for style.

Pop quiz: which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page)?

Uh-huh. Don’t you wish that someone had told you THAT before you sent out your first query letter?

(12) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.
This one is for all of you bloggers and business letter-writers 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 in the text.

(13) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.
The logic here is very straightforward: don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

You may also use italics for emphasis, book titles, song titles, etc. — and just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards.

In a submission for the book publishing industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Why? The reason is actually very practical: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper.

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

I’m surprised how often otherwise industry-savvy writers are unaware of this one, but the instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in the industry.

Here is how charmingly archaic the industry is: this formatting rule was originally for the benefit of the manual typesetters. 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.

Again, be warned, those of you who have been taught by teachers schooled in the AP style: they will tell you to write out only numbers under 10. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG in a manuscript.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this particular issue?

(15) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash, with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces, as in self-congratulatory.
Yes, I know: my blogging software will not allow me to insert a doubled dash here, and any Microsoft product will automatically change a doubled dash to the longer emdash.

Change it back. Seriously, any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

Microsoft may actually have a point here: I fully admit that doubling the dashes is a monumental pain, and the practice is archaic. Books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy; many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong. Standard format for manuscripts is invariable upon this point.

And heck, MS Word’s grammar checker has more than once told me to replace the correct form of there, their, or they’re with an incorrect one. Who are you gonna believe, me or Bill Gates?

(16) 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 few years, so be careful about it.

There you have it: the rules. Literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest (yes, including the synopsis) should be in standard format. Oh, and it’s a good idea to make sure everything is spelled correctly, too.

Yes, these are all small details, but this is an industry that thrives on details. There’s a reason, after all, that the term “nit-picker” is more or less synonymous with “editor.” Not only should you read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you even think of popping it in the mail — you should give serious thought to allowing some trusty soul to proofread it for you.

Why is another pair of eyes a good idea? Because not all manuscript errors are typos. Here’s an illustrative anecdote, to show you why.

When I was in grad school, I was a teaching assistant for a professor who longed beyond all things to be an inspiration to her students. You know, the kind who spur their students to the kind of DEAD POETS SOCIETY minor free thinking that’s not particularly dangerous to the status quo/

And how did she choose to inform her students of this fact? Frequently, during undergraduate lectures, she would soften her habitual chiding of a narrow-minded student by throwing her arms wide and exclaiming, “Be as intellectually wide-ranging as possible! I want all of you to lead fulsome lives!”

Every time she did it, we teaching assistants arrayed at the back of the room would have a terrible time keeping straight faces. Because, you see, the professor had made a very common mistake: she believed fulsome was a synonym for full. She had, she said, heard many people use it this way. But just because a usage is common doesn’t mean it is correct.

Fulsome means noxious, noisome, loathsome. So, inadvertently, she was urging all of her students to have perfectly hideous lives.

God is in the details; sometimes all of us need an extra pair of eyes to remind us of that.  Keep up the good work.

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